As we think into the art and practice of leadership in the first half of the twenty-first century, we will need to move from the focus on the individual as leader, a pervasive pattern in leadership studies, and explore more richly what it takes, as Ron Heifetz, Otto Scharmer, and others have put it, to move large social systems in response to an emergent future.
We will need to move away from the notion of leadership study as primarily a value-neutral investigation, and claim the practice of leadership as inherently moral, cultivating a normative practice that takes into account those who suffer most.
The scope and scale of what is now asked of us will require also that we recognize the spiritual dimension of the art, a recognition that the practice of leadership in today’s world necessarily brings us to the edge of what we know and don’t know, even what we can and cannot imagine, requiring adaptive capacities forged in the alchemy of courage and humility in the face of radical Mystery.
And any serious consideration of the future of leadership, indeed, the future of life on the planet, must take full account of the looming fact of climate change—a low spectacle, high consequence reality. It is a profound adaptive challenge–requiring our ability to re-priortize our values and change our behavior–and illustrates the painful inadequacies of conventional leadership thinking. In 2009, world leaders agreed that if global temperatures rose above 2º Celsius, it would have a “catastrophic” impact on life as we have known it. That figure seems now increasingly unrealistic, and many suggest that we are on a trajectory to blow past that marker within the next fifteen years. Indeed, unless we change drastically, we could reach 4º within the following fifteen—leading to massive die-offs not just of human beings, but of almost half the non-human life on the planet as well. Clearly this is not just an “environmental” problem but includes issues of justice, governance, human resilience and ultimately the very survival of our species.
All this is known as a “wicked problem,” a problem riddled with contradictory and paradoxical dimensions, seemingly overwhelming. Climate change is pre-eminently an “adaptive challenge,” and ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, we are attempting to address it primarily with “technical” solutions—wind and solar power, electric cars, green policies, more studies—all important—but the deeper call is for adaptive responses, the management of a very steep learning process that takes into account the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of our emerging future.
It has been said that we are the first generations to know about climate disruption and the last that can do anything about it. One of the greatest challenges facing us is dealing with denial, not merely that of others but our own as well. To face the stark truth of unavoidable climate disruption is more than most of us can bear without shielding our eyes. Understandably, we turn away telling ourselves and anyone who will listen, “Oh, it won’t be that bad.”
And yet the more clearly we see the reality, the greater chance we have to clarify our deepest sense of purpose—sorting out together what is precious and what is peripheral, crafting the big questions, worthy aspirations, thereby tapping into our genuine hungers for an understanding of leadership that can meet the truth of this unparalleled moment in human history.
So effective leadership begins with asking, who has to learn what?—and who will have to lose what? What do we know about learning together? How do we manage loss and grief? How do we cultivate resilience? What do we know about moving the social field?
To begin to address these questions in the context of today’s global commons, we must be willing to examine our own biases, assumptions, and fears; we must trade our individual, heroic models of leadership for more grounded, systemic, and emergent ways of shifting the field. And to do that will require new forms of inquiry: to recognize the role of contemplation in the cultivation of self-awareness, empathy and the formation of collective intelligence, to discern the deep patterns that undergird the creative, imaginative process within individuals and communities, to risk experimentation and to learn from failure. Ultimately, the leadership we need must empower us to move the social field from familiar dysfunctional patterns and give form to more life-enhancing patterns on behalf of the common good.