To create the conditions in which people change systems that are causing environmental damage and/or social inequity (or indeed, generate greater environmental and societal health) individuals need to know how to engage with the broadest and most complex set of systems dynamics possible. Unlike many immediate challenges in business and society, the most severe impact of climate chaos is dissociated from us both in time and, for those of us in the West, in location. This makes it especially difficult to influence people to act because they are faced with an undeniable rationale for moving away from ‘business as usual’.
So the challenges associated with living and working in ways “that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” are truly ‘adaptive’: real progress requires that people develop new mindsets, beliefs and behaviours, without visceral imperative reasons for doing so. Yes, carrots and sticks can bring about behaviour change in defined situations, but they are not adequate levers for creating shifts that transcend a particular situation. Unlike problem solving, for which past ways of thinking and operating are sufficient, the challenge of sustainability is that there’s rarely an agreed definition of a desired outcome or even agreement about what needs to change.
Leading for sustainability is essentially about bringing stakeholders together and pacing a process by which they can innovate ways to change things. Effective adaptive leaders are sensitive to how significant changes in beliefs will be for people and therefore what it might take to catalyse letting go of old ways to let new thoughts come. They have a feel for the pace at which dialogue can happen that honours the group’s tolerance for conflict, uncertainty and risks, resilience. And they work with the networks of power and relationships needed for bringing the organisation and stakeholders through the pain of change.
In some ways, many of the challenges that today’s business leaders find themselves in, require responding to adaptive challenges for which there simply is no precedent for how to resolve or even work with them. In our experience, those grappling with ways of living that threaten our long-term well-being have the additional challenge of needing to keep the voice of stakeholders who have no actual voice centre stage (such as the earth itself, and future generations). In our experience, those able to respond effectively express a set of personal characteristics that align with later stages of adult psychological development (set out by Torbert et al in the Leadership Development Framework). There’s a huge amount of well-respected research which validates the idea of progressively more complex stages of adult development and, as a result, this thinking forms the basis for much of the leader development work that we do at Future Considerations, particularly when it comes to helping individuals develop the capabilities to engage with sustainability.
The learning experiences we co-create with our clients to equip leaders dealing with leadership and/for sustainability are designed to give their people first hand experience and tools for working with complex systems, multi-stakeholder dialogues and social innovation tools. Without the kinds of learning support that enable people to develop more sophisticated world-views (i.e. develop their “consciousness quotient” if you like) the innovation tools can remain blunt. In fact, we would argue they are only as effective as the judgement faculties of the individual using them. So a good part of the learning experiences we create for sustainability leaders focus on helping to inquire into who they are today, and what they value and believe in now. Then we train them to use a range of reflective practices to help them make sense of what they are noticing and what assumptions that they are bringing to their work such that they are on the road to acquiring more advanced world view, which are inherently better suited to the complexity of challenges we are facing as a society.
In brief, these are people who have developed to these levels perceive themselves as connected to something bigger than themselves; are concerned with the impact of their work over extended time frames and are creative in conflict resolution because they recognise that different values and perspectives are integral to viable relationships. More information can be found in Torben’s “guidebook”.
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