Leading in a time of dying – notes for talk at ILA 2020

Below are are notes I prepared for a talk at the International Leadership Association 2020 conference on ‘Leading at the Edge’ (9th November 2020).

Also on the panel was Miguel Alejandro Naranjo Gonzalez of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He responded to my presentation in a very open and constructive way, demonstrating how we should be exploring things together without prejudice:

“Both focusing on the mitigation side, reduction of emissions… and the work… on Deep Adaptation are complementary. We will definitely need to face impacts of climate change… All over the world people are already suffering because of the impacts of climate change and this… is only going to become… more difficult. So, the approach that Jem [Bendell] presented on helping individuals deal with the difficult situations they are going to be living is definitely very important. It is of course beyond the level that we usually deal with in the climate change secretariat… The Deep Adaptation is deeply personal… so speaking from a personal point of view, I completely agree and appreciate that kind of work.”

Here are the notes for my presentation:

Deep Adaptation is an agenda, framework, and community, for people who anticipate societal collapse in their lifetimes, and want to stay engaged and useful rather than returning to avoidance. It came about after a paper I wrote on Deep Adaptation (DA) in July 2018 went viral and has been downloaded now over a million times. Launched in April 2019, the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) now involves a small team of staff engaging over 100 volunteers from around the world, who are supporting interaction, for free, of over 15,000 participants. Many initiatives are underway, created by the volunteers, to help people process emotions and find new ways of living kindly, creatively, wisely, and accountably, in this time of increasing turbulence.

It has been an emotionally tough and yet also uplifting journey that I have been on for over 2 years. I want to share with you some insights from some autoethnographic or 1st person inquiry on what leadership in the face of collapse has involved for me. That’s an academic way of saying I’ll share my ideas on my own learning, which I have developed by making notes and listening to feedback. That process is ongoing, and sharing my initial ideas and attempts to frame my learnings is part of that process.  

But before that, I want to mention a few people whose experience highlights key themes about what can happen.

One Australian man read my paper, decided to sell his house, and fund himself to make a film, his first ever. His aim was to help both himself and the people who would watch it to be better able to live into this time of dying in kind and wise ways. Michael Shaw brought his compassion, vulnerability and curiosity to the process, which shines through his film (which you can watch for free at the end of this blog).

Though he didn’t sell his house (yet), Andrew Medhurst read my paper and quit his job in the city of London. He became an activist and was soon the finance director of the new campaign group Extinction Rebellion. Skeena Rathor did the same and quit her job to become a key coordinator at the heart of XR. I hear their stories are similar to mine, and many others. Indeed, a survey of the members of the DA Forum found that 48 percent are taking leadership in new ways because of their anticipation of collapse.  

So, what have I learned about leadership on climate change from my experiences in the field known as deep adaptation?  Here are some rough and provisional notes.

  1. Creative energy after cognitive dissonance. After stopping one’s evasion of difficult information, new motivation and energy can be found. This is because the cognitive dissonance of getting on with one’s life and work, while maintaining inner evasions becomes debilitating over time. Ending compromise with cultures and systems we don’t admire, can release oneself into a new phase of creativity, courage and expression.
  2. Releasing imagination from deep stories. After letting go of old ‘stories’ of self and world, such as progress and control, we can release our moral imaginations to engage the situation in ways unknown within the confines of those old stories. No longer do we choose to do something, or justify it, because we think it achieves a future without suffering or setback. Instead we do it because it feels most true and right according to what we most value. People who are attached to the idea that we will and must progress as a society therefore can only consider actions to be meaningful if they contribute to progress. That is limiting of our imaginations.
  3. Vulnerability makes the fuel of trust.  Being vulnerable about our difficult emotions about the situation of growing climate chaos, appears to be a catalyst for connection and trust, even amongst complete strangers in different cultures who have only met online. That has been fuelling voluntary creativity and productivity.
  4. Courage from death of identity. The death of an old sense of self is a basis for many people to take bold and novel action in service of their sense of truth and love. That can involve them changing their career or life more generally and prioritizing this matter. Selling a house to make a movie, quitting jobs to coordinate XR, etc.
  5. Engagement by prioritising questions. An open agenda, making clear there are no easy answers, and therefore we invite the whole of everyone to participate in generative dialogue and co-creation, has helped voluntary initiative taking. That indicates open dialogue amongst people is a key aim for any leadership, not just a positive attribute of someone leading.
  6. Clear container for connection. Providing a clear container for why and how we show up has been key. The intention is to embody and enable loving responses to our predicament and keep learning about how to do that. The mode involves a form of dialogue that is different to what happens in much of mainstream culture. It includes an emphasis on compassion, a vulnerable sharing of feelings, a curiosity about topics and people, and a respect for differences.
  7. Paradoxes of a management mindset. As the initiator of a concept and community I believed in participative approaches and helped design systems for that. However, I was constantly scanning everything happening in the initiative, often ‘troubleshooting’ and also seeking to influence agendas through my regular writing. That was both in service of participative approaches but also infected by a desire exert influence. Given that aspect of my involvement, retaining a position of management would have limited the potential for distributed and emergent leadership on sense making of what the initiative and wider agenda is about. Therefore, I stepped down from management. I remain as a resource to the community, while developing my own related activities.
  8. Limitations from privilege. No matter how much I thought I was approaching my activity in the DA Forum from a critical leadership perspective, seeking not to embody patriarchy, I am socialised by my culture and so did act and not act (and will continue to) in ways that are unhelpful in reducing systemic oppressions. Enabling gender diversity was important from the start for me and all involved. I made that a priority and it was reflected in the team and board. But I accepted the community becoming largely white middle class as something disappointing while wrongly presuming it beyond my influence (apart from a couple of articles, speeches and interviews). A more systematic prioritisation of this issue earlier on might have influenced the community. Fortunately, the community itself is producing actions on this matter now, including through a Diversity and Decolonising Circle.
  9. Organisations are Borgs. Within just a year, my sense of the topic of DA became defined by one kind of response to it – a collaborative dialogic space of social learning and support. It reminded me of when I was new to an organisation in the past, I often thought that longer-term staff seemed to only see the world from the windows of that organisation. Having stepped away, I realise that was happening to me in the Forum. Now I can look at the initiative and experience it in a wider context. Perhaps the insight is that people need to fluctuate the extent of their involvement in any organisation or network.  
  10. Urgency drives hypocrisy. Living Theorists encourage us to do the kind of first-person inquiry I am attempting here with an attempt at clarity about our values and then how our actions seem to embody those values or not. For nearly twenty years, I have told myself that my orienting values have been love, courage and inquiry. Key with Living Theory is that the method invites us to look at how we might not be working in coherence with our values. In retrospect, I realise that the demands I have been putting on myself to analyse issues and communicate with the whole DA community meant that I have been working at a pace where I deprioritised lovingly brave curious conversations with some of my colleagues, fellow volunteers and, now, even critics. This is the tenth lesson of leading in a time of dying – to take some time away from the rush and reconnect with my espoused values, and then recall what people have said that felt uncomfortable, or the situations where it seemed like I wasn’t living those values, and see what I can find. That is something I am reflecting on right now.  

To reference the ILA panel please use this citation:  Balda, J. (Chair). (2020, November 9). Leading Societies Towards Carbon Neutral and Adapting to Disruption [Panel]. Leading at the Edge, the 22nd annual global conference of the International Leadership Association, a virtual event. https://theila.org/

Here is that film from Michael Shaw. Please make some time to watch it soon.

Emotional support: https://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/therapy/support

Engagement in adaptation – www.weadapt.org 

Engagement in deep adaptation – www.deepadaptation.info

Research on leadership by people involved in deep adaptation is here.

Activism on cuts and drawdown (and perhaps soon on adaptation): http://rebellion.earth

For the topic of business and deep adaptation, there is very little yet available. Some of my thoughts on “executive rebellion” are here.