Preparing interdisciplinary leadership for a sustainable future

Christopher G. Boone, Steward T.A. Pickett, Gabriele Bammer, Kamal Bawa, Jennifer A. Dunne, Iain J. Gordon, David Hart, Jessica Hellmann, Alison Miller, Mark New, Jean P. Ometto, Ken Taylor, Gabriele Wendorf, Arun Agrawal, Paul Bertsch, Colin Campbell, Paul Dodd, Anthony Janetos, Hein Mallee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Urgent sustainability challenges require effective leadership for inter- and trans-disciplinary (ITD) institutions. Based on the diverse experiences of 20 ITD institutional leaders and specific case studies, this article distills key lessons learned from multiple pathways to building successful programs. The lessons reflect both the successes and failures our group has experienced, to suggest how to cultivate appropriate and effective leadership, and generate the resources necessary for leading ITD programs. We present two contrasting pathways toward ITD organizations: one is to establish a new organization and the other is to merge existing organizations. We illustrate how both benefit from a real-world focus, with multiple examples of trajectories of ITD organizations. Our diverse international experiences demonstrate ways to cultivate appropriate leadership qualities and skills, especially the ability to create and foster vision beyond the status quo; collaborative leadership and partnerships; shared culture; communications to multiple audiences; appropriate monitoring and evaluation; and perseverance. We identified five kinds of resources for success: (1) intellectual resources; (2) institutional policies; (3) financial resources; (4) physical infrastructure; and (5) governing boards. We provide illustrations based on our extensive experience in supporting success and learning from failure, and provide a framework that articulates the major facets of leadership in inter- and trans-disciplinary organizations: learning, supporting, sharing, and training.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1723-1733
Number of pages11
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number6
Early online dateMay 31 2020
StateE-pub ahead of print - May 31 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1639145. The first meeting of leaders was hosted at SESYNC and we thank Professor Margaret Palmer, Director of SESYNC, and Dr Jonathan Kramer, Director for Interdisciplinary Science at SESYNC, for their participation and facilitation. The Santa Fe Institute supported and hosted a follow-up workshop on “Tackling Complex Sustainability Issues: Lessons from Inter- and Transdisciplinary Organizations” which led to the production of this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature.


  • Interdisciplinary organization
  • Leadership
  • Lessons learned
  • Transdisciplinary

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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