Leadership is About the Distribution of Loss

This piece appeared originally in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on January 24, 2015. Students of adaptive leadership may pick up on themes like “distribution of loss,” “disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate,” and “people with the problem have to be the people with the solution.” Those familiar with Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory may notice some themes from the book in the situation described. While the adaptive challenge I discuss is cleaning up air pollution, the story is applicable to other environmental or conservation issues. As you read this you may imagine similarities to issues in your own community or workplace where there isn’t a single charismatic person leading others but a small group of dedicated, courageous people.

For almost a decade our community has been in conflict over dangerous concentrations of wood smoke pollution in the winter. We are suffering from mental, financial and physical harm arising from big heating bills and smoke particles themselves. In this struggle three groups emerged early. The first group – the hands-on group – suffered from dirty air or wanted to prevent that harm. The second group – the hands-off group – sensed a threat to their financial well-being from efforts to clean the air. The third group – the sideline group – chose to focus on other things. Today as more members of the third group join the conversation the tension has eased.

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

They say the world is run by those who show up. Our community needs people that have been on the sideline to get involved. If you breathe air and heat your home, now is the time to get involved because the Assembly is considering changes to reduce air pollution. Recent examples from other states suggests clean air and harmony will eventually be restored. But with such terrible pollution we need to pick up the pace. We can if more people leave the sideline and engage in the conversation.

In Missoula Montana residents were in gridlock over dirty air. In the beginning there were few who saw the need to put burn rules in place. Hands-on advocates and the hands-off folks were bitterly divided. But over time members of the sideline group became involved. These folks identified with some of the values and biases held by the opposing groups. They accepted there was a problem and that solutions were needed. They helped early members of both groups accept the compromises that would be necessary to achieve harmony and cleaner air.

Kids have a voice too.

Kids have a voice too.

Our community’s reaction to dirty air has, thus far, been normal. In the beginning members of the hands-on group asked members of the hands-off group to adapt too quickly. Any quick and cheap remedy that involved sacrifice from them was off the table. Fear of loss drove the hands-off group to the ballot box. The clean air group was in disbelief. Their bright ideas to clean the air weren’t so bright to some. Predictably the pollution grew worse.

As the problem grew more people from the sideline group took notice. Less certain about the problem and possible solutions they sought to understand all perspectives. After listening and learning they had sympathy for the hands-off group but recognized change was needed. Over time comments from the hands-off group changed from refusal that wood smoke is harmful to what are the most fair ways to clean the air. Likewise, the hand-on group has shifted more to the middle recognizing there is a place for wood burning if done responsibly. The recent public meeting was evidence we’re coming together. Looking at how our community is adapting to the idea of cleaning the air one might surmise we’ve reached the tipping point. In fact after several years, voters decided the hands-off approach hadn’t worked. We’re at the point where a majority agree there is a problem and rules that are fair to burners and breathers are needed.

Messages painted from the heart... for the lungs.

Messages painted from the heart… for the lungs.

Soon, perhaps on January 29th, our local government representatives in the Borough Assembly will decide if and how we can clean the air. By adopting a plan they admit will not meet clean air standards, the State of Alaska has placed the ball in the Assembly’s court. The pressure is on us, through our representatives, to protect ourselves from dirty air, cold temperatures and financial burdens in a manner that the majority deems fair. If ever there was a time for members of the sideline group to get involved, it’s now. If you’ve not been involved I urge you to see yourself as a member of the majority for clean air and warm homes. Listen to all opinions. Ask questions. Study how other communities handled their air pollution problem. Be ready to change your mind. And then share your thoughts with your representatives in the Assembly.

History has shown that in the midst of conflict a majority of people finally do come together to clean up their air. Our moment has arrived. I hope you’ll join the conversation and become a part of our community’s history.

They say leadership is risky business. It requires mobilizing others for some purpose without getting yanked from the dance floor. What is your purpose and what do you dance on the edge of your formal…or informal…authority for? 


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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2 Responses to Leadership is About the Distribution of Loss

  1. Iaato says:

    Nice one! The most interesting thing to me about the smoke in Fairbanks is the impact of a high-energy lifestyle (relatively large population trying to heat (some) relatively large houses with indoor plumbing) on an extreme environment. Less heat, thus less wind to send the pollution on its way elsewhere. Shorter food chains and less diversity–generally less energy in the system, so impacts are greater, pollution is more immediately visible, and the system is more vulnerable, less resilient. Yet the message we get as humans from Outside and from our fossil fuel-based culture is that we can all live a first-world lifestyle (including Red Lobster!), no matter what part of the biosphere we live in.

  2. cognizantfox says:

    Thanks for the reply! There have been examples of leadership on the issue of sustainability in the community at the local government level. Energy efficiency has certainly been a recurring theme in the discussions. A few homeowners have 10,000 gallon or larger buried, insulated water tanks that house water heated with solar in the summer. The heated water is used to heat the home during the winter with the occasional wood fire in a masonry stove. Living a lifestyle more suitable to the environment has become more common. The number of local farmers is growing including one business that provides microgreens to the hospital year-round. There is growing awareness of how vulnerable the 100,000 souls are with just a few days supply of food available on a given day in the winter.

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