The Leadership Assessment

Awakening from the “big sleep” No. 2—the call to action is a mirror, not a slogan.

I think “waking up” involves three psychic challenges. When you first see the possibility of our stark future in all its harsh detail, you might suffer from overwhelming dread and believe that resistance is futile.

If you overcome this, you might seek comfort in believing that playing your social role is enough. It isn’t, of course, unless you actually eliminate humanity’s carbon emissions. Otherwise, you are still suffering from the “big sleep.” Finding ways to lead involves a leap of faith and puts your identity at risk—that’s how you discover your resources.

Let’s start with dread. Too many of our friends and neighbors are being duped, confused, distracted and paralyzed by fear, so society drifts along. You can’t lead if awakening paralyses you too.

I am drawn to the stories of people who survive in catastrophic, life or death situations. Survivors always say they lived for the sake of someone else. The possibility of hurting loved ones turns victims into rescuers. We talk about reducing global warming for the sake of others too—for our children and grandchildren, the world’s poor, endangered species, even God’s Creation. It’s no accident that people dive into crisis situations for the sake of others.

Deciding to halt global warming for the sake of others can get you moving toward the third psychic challenge, but a lot of people stop short and, so, remain victims. Victims believe the roles and identities they currently embrace are the only ones available to them. They’re wrong on two levels. Our current roles evolved in a carbon-intensive society, so moving forward necessitates change. Fortunately, identity is actually a malleable resource.

Rescuers improvise using the tools at hand, which include skills, personality traits, interests, proclivities and circumstances. The toolkit includes more than a person’s job description; in fact, the adaptation strategy involves turning familiar roles around to see how else they might become useful. From my own experience, here are some examples:

  • I am an entrepreneur—perhaps it’s time to try doing the same old things differently.
  • I own a business—perhaps it can deliver something besides products and services.
  • I play music—perhaps I can do something else with a microphone.
  • I have interdisciplinary interests—perhaps experts can collaborate across stovepipes.
  • I interact with public policy and everyday management—perhaps my experience can inform both.
  • My small firm works for large corporations—perhaps new ideas can scale up and down.
  • I meet people in various walks of life—perhaps my Rolodex can build new teams.

Thoughts like these imply risk, of course, as they should. We can’t reduce global warming while behaving exactly as we have in the past. But there is no reason for pessimism.

A lot of people believe the climate challenge comes down to sacrifice. This suggests a victim’s mentality to me. Mahatma Gandhi, who owned little more than his eating bowls, sandals, a prayer book and a pair of glasses at the end of his life, admonished his followers that he was actually pursuing his own fulfillment in his life’s work. Leadership isn’t deprivation; it’s finding a bigger, more genuine voice.

I believe the diversity of our voices is our best hope, while limiting them to the familiar refrain of the “big sleep” is our greatest weakness. In truth, there is only one rigid factor in the climate problem and it comes from physics, not psychology. As climatologist Richard Somerville says, “Humanity only gets one input into the climate system—the pollution we put into the atmosphere—and nature takes it from there.”

Our choice couldn’t be any easier: either stop burning fossil fuels and keep our options open or condemn the future by doing the one thing we can’t take back. Everything else is flexible and open-ended, and the wide range of psychic and social resources people can bring to the task gives us leverage.

Who says we can’t afford to stop burning fossil fuels fast enough? Who says change is politically impossible? Who says we can’t afford the price? Who says a low-carbon economy won’t make us happy? Victims believe things like this.

Leaders ignore the inaction of bystanders and accept the risks that come with getting the job done.


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.