Leadership in the Age of Climate Change

Recently I was asked to run a session on leadership and sustainable development for public health trainees in the UK. This blog presents some of the ideas from the session with the specific aim of provoking thoughts about how the global challenge of climate change might change our ideas on leadership and how we can use the new understanding to inform how we design our institutional structures and cultures and even change how we shape our working lives. This last question is really important for me personally as I am developing my career based on the sense that I need to have a big impact and make change happen now rather than waiting until I have gradually worked my way up to a traditional position of seniority. The challenge of climate change is too big and too urgent to wait.

Although there are many different theoretical approaches to leadership, it feels to me that the dominant conception of leadership we see around us is still a traditional authoritative top down leadership. Ask someone to name a leader and chances are they will name a president or prime minister, or perhaps a CEO. Is this type of leadership going to work as the dominant approach to climate change?

Climate change is a problem which is almost too complex to fathom. It is affected by virtually every action undertaken by every person on the planet. It makes other public health problems look relatively simple [and they really aren’t, e.g. obesity here]. Climate change and climate action cross borders, both national and institutional, and this can make climate leadership seem really difficult. Taking action can seem futile because of its scale. Even those working at the largest scales such as the political leaders in China could quite reasonably suggest that their area of direct influence is small relative to the size of global emissions. For a problem this complex and distributed we need action which is itself complex and distributed. It doesn’t seem to me to make sense to depend on the few people currently in traditional positions of power or the institutions which support them . We need much much more than this. We need people across the world to be engaged and empowered to take action, not just individual actions but community actions.

For more distributed action and leadership better communication seems critical. Climate change can result in people feeling disempowered, overwhelmed and distant from the problem. In my view the antidote to this is more personal and more positive leadership, based on values and individual experience. We have to be prepared to share a part of our own experience to help others with theirs. We have to trust others with our stories. And recognising that what we do isn’t purely (or even mostly) rational we need to design our institutions and our physical and cultural environments to support this social shift, to prompt us to be positive and proactive, to be transformative and bold.

I finished the training session by summing up the three key things which I thought we can all do to be better leaders in the age of climate change:

  • To accept the complexity of the world we are trying to change and act accordingly.
  • To speak in a positive and personal way
  • To be a catalyst now (not to wait until we are in a more powerful position)

These all come from my own experience of trying to accelerate climate action. It takes a certain degree of self confidence and self forgiveness to both recognise how complex and messy the real interconnected world is and to still take action without delay. We can support each other to have this confidence.

Climate change is a defining challenge of our time. We get climate action right and we could transform our society for the better on a scale and at a pace almost unimaginable. We get it wrong and our climate changes at a scale and pace almost unimaginable and we suffer the consequences. Leadership is fundamentally important to climate action. Our task now is to empower everyone to take bold action, to empower everyone to be a climate leader.

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