4th ASEF Young Leaders Summit (ASEFYLS4)

Ethical Leadership is the bedrock of Sustainable Development

The current forms of leadership compromise the path to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius. According to Alok Sharma, the president of Conference of Parties (COP) 26, the window to achieve the target is closing and leaders are needed to come forward. While hoping is crucial, taking ambitious actions are imperative to limit global warming as extreme weather events will be increasingly frequent and intense in the upcoming decades (Thiery et al, 2021). This presents a huge disadvantage to young people and the practices of sustainable development. In this article, I discuss the centrality of intergenerational equity in shaping ethical leadership in navigating the relationships between the present power structures and the interests of and for the future.

Intergenerational equity is one of the four principles of sustainability. The discourse is built on the ideas surrounding ethics of conservation that combine the “anthropocentrism of the utilitarian and the biocentrism of the preservationist” (Adnan, 2016). Adnan (2016) further expanded that the notion of sustainability considered ecological disturbance, governance, and managerial strategies, and social-ecological justice where the last centres on distribution of wealth between both intra- and intergenerational, and the North and South.

Over numerous discussions and mega-conferences on development and environment, the concept of sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). The Brundtland Report emphasised the needs, and limitations of technology and social organisation, or rather relationships between humans on the environment to meet present on future needs. Considering its moral and ethical foundation, sustainable development requires ethical leadership in all settings that deliberately reconsiders the relationship between power and interests.

Ethical leadership differs based on various contexts. Yet, it is universal in which it pertains to the interactions, relationships, behaviour patterns, and cultural norms. These elements are crucial to social change that happens over time. As we pursue the United Nations 2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we are starting to observe in practical material terms the needs and limits of sustainable development. It is being scrutinised through the incremental implementations across various levels of governance. This process is a golden time to birth ethical leaders. They are those who create alternatives that redistribute and realign the power and interests of decision-makers, policymakers, and the marginalised communities.

The UN 2030 Agenda has laid out universal values enabling the SDGs to be truly transformative. According to the UN Sustainable Development Group (2021), inherent dignity must become a fundamental aspect of development efforts and includes all people to actively participate in achieving sustainable development for SDGs to be truly transformative. One of the values is “Leave No One Behind” (LONB) that embodies:

the unequivocal commitment of all UN Member States to eradicate poverty in all its forms, end discrimination and exclusion, and reduce the inequalities and vulnerabilities that leave people behind and undermine the potential of individuals and of humanity as a whole. (UN Sustainable Development Group, 2021)

Mahadi (2021, pg. 2) further points out that LONB commits to “reaching out to all people in need and deprivation, wherever they are, in a manner which targets their specific challenges and vulnerabilities.” These two perspectives suggest that the crucial objective of sustainability is the sanctity of life and the continuity of livelihood. Often, this is a shared responsibility between the government and communities. Therefore, the implementation of the SDGs must be of the interest of the people at the grassroots levels, not merely the federal, state, or regional level of governance.

The ethical codes or policy is not merely a document fulfilling institutional requirements. They are the basis of actions to centre those who are being left behind by modern development efforts. In practicing the shared responsibility, ethics that centers on human rights, dignity, safety, and well-being must be emphasised in decision-making. Leaders who undermine the intersectional application of such universal values or cherry-pick the beneficiary of their ethical leadership have no place in the making of a sustainable world.

Additionally, stakeholder engagement consultation has been vital in decision-making processes. However, it obviates building autonomy and agency of people to making informed choices without an ethical dimension. Furthermore, such engagement sessions only gather those with power to influence a particular decision and those with access to the corridors of power. Choong (2019) attributes this characteristic as policy-sation of social change that “confines social change to narrow policy interests.” It is harmful as it further excludes stakeholders. Stakeholders mapping conducted by organisations remains futile when it does not identify those who are excluded and marginalised. This consciousness of ethics is crucial for development efforts to leave no one behind.

To date, we have not yet fully grasp what a sustainable world is. After all, as the future is unknown, we will never know the interest of the future generation. Some also argue that there is only an abstract form of reciprocity or the idea of doing things beyond oneself for a sense of continuity (Taylor, 2013). Regardless, it is significant to recognise that the implication of increasing levels of CO2 emissions is putting lives at stake.

Decision-makers and people must reimagine social norms that support environmentally beneficial actions by reconstructing and reorganising our needs. All ethical actions taken right now have various implications as they either maintain the status quo or shaping a sustainable world. Over time, I hope that ethical leadership ultimately creates the social change that centres on equity when defining the needs of people where the need for overconsumption is negated.




Choong, C. (2019, January 19). The dangers of “policy-sising” social change. FP2P. https://oxfamapps.org/fp2p/the-dangers-of-policy-sising-social-change/#comments-wrapper

Hezri, A. A. (2016). The sustainability shift: Refashioning Malaysia’s future. Areca Books.

Mahadi, A. (2021). Introduction – Making the SDGs Matter: Leaving No One Behind. In N. Zhafri (Ed.), Making SDGs Matter: Leaving No One Behind (pp. 1–12). Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. https://www.isis.org.my/book-journal/making-sdgs-matter-leaving-no-one-behind/

Taylor, J. (2013). Intergenerational justice: a useful perspective for heritage conservation. CeROArt, HS. https://doi.org/10.4000/ceroart.3510

Thiery, W., Lange, S., Rogelj, J., Schleussner, C. F., Gudmundsson, L., Seneviratne, S. I., Andrijevic, M., Frieler, K., Emanuel, K., Geiger, T., Bresch, D. N., Zhao, F., Willner, S. N., Büchner, M., Volkholz, J., Bauer, N., Chang, J., Ciais, P., Dury, M., Wada, Y. (2021). Intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes. Science, 374(6564), 158–160. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abi7339

United Nations Sustainable Development Group. (n.d.). Universal Values. UN Sustainable Development Group. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://unsdg.un.org/2030-agenda/universal-values

WCED. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.


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