By Jennifer Roney, Sustainability Circle Coach, REV

In a recent Greenbiz article, “4 traits that define the next generation of climate leaders,” Laura Storm identifies the qualities that will be needed to address the very urgent challenge of climate change, highlighting the failure of our current leaders to respond appropriately. She posits that it will be up to a new generation of leaders to address this need for climate leadership and proposes that those leaders will need empathy, bottom-up leadership, commitment to bold action no matter who gets credit (collaborative leadership), and disruption of dysfunctional systems to address the challenge. This article got me thinking about how we are framing the issue and the solution.

First, I agree with Laura Storm that there is a need for a “next generation” but I don’t agree that they need to be “young.” Age is not the issue; it is the type of thinking that needs to change. We need all ages and experience levels to tackle this problem. It just happens that many of those that are invested deeply in the old ways of thinking are also leaders in the traditional sense right now and they are older. This leads to her point about collaboration. Collaboration needs to occur across generations as well.

ChaosLiving on the Edge of Chaos

I also agree with Storm’s assertion that change requires the “disruption of dysfunctional systems.” But what she neglects to follow up with is that disrupting old patterns requires that we live at the edge of chaos until the new patterns emerge — an idea that comes out of complexity theory. We are clearly living at the edge of chaos right now in many regards. It is a place where “the components of the system never quite lock into place, yet never quite dissolve in chaos, either.” (Waldrop, 1992). This is the place where great innovation and paradigm shifting can occur.

I once had a leader who was undergoing tremendous organizational change in post-communist Poland tell me that when you clean the house, you make an enormous mess first. The mess we deal with now is the fear and sometimes anger that comes from the uncertainty that change presents. Addressing climate change requires we use less water, new and multiple sources of energy, and empower people to think and behave differently. Making this shift throws the balance off.

Those who based their business model on a plentiful supply of fossil fuels will fight against the science, as we have seen. Water and power companies that make money selling “more” are fearful of what the change might mean for jobs and profits. Environmental and other advocacy groups, faced with the fear of the future the science predicts, are pushing harder and faster for change. The rest of us are plagued with competing messages, dueling experts and inadequate structures (legal, economic, social) to handle the required changes.

Moving through uncertainty

Our structures are stretched, but they are not yet crumbling. New technologies and innovations are emerging, both those that are coming from traditional players but also from the prolific entrepreneurial class. As a society we are uneasy and often frustrated but not in utter despair. Thus, we are at the edge of chaos. Things are clearly changing but the old systems continue to function as new ones emerge to take their place.

To me this means that regarding climate change leadership we are likely to be uncomfortable for a while as we engage in the dance between old and new, competition and cooperation, balance and instability. We will require that empathy Laura Storm talks about to support us through the uncertainty.

Finally, I am wondering what this means for us at REV and beyond. I’m sure the answer lies in reminding ourselves that we and our Sustainability Circle participants are writing the next chapter, and that we all need to develop the capacity to deal with our immediate challenges while leaving room for the emergence of new patterns of behavior and thinking.

I think young and older alike are open to these new patterns if they are given an opportunity to see them. From my perspective as a coach, I believe that REV is providing a unique opportunity to open a window to these new patterns through the eyes of fellow Circle participants, our experts and through the synergies that we develop throughout the Circle process.