Being brave – insights and learnings for 2021


Sustainability leaders are at the forefront of driving change and at the ICRS Exchange in October, 95 percent of attendees identified being brave as very important to making progress.  


Amanda Powell-Smith of Forster Communications and Janek Seevaratnam of CAF Advisory ran the Brave New World workshop at the Exchange to explore the concept of bravery in more detail. They have gathered the insights from their session to help everyone get ready for the year ahead.


What are the characteristics of brave sustainability leadership?

In 2020, CAF and Forster Communications published ‘Bold Thinking, Brave Action’ a report that built from the experiences of 11 leading business sustainability leaders.  It recognised that there is not one way to act bravely and identified five core character types, with individuals able to change roles at different times through their career and sometimes even during the day, according to the task at hand.


  • The Firebrand – they are led by a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and take great effort to stick to their moral compass
  • The Strategist – they process a mass of information before acting and, through analysis and reflection, identify and prioritise the most important changes to make, and effective ways to bring them about
  • The Wayfinder – they are disciplined and diligent, often working quietly behind the scenes so the organisation can move at speed when the time is right
  • The Collectivist – they believe in the power of people and set out to achieve outcomes that benefit everyone through collaboration, sharing and movement building
  • The Campaigner – they act like an organisation’s conscience and are driven by a strong sense of values, constantly pushing for change


What does brave sustainability behaviour look like?

The next layer of analysis within the report identified five behaviours that sit at the core of brave action.


  • Thinking big: Sustainability leaders seek impact through their work so need to be ambitious about the changes they want to see both within and beyond their organisation. "The big game changer for us on sustainability was when the management team set and published some big hairy goals."
  • Making things happen: Beyond setting goals and ambition, sustainability leaders must deliver, and need the skills to encourage others to work with them.  "I wish I would have pushed, and pushed, and pushed to circumvent these processes or find another way through... I had the accountability to make it happen. I could have said ‘I am taking the decision to make this happen’."
  • Creating a movement: Taking an initiative or approach to scale requires many others getting involved and that means giving individuals agency, voice and shared ownership. "Get informed, get outraged, get inspired, get active! Our job, as communicators and campaigners, is to inform and inspire, so our communities – whether they’re our customers, our employees, our partners – can get outraged and then act."
  • Giving ideas to others: A key challenge is to get out of the sustainability silo and integrate action into the whole business; this also means listening to other views and perspectives to create genuinely collective action.  "I think one key aspect of bravery in this area is giving a much wider group of people a voice and a say."
  • Taking on personal risk: All the other behaviours require an individual to ‘go public’ about what they believe in – even if it isn’t popular or might end in failure


Where is bravery most needed?

Attendees at the ICRS Exchange were asked which area they wanted to be bravest in tackling over the next year. Results showed the importance of culture, transparency and speaking out. Interestingly, people felt that cutting carbon emissions was now so important it no longer required bravery; it was the less tangible and ‘newer’ areas that need bold thinking.

Which ares do you want to be bravest in tackling over the next year?


27%     Building a culture where everyone is committed to taking action

21%     Being actively anti-racist

11%     Protecting the natural world and helping repair areas of damage

11%     Increasing transparency around the impact you are creating

9%       Creating opportunities for employment

9%       Encouraging senior leaders to speak out on sustainability issues

7%       Setting a compelling vision

2%       Forging cross-sector partnerships

2%       Cutting carbon emissions across your whole value


What are the barriers to bravery?

During the workshop, attendees explored the barriers to bravery that exist within themselves and their organisation. These fell into two key areas:  how to ‘think big’ and concerns about personal risk.


Barriers to thinking big and really pushing the agenda:

  • Constraints due to pandemic – both attitude and financial
  • Inertia and acceptance of the status quo
  • Overload and difficulty of embedding too many changes or too big a change at the same time
  • Maintaining momentum – change takes time


Personal concerns:

  • Imposter syndrome – recognising strength of personal knowledge and skills
  • Fear of being alone – concern about not getting supporters to join and turn ideas into reality
  • Risk of loss of job if senior leadership don’t support initiatives or something goes wrong


What will help to take brave action?

A wide range of ideas emerged about how to overcome these barriers, with the conversation itself helping individuals to realise they were not alone and have both permission and a social imperative to step forward. Some of these are summarised below.


  • Leveraging the individuals within the organisation who have critical skills to help
  • Inviting interested people to step up and help – giving them an opportunity to lead
  • Working with like-minded organisations to build senior team confidence in sustainability action
  • Ensuring that previous success is known and understood across the organisation to build confidence in future action
  • Helping to educate and inform the senior leadership team about the case for change so they can support it


What happens now?

Finally, the workshop finished by gathering immediate actions from attendees that they can take forward and start to lay the groundwork for bravery in 2021. The ICRS itself sat at the heart of much of this, with peer to peer conversation and collaboration key to motivation and confidence.


  • Draft a personal plan that can act as a guide and a reference over the year
  • Network high and low within the organisation in order to build a trusted network
  • Stay knowledgeable but balanced – make sure a range of views and perspectives is understood rather than just speaking to the same pool of people
  • Write articles, blogs and social media posts to increase awareness of what is being delivered
  • Invite opinion and listen to it



Bring on 2021

It’s been an extraordinary year, turning preconceptions on their head. Sustainability leaders need to use this as a point of no return and are more likely to have the ear of their senior leadership team than previously.


Let’s make ‘bold thinking, brave action’ the mantra for 2021 – and if it helps to chat, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Get in touch with Janek on LinkedIn here

Get in touch with Amanda on LinkedIn here


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