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Reinventing Leadership to Create a Prosperous Post-Anthropocene Age

By Priti Ambani and Juhi Shareef

From sustainability to regeneration

The new decade dawned with fires raging across Australia. There was no doubt that we were already in the midst of an environmental crisis with this decade becoming a decisive one to act on climate change and biodiversity loss.

We are now in the midst of a health crisis, an economic crisis, and an environmental crisis despite years of ‘corporate sustainability’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’.

These crises are not unrelated. The World Health Organization acknowledges that “increasing human pressure on the natural environment may drive disease emergence.” COVID-19 has shrunk the ten years the world had to address climate change to no more than 18 months, according to the United Nations lead negotiator for the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres, as key decisions about the $10-$20 trillion being spent around the world in economic recovery packages lock us into our next carbon trajectory. We have a window to ensure this funding is invested in a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy that doesn’t just sustain the status quo, but rather regenerates our environment and society.

The needs of people and demands of commerce are misaligned with the capacity of the planet. We need to make systemic shifts to a new, regenerative model that brings alignment between ecological, economic and social systems.

If leaders are not actively working at pace to improve society and the environment, they are part of the problem. We need to fundamentally reinvent leadership in order to create our new future.

New leadership fundamentals: integrity and long-termism

We cannot undo environmental, ecological and societal degradation with the same thinking (or people) that created it in the first place. We need innovation thinking that moves from simply viability, desirability and feasibility to one that includes integrity. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig observed, “If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.”

It is time for leaders who think in, and promote, legacy systems to make way for others.

The challenge will be persuading leaders to give up positions of power. If you are in a leadership role that simply benefits from the status quo – for example: over 60 years old, white, male, and in a North American corporate leadership role – it is time to do some deep reflection.

The great transition

Great disruption requires great transition: a move from the current high-carbon economy to a low-carbon, regenerative economy will require clear transition strategies, execution plans and realignment of resources and incentives.

We need a shift to mindsets, policies, methodologies, practices, tools and frameworks that will transition us to new prosperous futures. This will require concerted action and courage on the part of leaders in government, institutions and businesses alike. Let’s not forget that citizens – and our young people – can be leaders too.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales, UK, requires public institutions in Wales to embed future thinking and long-term impact in policy decisions. These must help people and communities thrive not just in the near term, convenient political cycles but must create thriving futures for future generations by tackling wicked problems like poverty, wealth divides, biodiversity depletion and climate change in the here and now.

Walking backwards into the future:

Tackling the enormous issues of our times requires multi-dimensional thinking, taking into account growing social inequity. We need to look to our indigenous communities for their wisdom about local ecosystems and indigenous “TEK” (Traditional Ecological Knowledge), such as the living root bridges that last for hundreds of years, withstanding floods and landslides, created by the Khasi and Jaintia peoples in India.

We need to not only respect but actively follow the values and principles of indigenous thinking. We need to make space for indigenous leadership such as leadership from first nations, or Māori, whose proverb “Ka mua, ka muri,” walking backwards into the future states that we should look to the past to inform the future.

Put simply, in order to lead into a better world, we need to follow.

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