To Lead, Understand Others

I love my children. Like most everyone, I want a healthy planet so our children might live healthy, fulfilling lives. And their children, their children’s children and so forth. This post is the 3rd in a series dedicated to exploring how we might close the gap between the current reality and our aspirations.

Adaptive challenges are issues that require people let go of something that has worked for them in order to make room for new, necessary ways of being. Our most common examples include slavery, voter and workers’ rights, and now environmental degradation or the Anthropocene. The first step in tackling an adaptive challenge is to diagnose the situation. In diagnosis we identify various players, factions, tribes, user groups, etc. involved in the issue. We strive to understand the status quo, cultural norms, default interpretations, and behaviors. We do so to understand what they value and fear losing.

In the Webinar, Leopold, Leadership and You, Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren touched on how Aldo Leopold attempted to diagnose adaptive conservation challenges in his time. They reflected upon his interactions with co-workers, supervisors, various scientists, native Americans, Anglo and Hispanic ranchers, farmers, hunters and anti-hunters as he sought to understand their hopes and fears. According to Meine, “…Leopold is always looking for common ground…where the overlaps of interest are…how to lift people up from their special interest to the common interest or the common good, the public interest.” On the issue of wilderness protection, Warren echoed that observation remarking, “…he would come up with ways to try and present the fact that these two interests actually shared this common ground, and that common ground was the land itself.”

Aldo Leopold visits with Wisconsin farmers. Image courtesy of Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold visits with Wisconsin farmers. Image courtesy of

We have an advantage Leopold would have appreciated. Decades of research, particularly supported by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (and summarized in The Principles of Adaptive Leadership) have identified patterns inherent in progress on adaptive challenges. Here are three common techniques to help us diagnose a complicated issue:

Get on the Balcony. During meetings and discussions among factions make careful observations about the players. Imagine being on a balcony and observing. Being on the balcony allows you to see how people are reacting to each other and to you. Are the players truly listening to each other? To you? What triggers excitement and anger for each player?

Identify Cultural Norms. Notice the default behaviors of the various players to understand how they may react to various proposed solutions. What is the folklore for the group? Do they hold up the words of someone who lived long ago to justify their position? What are their rituals when interacting with various players? Are there factions that have similar behaviors but different interests?

Listen to the Song Beneath the Words. Pay close attention to what is not being said. Watch for non-verbal clues given by the players when you and others are speaking. Do you detect insincerity? Is eye contact avoided when certain subjects surface? Is humor inserted quickly after a serious comment is made? Making note of what’s just under the surface can help us uncover the real sources of resistance.

In addition, we should earn enough trust and rapport that the players tolerate our questions (imagine Leopold kicking dirt with those Wisconsin farmers). Invest time in finding common ground and developing relationships. After awhile we might begin asking probing diagnostic questions. The Kansas Leadership Center offers some good diagnostic questions, and I’ve added my twist in parentheses:

  • What’s our (your) story about what’s going on?
  • What story do we (you) imagine others are telling?
  • What aspirations do we (you) have related to this issue?
  • What needs to change to reach those aspirations?
  • What values might be in conflict here?
  • What processes need to be created to address this challenge?
  • What factions are involved with this issue? What does each value?
  • For real change to happen, who has to work on this? Who else?

In adaptive challenges we need to grasp the positions and alliances of the groups involved. For each stakeholder we must understand their desired outcome; how might they be affected by proposed solutions; what degree of power do they hold; what thing do they fear losing; with whom do they share interests? If we slowly bring out each players’ piece of the mess, we can help them identify adaptation strategies.

Regarding the ultimate adaptive challenge Leopold described as, “…living on a piece of land without spoiling it,” how might we begin diagnosing the situation? Below I lay out some diagnostic questions and, searching the internet, provide possible responses or positions from just a few factions involved in this global adaptive challenge.

What’s the story members of the United Nations are telling? And what aspirations do they have for the Earth’s future?

From the United Nations Environment Programme:

The most dramatic and pervasive example of how we have come to dominate our planet is climate change, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally linked to CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In its latest report, the IPCC warns that failure to reduce emissions could exacerbate food insecurity and result in the flooding of major cities and entire island nations. This could cause further refugee crises, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a drastically altered climate that might change life as we know it today for hundreds of millions of people. All of these impacts are being propelled, to a large extent, by our current linear economic system: we extract, produce, consume, and discard. This has provided some with an opulent lifestyle, but continues to exact a great environmental toll on the planet.

Chinese youngster scavenges in a landfill.

Chinese youngster scavenges in a landfill. Image courtesy of

The aspirations for the United Nations Environment Programme might best be summarized in its mission statement: “To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.”

Conversely what is the story the Energy & Environment Legal Institute is telling? And what aspirations do they have for the Earth’s future?

According to their Web site:

The Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal) is a 501(c)(3) organization engaged in strategic litigation, policy research, and public education on important energy and environmental issues.  Primarily through its strategic litigation efforts, E&E Legal seeks to address and correct onerous federal and state governmental actions that negatively impact energy and the environment.  E&E Legal advocates responsible resource development, sound science, respect for property rights, and a commitment to markets as it holds accountable those who seek excessive and destructive government regulation that’s based on agenda-driven policy making, junk science, and hysteria.

What needs to change to reach those aspirations?

There is a lot of information related to change proposed by the UN and EELI that I encourage you to explore but here I provide just a glimpse.

Here’s what members of the UNEP have agreed to:

When addressing current and future social, economic, and environmental challenges that are facing the planet there is now an established consensus that these challenges are interlinked and must be addressed through an integrated approach. The environment, along with social and economic factors, must play an important role when aiming to achieve truly sustainable development on a global scale. Only through integration of the three dimensions will it be possible to achieve the transformative change required to secure long-term human and environmental well-being.

And here’s the change desired by E&E Legal:

E&E Legal was founded in 2010 under a different name [American Tradition Institute] to promote free market environmentalism, and it has enjoyed tremendous success for a small organization. Hard-core environmentalist activists like the Natural Resources Defense Council have been highly effective for years in utilizing the court system to enact policy, affect change, and generate significant exposure for their cause.  The same opportunities exist for those who advocate a free-market approach, and we have an impressive track record in the courts despite being significantly overmatched by those promoting more regulation, and government-based solutions.  In September 2013, E&E Legal’s Board of Directors voted to refine its focus primarily to the area of strategic litigation, and to change its name in order to reflect more accurately its work in the legal arena.

What current values might be in conflict?

Perhaps values that are in conflict include free market principles versus environmental sustainability and self-determination versus communal interests. With 7 billion of us living, collectively, an unsustainable lifestyle what kind of planet will we leave behind for the 9 billion anticipated to be alive in 2050? Can we fulfill our immediate desires for goods and services without jeopardizing our children’s basic needs? Or must we separate want from need?

Speaking directly to one possible conflict of values, on September 28, 2015 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that he and President Obama both value, “…an uncompromising commitment on climate change without affecting our ability to meet the development aspirations of humanity.” I wonder if the Prime Minister truly believes these two values can be pursued and accomplished without compromise?

Family in Juanga India. Image courtesy of

Family in Juanga India. Image courtesy of

What processes need to be created to address symptoms of the Anthropocene?

Governments have created international processes such as the United Nations Environment Programme with its goals and objectives but it seems they have failed to involve the people with the problem and encourage them be a part of the solution. What holding environments have been created to stimulate much-needed dialogue among the many factions? Are the world’s authority figures willing to tell us what we don’t want to hear? Have they placed the work where it belongs? Are they willing to admit they don’t have the answers but they will help us search for them together? Are they willing to protect voices of dissent? Without conducting their own diagnoses, it’s likely governments will fail to understand what they are asking people to give up and will fail to help them adapt.

What major players are involved and what do they value?

Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a major player in this adaptive challenge. He is a senior authority figure providing direction, protection and order for approximately 1.25 billion people or 1 out of 7 people on Earth. Here’s what he said on October 8, 2015:

As Christians we wish to offer our contribution towards overcoming the ecological crisis which humanity is living through.  Therefore, first of all we must draw from our rich spiritual heritage the reasons which feed our passion for the care of creation, always remembering that for believers in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man for us, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” (cfr Encylical Letter. Laudato Si, 216). The ecological crisis therefore calls us to a profound spiritual conversion: Christians are called to “an ecological conversion whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.” (ibid., 217). Thus, “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”(ibid)

Pope Francis' tablet on Creation Care. Image courtesy of

Pope Francis’ commandments for Creation Care. Image courtesy of

Who has to work on this? Who else?

Obviously the authority figures representing many of the global states believe they are working on this adaptive challenge. But who else should? Who else owns a piece of the mess? You and me. When Pope Francis’ recent call for creation care comes up in conversations with your friends what are their responses? What is not said? What probing questions could you ask? If you’ve never had a conversation about the future of the planet with others, why not? What would it take to get you to do so?

Thank you for following along. If something in this post resonates with you (or troubles you), weigh in and share your response with others. And as always I encourage comments, questions and observations.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
This entry was posted in Adaptive Leadership, Anthropocene, Leadership, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to To Lead, Understand Others

  1. jenkatwork says:

    Jimmy- thank you for continuing to explore provocative and thoughtful questions on the blog. I really like the series of questions provided by the Kansas Leadership Center as a framework for thinking about how we tackle environmental issues. I think the last question, particularly the “who else” portion, is especially critical. After all, what hope do we have of advancing Leopold’s land ethic if it is not inclusive and collaborative?

    • cognizantfox says:

      Thanks for your comment and question Jen. I’d like to explore the “who else” piece in further detail. I’m not very good at reaching out to unusual voices in this issue – the people who have something to lose yet their voice likely goes unheard or is not solicited. Unsolicited voices might be those representing opposition to advancing a land ethic or who I believe would be antagonistic. I also need to find a way to speed up the process. Building relationships with unusual voices to a point where I feel comfortable broaching a potential controversial topic takes me way too long!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s