As I am a Professor in the field of leadership research and education, it is reasonable for people to ask me “what does leadership on deep adaptation to climate chaos look like?”
My first response is in the negative – that we do not need more of the kind of leadership that has been promoted over the past decades of increasing environmental destruction and social injustice. That kind of leadership assumes that change relies on the power of a significant individual at the top of a hierarchy, while the rest of us follow (or just hope someone big will fix it all). It is a kind of leadership which accepts the dominant values of an industrial consumer society, thereby enabling quicker and wider degradation of society and the environment.
My second response to the question of what kind of leadership we need in the face of our climate predicament is that we reconsider leadership completely. That involves realising leadership is a word to describe significant actions enabling change that is welcomed by affected people. Such actions do not have to be those of a person of significance or authority. Anyone can step up to act in ways that enable change. In addition, we can be clearer about the kinds of actions that are useful to describe as “leadership” rather than something else, like “management” or “organising”. Leadership actions are those that help shift the way groups, networks or whole communities of people relate and so such actions generate effects over time.
The rhetoric around leadership, both popular and in the fields of politics and business studies, tends to emphasise the potency of individual action. Yet the predicament we find ourselves in, with climate chaos now threatening the future of our societies, challenges both our assumptions of human agency and the desirability of it. Could “leadership” be a useful concept for identifying and promoting actions that help people to cope, practically and emotionally, with the end of progress? Only if we drop dominant stories about individual agency and human potency. Old stories of “valiant individuals” forcing “what’s needed” onto “reluctant masses” might excuse additional horrors to the suffering that already lies ahead for humanity. Instead, leadership that enables deep adaptation to climate chaos will need to be fluid and humble. Because the severity of our climate predicament means we do not know whether what we now do will work at scale.
This philosophy of leadership, and more importantly, of collective organising, is what underpins the Deep Adaptation Forum. We launched it to help people around the world explore diverse ideas about what to do in the face of unfolding societal breakdowns due to climate change. For us, what is most important at this time is to build a space for generative dialogue, so people in various walks of life can find provisional answers and action plans that are meaningful to them.
I have been impressed, beyond my imagination, in the way people from around the world have stepped up to serve this effort. The work of the moderators on the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group in maintaining a safe space for sharing and discussion is a wonderful example of how people are inspired by our predicament to prioritise love and solidarity. Jane Dwinell, Aimee Maxwell, Dan Vie, Mariette Olwagen, David Baum, Peter Wicks and Jens Hultman are building on the work dozens of previous volunteers like Sarah Bittle, who together, are helping build a social movement of deep adaptation.
Taking this message to people around the world and in all walks of life is a challenging activity. Because it is a difficult message to hear. So I am grateful for the leadership of the first cohort of Deep Adaptation spokespeople, who have all agreed to help invite people into this most difficult conversation. Thank you Melissa Allison, David Baum, Naresh Giangrande, Chloe Greenwood, Alan Heeks, Wolfgang Knorr, Shu Liang, Alex Lockwood, Aimee Maxwell, Kay Michael, Jilani Prescott, Herb Simmens, Cecilie Smith-Christensen, Toni Spencer, Christian Stalberg, and Dean Walker.
The way we integrate awareness of unfolding societal breakdowns into the various areas of professional life will also be key to seeing more the necessary leadership to reduce harm and promote meaning in this difficult period for humanity. The volunteers convening various discussions in the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum are therefore leading the way. It is important we recognise them all. Karen Lockridge, Elzanne Roos, Chiara Borrello, Brian Bailey, Rob Moir, Stina Deurell, Kathryn Soares, Jimmie Chastain, Christian Stalberg, Dean Spillane Walker, Matthew Painton, Mat Osmond, Azul Valerie Thome, Nico Jenkins, Brennan Smith, Melissa Allison, Eric Garza, and Moshe Givental. Together we are leading deep adaptation.
If you have not already, please join us in the free Deep Adaptation Forum to explore ways you can find and express your own leadership at this time.
If you would like to hear more about my thoughts on leadership in the face of a climate emergency, I recommend this interview I gave with Robin Alfred, a former director of Findhorn Ecovillage.
The next time I teach a short residential course on leadership for deep adaptation, is in Cumbria (UK) for 4 days starting April 27th 2020.
My academic reflections on unsustainable leadership are available here.
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.