Self-Imposed Leadership Boundaries

Awakening from the ‘big sleep” No. 3—professional boundaries got us here. They won’t get us out.

It’s time to say something about courage and about bucking the noble, unintended barriers we place on our effectiveness as leaders. I’m talking about the limitations we embrace in defense of institutional missions, professional cultures and brand reputations.

As I’ve said previously, you are suffering from the “big sleep” when you convince yourself that you are a “leader” on the climate issue even if you’ve done nothing that truly stretches you, changes you, or entails material, social or psychic risk.

The “big sleep” is implied in the phrase, “Yes, but we must also preserve….” Complete the sentence with your job description, reputation or mission; it doesn’t matter because each of them undercuts effectiveness.

At issue is the impossibility of having more than one top priority. When push comes to shove, only one master gets our full attention. Too many dedicated professionals have let defending the status quo trump everything else without realizing how pernicious and counterproductive this choice is.

Naomi Oreskes tells a story on the Climate Report™ about a schoolteacher admonishing a panel of eminent climate scientists saying, “You guys are telling us about all these incredibly grave consequences that we are facing, but not one of you sounds like you’re actually worried.”

She describes the scientific community’s professional reluctance to say something stronger this way: “We don’t speak in the emotional register that’s appropriate for this concern because, if we do, we’re afraid that we’ll be discredited.”

We suffer from the “big sleep” when we let such fears about our reputations define the range of our actions.

  • It happens when cultural institutions ignore their visitors’ most urgent questions about reducing global warming because those questions lie outside the mission statement.
  • It happens when business leaders avoid speaking out about their convictions or their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
  • It happens when scientists shy away from forceful statements about the breadth of their agreement on the settled science.
  • It happens when religious congregations settle for therapeutic, feel-good ministries instead of embracing the moral obligation to lead on the issue.
  • It happens when small businesses allow self-interested or ideological assertions by politicians and vested interests to go unchallenged.
  • It happens when policymakers give in to industry complaints that transforming our energy system should not involve risks or discomfort.
  • It happens when we draw the line at doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, but go no further.

Leadership demands finding the courage to put our reputations to work. These are communications assets, not precious artifacts.

I am advocating taking risks, but I am not suggesting that we throw caution to the wind. By its nature, communications is a competitive activity. Challenges are sure to come—as they already have—and they can be managed. It’s all part of doing the job well.

Naomi Oreskes put it this way: “…it’s important for the scientific community to recognize that the pressure on scientists not to be advocates is actually part of the disinformation campaign.” The same can be said for the reputational pressures on the education, business, faith, and activist communities as well.

The facts on the ground are stark: society is not responding to the climate challenge with sufficient speed or commitment, and our national elected leaders are failing us.

Given these facts, we face a choice. We can either preserve our reputations for the future—a future we hope will emerge—or we can put them to use to help create the future we desire.

It’s natural to want it all, but we can only serve one master. Nobody will thank us for defending our professional reputations if we allow global warming to progress unchecked. In our current circumstances, climate change either is or isn’t your top priority.

In the words of the fictional guerilla fighter, Josey Wales, “Are you going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” There’s really no such thing as doing both.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Daruman 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.