I appreciate what you said during a recent interview for Popular Science. I too want to reach the end of my days knowing “the planet’s going to be in pretty good shape” and that I helped keep it that way. But I’m afraid you’re approaching global warming as if it’s just a technical problem. You seem to be missing the critical fact that it’s also a huge adaptive challenge.
You might have learned about adaptive challenges while you were at Harvard Law School between 1988 and 1991. A few blocks away at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky were lecturing about a pattern of repeated failures and successes they detected in tough social issues. In research they found we humans tend to not make much progress on complex problems. The pattern of failures includes:
- waiting and hoping for a technical fix;
- ignoring what people may have to give up; and
- waiting for authority figures to solve the problem.
They found progress is made when people begin owning the problem, taking risks, experimenting with new ways of being, and engaging others – what Heifetz termed adaptive leadership.
Let’s think about this idea within your own life. You were a smoker once upon a time. At some point I’m sure you decided you needed to quit. You probably tried all kinds of quick and easy gimmicks – 10-step program, chewing gum, etc. You probably hoped scientists would develop a miracle cure. At some moment did you realize it wasn’t going to be easy? Did you realize part of the problem was smoking was a part of who you are? I bet you were finally successful when you accepted smoking was an adaptive challenge. The adaptive work was letting go of, psychologically, smoking cigarettes. I bet you took some risks – maybe you had to disappoint a fellow friend and smoker? You probably enlisted the help of others too.
Mr. President I support the use of science and technological innovations to reduce global warming. But sir, we can’t just count on technical fixes. We have to adapt too. We have to change the way we live and work. To do so we need your help…we need you to exhibit leadership.
If you asked, Heifetz, Linksky and the folks at the Kansas Leadership Center they might suggest you help us diagnose the situation – help us see this isn’t just a technical problem. Identify who needs to do the work (hint: it’s not just politicians and scientists). Be ready. You will get major blowback when you go down this path. We want our authority figures to tell us we can go on about our lives. We want government to make problems just go away. So get used to uncertainty and conflict. The stress could be intolerable so don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Because this is adaptive work for every human on the planet, you’re gonna have to work across many factions. You will have to give the work back to us. In adaptive challenges the people with the problem have to be part of the solution. You’ll need to dial back on the rosy talk about how innovations will save the day. Tell us what we need to hear not what we want to hear. Speak to loss – acknowledge what you, me and others may have to give up. But to make the discomfort tolerable speak from your heart. Inspire a collective purpose – a peaceful, hospitable planet for our children is an excellent place to start.
Thanks for listening Mr. President. Good luck.