Leadership Attitude

Awakening from the “big sleep” epilogue—leadership requires optimism and courage.

I am an optimist, but I do not assume we can escape from the climate crisis unscathed. It’s already too late for that.

This year, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere broke 390ppm—roughly 40% above the pre-Industrial Revolution level. Most of this extra carbon dioxide will continue warming the atmosphere for decades to come.

We are in for some rough going, but optimism is an expression of confidence and hope about the future. We are capable of adapting to many things and, more importantly, we can cap global warming before it gets away from us.

Perhaps this is why I find the survival literature so enlightening. When the chips are down, survivors summon the courage to make smart choices that see them through for a little bit longer.

We are not facing many life or death climate threats yet, but we can see them coming. Moreover, we know that the choices we make right now will determine the measure of the crises we face over the next few decades.

  • Our economy and property values are on the line.
  • Our water and food security are on the line, although poor nations will experience shortages before most Americans do.
  • A mass extinction is unfolding with a shocking number of species at risk.
  • Global security is on the line because access to resources will shift inequitably.
  • Our health is on the line, as disease vectors spread and extreme weather events occur more frequently.
  • The future of civil society might well be on the line as well.

But the extent of these catastrophes depends on just one remarkably simple variable: our decisions to either increase or decrease greenhouse gas emissions now and in the near future.

In this series, I’ve acknowledged some of the psychological, behavioral and financial barriers that are driving us toward an unhappy future. It is equally important to acknowledge that we can see these trends taking place and choose a different outcome.

Achieving a better future will take leadership, and there is no time left to lose.

I’ve described how the climate deniers are manipulating public opinion and dissuading potential leaders from stepping forward. I’ve discussed how leadership works and why it is important that many different players assume its mantle. I’ve singled out scientists, science communicators, business leaders and others, and described some of the steps they can take.

But the final word on leadership is simply “courage.” Leadership is an expression of optimism in the face of risks.

That’s because leadership involves foregoing the protection of the herd—your business, professional community or political party peers—and betting that others will follow.

You can’t be a leader if you require guarantees. There is always a risk of losing social or professional esteem. There is a risk of economic loss, and of feeling ineffective from time to time. There is a risk of abusive treatment from those who are pushing society further into the “big sleep.”

But if others do follow, then the social, professional and economic consequences can be positive. More to the point, the outcomes for humanity and other species can be immeasurably better than they will be if we remain on our current path.

Leaders are those people who understand that they have amassed the human capital—acknowledged expertise and social stature—to potentially make a difference. They are willing to risk squandering their capital in an effort to do so.

We call this “courage.”

I began this series on climate leadership with the following observations:

  • You are suffering from the “big sleep” when you confuse complaining about the lack of national leadership with taking action.
  • You are suffering when you talk about being powerless, or accept the limitations of your role in society instead of embracing your moral obligation to find ways to lead.
  • You are sleeping when you convince yourself that you are a “leader” on the issue even if you’ve done nothing that truly stretches you, changes you, or entails material, social or psychic risk.

The number and talent of those who are working on the climate crisis today is truly impressive. The question I am posing, now, is how many are willing to risk sacrificing the protection of this climate-concerned herd.

You are suffering from the “big sleep” if you accept that you are already doing enough, dismiss the advice of experts and ignore what needs to be done.

This is a crucial test of leadership. “Awakening” means finding courage.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of kylefoto via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.