#2: Dr Isabel Rimanoczy on Sustainability Mindset

Dr Isabel Rimanoczy is a psychologist and executive coach turned management academic, and a leading international authority on sustainability mindset. She is Convenor of the United Nations PRME Working Group on Sustainability Mindset and a Strategic Advisor to One Planet Education Networks.

During our conversation we discuss the relationship between a legacy mindset and a sustainability mindset, the importance of intentionality, the role of trauma or powerful formative experiences in connecting us emotionally to social and environmental issues and the agency of the next generation.

Isabel has kindly provided the following guest blog…


Why a mindset is not (just) in the mind

A number of years ago I had some kind of an existential crisis. I was a successful business coach, yet when I asked myself ‘ What contribution are you making to society and to human understanding? I drew a blank.

In less time than it takes me to write this story, I realized that being good at something, being happy and earning money were not necessarily connected to doing something for the greater good. For me the ‘greater good’ had up to then been the province of other people — of philanthropists, NGOs, workers, activists, teachers, scientists discovering cures and vaccines, people doing random acts of kindness, or of spiritual leaders. But in a sudden insight, I wondered what if we all had a task, to leave this place better than we found it? How would we make decisions, choose a career, spend our time if we had that responsibility in mind? And wouldn’t these actions make a real shift towards a better planet?

After listing my skills, talents, and interests, I concluded that I would become a Legacy Coach. I would work with leaders who wanted to make a difference, to leave their mark, by helping them identify what and how they could best do it. That would be my contribution to the greater good.  

To prepare myself for that role, I decided to research business leaders who had spontaneously championed initiatives in their organizations, changing how they operated and making a positive impact in the community or the environment. If I could identify what they knew, what prepared them for that, we could teach it. If we identified what motivated them and what competencies or attitudes facilitated their work, we might be able to intentionally develop those aspects in others. So went my logic.

What I discovered was not quite what I imagined. The leaders I interviewed had at some point received information about the state of the planet through different channels and media, but it was not the facts and the statistics that moved them. It was a question they asked themselves: “How am I contributing to these problems? I am not a bad person, but I am … we are contributing to the problems!” The progressive awareness of a connection between their (legal and successful) business performance, and the social or environmental impacts of their actions, created a recurring discomfort in them. They realized that their behaviors did not necessarily match the values they held personally, and this created a ‘cognitive dissonance’, which became the motivation to act. More than that: it became an unstoppable urge to do something. 

While access to information played a role to them, I found a number of aspects related to how they analyzed information: they used a systemic lens that allowed them to see how things were interconnected. They also had a progressive understanding that the solutions had to be creative, collaborative, innovative and should no longer follow  the dual ‘either/or’ logic, but instead be contained within  the paradoxical ‘both-and’ approach. The solutions had to work for all, or at least aspire to do so. I also found a tendency in this group of men and women to reflect, to become introspective and to revisit the values that had real meaning for them. They had more questions than answers, and often reflected about their life’s purpose. Interestingly, the ‘external landscape’ of climate change, resource scarcity, or social inequity became the tip of the iceberg that drew them into the deeper exploration of themselves, their life-goals and their identity. As they re-emerged from that symbolic dive, they were compelled to act and nothing would stop them.

It was clear that the leaders I studied had developed a new and different mindset – I called it a ‘sustainability mindset’, because they were concerned with the sustainability of their business, but also with the planet and the ecosystem, for this and future generations.

In the past decade, as public awareness grew and climate change, social challenges and sustainability became part of the popular discourse, educators have realized the importance of their role in developing new skills, knowledge and competencies with their students. We now have stories, cases, benchmarks, research and regulatory frameworks on which to base our teaching. We have experiences in different geographies and cultures. We have SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), organizations, 

videos and books, inspiring entrepreneurs and innovation hubs. We have success stories to prove the ROI of acting with the planet in mind. And therein lies the trap.

 We know that the most powerful and lasting engagement comes from a new paradigm, a mindset 2.0 that is anchored in the ‘being dimension’: in the intangible aspects of our spiritual self, or if you prefer, in our values, in the higher self we want to be. While we don’t have the language to easily explain or describe this ‘being dimension’, particularly in the context of management or higher education settings, we know when we are holistically engaged in a situation, when we are authentic beyond fears and when we feel a profound, compelling sense of purpose and connection, to self, to others, sometimes to nature or to all that is. It is uncomfortable for some to acknowledge this, but we all can experience the feeling of something very familiar, almost mystical in its clearness. Two student comments say it clearly; “It was like reconnecting with a part of myself I knew from long before”, “it was like remembering something very familiar”.

So now that we are increasingly aware of the importance of ‘teaching sustainability’, it’s time to realize that the key is in the mindset, and that is not (just) in the mind.


Find out more about Isabel at https://www.linkedin.com/in/isabelrimanoczy/

Watch Isabel’s TEDx talk here (click on the image)…IsabelRimanoczy-TED-talk.jpg

Tony Cooke

Tony Cooke is an internationally-recognised sustainability leader with over 25 years spent at the nexus of sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, developing and executing strategies for business, governments and not-for-profit organisations across a wide variety of sectors. He now manages a portfolio of interests including; senior corporate counsel, executive coaching, non-executive roles and thought leadership through a combination of research, writing and podcasting. Visit my personal blog at http://tonycooke.wordpress.com

One comment

  • Thinking about, longing to make a difference, looking for others who agree and with whom to collaborate…wow. One thing that has became a powerful motivator is to look at role models in my life and asking myself what it is about the individuals brought the answer. Several that stood out profoundly, Moses, Abraham Lincoln, my own amazing father, and most hugely, Jesus Christ. Willingly, each of these became nobodies, humbling themselves to serve others and discounting, despising self-glorification to see hugely impossible achievements. As a sixth grader I learned the Gettysburg address, Lincoln’s brief and powerful address dedicating a battleground that hosted a turning point in the civil war. He said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…the brave men, living and dead have already consecrated this ground far beyond our poor power to add or detract.” Reading biographies of this great president emphasizes repeated facts of his repeated failures, great personal unhappiness, being surrounded by petty detractors and very few true friends. Needing to seek higher moral ground than even his most trusted advisors, and being continually presented with distractions while seeking a path to achievement of preserving seemingly impossible goals of healing in a war torn nation.

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