Volatile! Uncertain! Complex! Ambiguous! These are the words corporations are embracing in thinking about their futures. And everyday our climate is telling us that these same forces are immune to one remedy, one method, one charismatic leader, or efforts to ‘command and control’. This is the nature of the hard problems of our time: they are densely interconnected, emotionally-charged and complex.
Climate change is one of the greatest health threats facing humanity in the 21st century and epitomises this type of an adaptive challenge. That is, it will require changes in behaviour and institutional structure, not just a technological fix. As worldwide patterns of temperature, precipitation and weather events change, the delicate balance of climate and life is disrupted, with serious impacts on food and agriculture, water sources, and health.
Historically the East coast of Australia has consistently received the highest rainfall in the country. That is changing. The east coast is drying out. So too are all the lands west of it. At the same time, more and more people crowd into the highly valued green spaces up and down the east coast. The areas that are the most fit for food production have become conglomerates of urban sprawl. Neighbourhoods compete with farmlands and they are winning. We are increasingly urbanised. In the process we have pillaged and neglected to protect our best source of agricultural and environmental sustenance, the Murray Darling River. The planet, the global community and the nation are facing a complex systemic threat.
We default to old patterns of leadership, but they are not working
In the context of what can feel like overwhelming complexity we default to old patterns and responses, but they’re not working. Traditional leadership interventions are no match for the complex environmental problems impacting the planet. We need a systemic leadership approach on the impact of climate change on the Australian environment, weather patterns and our food and water supply.
Tackling climate change complexity challenges us to go beyond usual ways of working and usual ways of leading. It challenges us to reach beyond the usual people who think like us and to engage with unusual voices. To make progress on climate change we need to engage with the full range of stakeholders. To address climate change we need to craft common ground across factional values and cultures.
Complexity requires a different way of thinking
Do we have to talk to big coal? Yes we definitely do. And to do so we need advanced skills, behaviours and an open mindset required to make progress through engaging with their competing beliefs, loyalties and interests.
It will take time, and we have wasted so much time already. But there is an urgency now as we plummet into climate change crisis. We need a different way of thinking that is as emergent as the complex set of interactions that are driving this crisis. We need to resource a diagnostic phase in which we test multiple interpretations and points of view, rather than implementing piecemeal interventions. Too many leaders are privileging economics and denying that we are in crisis.
How can we lead differently?
An adaptive framework, developed by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, provides a different lens through which we can understand the system and the competing commitments, values, beliefs and interests held by individuals and groups within the system. This framework provides new ways of exercising leadership through harnessing divergent values and interests for a shared purpose. It values the diagnostic phase of leading through complexity and promotes the testing of multiple interpretations and points of view.
We need to work with purpose to support our nation in the challenges that seem overwhelming.
Adaptive Leadership is about changing the way people think and work together when dealing with the most complex and challenging issues in their organisations and in Australian society. It is about empowering individuals to create organisational and social change by developing a strong sense of leadership purpose, responsibility beyond their authority, and the skills, capacity and resilience to operate and thrive in challenging and uncertain environments. It is about foster critical thinking, the courage to speak plainly in the face of complexity, and the capacity to accept vulnerability whilst building personal authority.
In today’s rapidly changing climate, Adaptive Leadership can be our handbook to finding stillness and meeting the demands of leadership in a complex world.