Professor Jem Bendell

Notes from a strategist & educator on social & organisational change, now focused on #DeepAdaptation

Leadership for Deep Adaptation

Posted by jembendell on October 31, 2019

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.

53150541_10155869633541470_5368208726245244928_nTaking 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.

2 Responses to “Leadership for Deep Adaptation”

  1. Nicholas Mann said

    “To enable it to think more deeply and find solutions to its unprecedented problems, humanity needs a wholly new leadership, above partisan politics, lobbies and interest groups, that can inspire and guide it through the immense challenges that lie ahead.
    Humanity needs a leadership that serves all peoples, beliefs, races, ages, classes and individuals; that can speak to the heart of everyone; that can inspire the best skills, the greatest responsibility and the truth of conscience; a leadership that can awaken the higher consciousness enabling people everywhere to be and act in harmony with all beings on this beautiful planet that they call home.”

    Thank you Jem, the above is from my notes on leadership.

  2. Ami Chen Mills-Naim said

    Thoughts on “Spiritual” Leadership

    Dear Jem,

    Thank you for the invitation to comment here! From my experience in working with both “official” leaders and “natural” leaders, within the context of Three Principles psychology (which, to me, is a fancy name for: “the simple truth”), emotional intelligence (EI), or spiritual intelligence (SI) (as folks may prefer) is the order of the day.

    “Leaders” and leadership that is most devoid of individual ego concerns, personal agendas, fears and insecurities will be most compassionate and guided by wisdom and right action for the good of all. It is also important to understand that “leadership” can come from anyone at any time, depending on each person’s state of mind and connection to inspiration. So, then, it is important to understand leadership as a moving target, while at the same time, choosing and supporting and training leaders who reflect consistent EI and SI and are open to continual learning and personal growth.

    I see that more and more in our XR group (where I myself often need to challenge my own attachment to what I think is right, or my anger at someone who seems to be blocking the group with nonsense—what I may see as “nonsense,” or what-have-you) … I often have to self-challenge my whole personality!

    We have tried to make a point of bringing EI or SI onto the field and bring back connection and good feelings when there is upset and conflict … The value of feeling connected, of “good feelings” may seem and sound trivial, but actually is so essential. When our minds are quiet and clear, we manifest clear thinking and good feelings, creativity and imagination, energy and enthusiasm (but not ego-driven “mania,” for example, and its many flavors).

    I have also had a mantra, as you know, of including and seeking women for leadership and that does not come from an ideology, actually, but from seeing how women think and lead differently (a lot of the time) and are often more willing to reflect on their shortcomings, and address issues of EI and SI. Also, our generally more communal outlook. This also has to do, in the States, with how far, far, very far we are from equity in terms of female leadership in halls of power. I have more to say and am working on a manuscript along these lines. Can’t say more, or will jinx it, of course!

    But SI can be taught, and rather quickly, in my experience, within a Three Principles context at any rate, from my 25-years of experience … and it can be sustained if participants are willing to continue to question themselves and remain connected to teachers and teachings of “truth.” Also, EI and SI do not imply a lack of boundaries, or courage or standing up for what is right. Even arguments on the FB group about guns and ammo, self protection, etc., from a formless truth perspective, any action may be a “right action” due to the formless and fluid nature of truth or wisdom.

    Personally, the more I have grown, the more I am also able to “lean into” spaces which may have seemed intimidating to me before … to speak up for what I see even when I know I may become unpopular, or go against the way most people think. I am also more willing to be wrong and to listen further.

    I believe that in all good leadership, authenticity is so important, and that does come from EI and SI work. I also like what Nicholas Mann wrote. Something to struggle with as XR US and activism in general has a habit of enemy-fying and sometimes that is alright and sometimes not. … Cheers and love and support!

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