The Leadership Epiphany

Awakening from the “big sleep” No. 1—sometimes it takes a jolt to reorder your world.

Have you had the climate change epiphany yet—a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality of our predicament? You don’t go looking for it, exactly. Epiphanies spring from simple, everyday experiences when understanding clicks into place and rocks your world.

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, had one while standing on a street corner. “[I]…suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if awakening from a dream—the dream of separateness….”

Merton wrote about his potent moment many times. That’s an indicator: the emotional impact of an epiphany never fades. You see things differently in a flash, and everything you thought you knew changes and you are changed.

Mine happened in 2007. I’d already collaborated with eminent scientists on the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2003, they said things like, “Global warming is really serious. Thank goodness we have time to work it out.”

Three years later, I sat in a conference room overlooking a California beach, working on a new exhibit with a scientist from the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I casually repeated something I heard in Washington: “Pay attention to the oceans. When they start to warm we’ll be committed for a thousand years.”

“Oh,” she replied, “we’ve already measured warming in every ocean basin in the world to a depth of 1000 meters.”

I heard her words like the snarl of an unseen predator. It’s no joke—climate change had crept into the room and, for many, it’s arrival meant suffering and death. All I could say was, “How do you cope, knowing what you know?”

Considering that climate science advances through methodical measurement and calculation, the word “epiphany” might seem like an odd choice. But the science isn’t in question; it informs the question. The epiphany is about us, and it creates real psychic discord. The empirical evidence cuts against the deep grain of unquestioned beliefs that our world is safe and stable.

No wonder people shy away. Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park got it right when he said, “Oh yeah, ooh, ah, that’s how it always starts, but then later there’s running, then screaming.”

It’s easy to get carried away with these feelings. Since scientists speak in such calm, cautious tones, I’ve had to question whether I’d exaggerated the danger many times. Unfortunately, climate forecasts have proven to be overly conservative. Our predicament is more urgent than we thought, not less.

Here’s the kicker: the climate change epiphany delivers a life-changing imperative. It says that leadership comes down to me.

I’m not saying I’m special, but I am writing in the first person for a reason. Look around and see whether society is responding appropriately. Since the answer is no, then reordering society against this threat and the powerful forces of deception and denial comes down to what you and I are willing to do. What else have we got?

We can’t just wait for somebody else to lead because they aren’t. We can’t just hope everybody else awakens because they don’t want to. We can’t delay because we can never take our climate choices back.

That’s the epiphany: there is no one else.

To restate the obvious, this means that complaining about the lack of national leadership isn’t action. Accepting the limits of our social roles and institutional missions isn’t leadership. Putting nothing material, social or psychic at risk isn’t adequate. Epiphanies close those doors.

This leaves one last option: embrace the moment and find ways to lead.


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.