Steve Schein Interview: The Hidden Power of Environmental Worldviews


By Sam Irvine (C21/PA6)

Published 10.20.15

Why do we do what we do as sustainable practitioners? It’s a question that comes up again and again in circles of sustainability. People like myself who do this work at institutions like Presidio want to know where did the motivations come from that give people the well of strength to be sustainable business leaders? To go out and often have hard conversations, to reach into the boards of big organizations or their circle of friends and try to find a way to develop better ways of living, or better ways of doing business.

I had the privilege of interviewing Steve Schein. He’s one of our new Experts-in-Residence and he really hit, through his research and his book, on this idea that the reason sustainable practitioners do what they do can be summed up in a way that ties them together, even if they’ve never met each other. It turns out there’s a word and a scope of research defining this idea and this question and it's one that Steve touches on in his book, ‘A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership’ consistently asking the questions:

  • What does it take to be a sustainable leader?
  • What gets people there?
  • How do they continue to operate as change agents to reflect their values in the world and in the organizations around them?
  • I invite you to read the following transcription and listen to the full interview here.

SAM IRVINE: I went on your website and checked out some of your past work and one thing I saw that I really appreciate was this idea of ecological worldviews and I think that’s something that I’d like to hear from you. Could you define what to you is an ecological worldview?

STEVE SCHEIN: I think it's the capacity to understand our relationships and in particular the relationship with the living non-human world. So, our interdependence with ecosystems and seeing ourselves within these nested systems. My theory of sustainability leadership is that the extent to which we perceive our interdependence ultimately determines the depth of our actions as sustainability leaders, and the ecological worldview is where you perceive your interdependence... In other words, it embodies it in a range of what I call the ‘ecosocial sciences’ that have not yet been applied to sustainability at scale. Ecological worldviews have different definitions but for me it's the deep patterns to understand our interdependence and relationships with the natural world.

SAM: What first tipped you off to that? Was that intrinsic for you? Was it something you always held, or was there a moment where it was kind of like a wakeup call to that interdependence?

STEVE: That’s a great question, Sam, and I think it’s continuing to unfold explicitly…I did my PhD late. I went to Fielding Graduate University after I had already kind of retired from the business world and I started teaching. And it was there where I discovered deep ecology, eco-psychology and the construct of an ecological worldview. That’s what allowed me to name and understand what I was thinking and feeling as someone living and growing food and studying permaculture.

SAM: What are some lessons that we can learn as sustainable practitioners from ecology and as business people, what can we learn from the natural environment?

STEVE: I think that there is a continuum of sustainability, how we understand the word and what we think it means and my guess is, the community at Presidio is on the deeper of that continuum in terms of understanding really the full implication of the sustainability movement, meaning decarbonization, biomimicry and zero-waste and an immensely complicated accelerated revolution towards how we do business; and how we make it move and transport everything. It’s much, much, much more than recycling and electric cars – although that’s certainly a part of it. So the capacity that I think can reclaim the term sustainability in its full implication can be driven by an ecological worldview. From a research standpoint, what I found when interviewing about a hundred senior sustainability executives at multinationals and some non-profits...

SAM: That's what you needed for your book, right? That was a big part of your research.

STEVE: Yes. That’s the ongoing inquiry. You know, whether it's on social media… today there was an article about this CEO at Siemens and yesterday there was an article about PWC reporting 80% of CEOs connecting the dots in terms of strategic and the financial implications of climate to their companies. What I'm suggesting is there’s…in some ways implicit or subconscious part of it that can drive the really courageous type of sustainability leadership that we need.

SAM: Let me kind of throw that back at you and see if I'm hearing you right. It sounds like in these leaders you talked to, embedded in their psychology of what motivates them, what brought them to where they are, they're working within a bigger system and they're channeling what is, in many ways, the subliminal but shared movement towards a state of balance. And I say that because when I did ecological economics, and that sort of thing in undergrad, I remember I had a professor who said, he was talking about the rainforest and how leaves became the food source to then grow the trees. The soil was never very high quality, right, and so the only way that system existed was because they had this circular flow to it. It had like this model of waste [from leaf litter] but then turn that back into food and from that the message was: “if it exists it must be possible.”

Nature gives us a lens through which to see almost a state of balance and that’s harder to find in the silos of business and the way we work as people and organize ourselves in economies. Do you think that there’s a bigger kind of arch between those two? And I know I'm reaching a little bit but I'm curious about what you think the psychology of these people are who are in these positions of sustainable leadership and what ties them even if they’ve never met each other?

STEVE: It’s a great question or couple of questions… about ecological economics… and really the reality that’s unfolding around us and the capacity to observe it. So some of the more exciting case studies and examples of sustainability are where biomimicry or circular economy, new products and new supply chains that scale are actually implemented based on observing nature. And ecological economics, I think, is the field that is key in terms of how capitalism needs to be measured on balance sheets and income statements and so there’s some really interesting things happening. Just this week around the, ‘We Mean Business’ network and large Fortune 100 companies pledging to integrate climate counting as a fiduciary duty on their financial state. But the bigger question I think as you probe, Sam is this… these patterns that deeply committed sustainability leaders appear to exhibit are mental patterns, and what my research showed is there’s at least a half a dozen significant life experiences [sustainable leaders elude to].
We could do this a little bit right now… kind of share for me where you think your deeper motivations for sustainability comes from?

SAM: I think of being in nature as a kid. I remember vividly my grandfather’s Christmas tree farm and how he was pointing out a bug on this specific Christmas tree and he’s saying if we treat the tree this way this bug comes and it will lead to an infection that can kill the tree and then the whole crop. But if you manage it differently by using this different input, the trees will be healthy. It was seeing this… seeing it in front of me. Seeing the evidence provided by nature that there is this natural balance. That was also shared with me through teachers, through family members who were engaged in that space. So it was kind of the life lessons that got me there really early on.

STEVE: Yeah. Thank you, Sam, for sharing that. And so you and I share that, and most of the sustainability executives that I interviewed share the significant life experiences and it's not often that we’re given the chance to reflect on them, but also really hold the mystery of how they unfolded. How we can trace the line that has us on the phone together now talking about sustainability. You know it drove me to write a book, drove me to start a sustainability leadership program and in particular. I think it’s useful when we run into resistance.
I think the invitation that I offer through the research and through the book and even as we get to know each other, is that we as sustainability change agents continually run into the challenges of trying to persuade other by drawing on these deeper sources of motivation, of how we became who we are, it allows us to, I think, draw on a source of power and strength and courage.

SAM: What were the other sources from your work that you saw people pulling on?

STEVE: Those early childhood experiences of family, of nature, of teachers in classes and then there was this set of traveling. A lot of sustainability executives took internships in developing countries and saw poverty and environmental degradation, and that also was my story. A number of executives kind of pointed towards the moments where they really connected the dots and they really saw the relationship between poverty and healthy ecosystems….And another set had to do with religion and spirituality. Many executives connect explicitly to a chance to embody their religious or spiritual beliefs through having a sustainability career.

SAM: They're human stories. All those I think share a thread of... it goes down to... maybe this is why that sub-line of your book is ‘The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews’? It's not on the surface but it is held in core, and from that people pool, a wealth of strength and that might be the power... Would you agree with that?

STEVE: Yes. I absolutely do agree with that.

Sam Irvine (C21/PA6)

Sam Irvine MBA/MPA (C21, PA6) is the Presidio Graduate School Student Blogger. His other works and writings can be found on his blog covering policy, economics and culture at

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