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The importance of leadership in driving the circular economy and addressing climate change

We explore what it takes to lead the transformation towards a circular economy and adopt sustainable practices to respond to the climate emergency?
The word 'leadership' wrtten over an arm
© Photo by Anna Tarazevich. (Source:

The contribution of leadership

Leadership is vital to enable the transition towards a circular economy and address the challenges posed by climate change. Notwithstanding this, it has been explored less by academics and other commentators. Briefly, and with reference to our case study, let’s explore the practical aspects of leadership demonstrated within the context of the business “Anne Veck” as demonstrated by Anne and Keith. 

The conversations with Anne and Keith have highlighted a number of attributes demonstrated by people in leading their businesses to contribute to an increasingly circular economy and adopt more sustainable practices. These attributes include:  

  • Having a clear vision. Anne and Keith have been clear about their vision for how the salon could become more sustainable. They have systematically executed their vision across all aspects of their company’s operations and interactions with the customers they serve. 
  • Persistence. In the last step, we heard from Anne that the changes are not “one-off” actions. Embedding sustainable choices and practices has required persistence in reinforcing decisions and choices.
  • Taking risks. I was particularly struck by the different types of risks that Anne and Keith took. For example:
    • Investment risk in the ceramic fuel cell. They were the first Salon to adopt this technology and at the start, it was forecast to have a long payback period. 
    • Reputational risk. Anne was well known for her creativity and skill as a hairdresser. Her talent was recognised by commercial partnerships and awards. Changing the products that she used to cut, transform and dress hair from well-known brands to a niche brand that represented the gold standard in sustainability terms meant that Anne was risking her reputation. In making that choice, Anne lost her platform for creativity provided by more traditional partners and had to re-establish herself with Davines. 

      Keith refers to the switch to Davines as a real moment of truth for them where they “walked the talk” about sustainability. Moments of truth for businesses come when they adopt changes that directly affect what they are known for. Doing so represents a significant risk and takes personal courage on behalf of business owners. 

  • Being willing to challenge: In our discussions with Anne, she has shared examples of where she has challenged suppliers and staff – and indeed her business partner Keith! Challenge is critical to reinventing traditional or accepted ways of doing things and lies at the heart of effecting a transformational change. Being able to challenge constructively is a key attribute of leaders who drive successful transformations. 
  • Acting as a role model and being “congruent”. Anne shared examples of where she had role modelled the use of more sustainable practices – for example in Balayage (a hair dying technique). She reinforced her message by demonstrating personal behaviours that were visible to her staff and colleagues – for example, cycling and bringing her own lunch. Congruence (acting in a consistent way across different dimensions of where a leader’s behaviour is visible) is an important way of reinforcing and not undermining ways of working. 
  • Being collaborative. Keith spoke passionately about the benefits of collaboration. The willingness to work with others to achieve a greater goal is a key behaviour adopted by leaders who enable sustainable practices. In our previous step we heard Keith talk about the importance of businesses working together to effect change. In a circular economy the traditional notions of “competitive advantage” are replaced by a collaborative advantage.

Talking point

What other behaviours do leaders need to enact to enable the transition to a circular economy? 


© Elaine Heslop, University of Glasgow
This article is from the free online

Tackling Climate Change: Sustainable Business Models for a Circular Economy

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