The leadership we need

By Sue Pritchard

1st November 2019

"If our customers and colleagues knew what we know, what would they expect us to do?"

This was the question posed by one of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commissioners, Judith Batchelar, at a recent conference – and it has been niggling away at me ever since.

Because what (I think) ‘we’ know – by which I mean those of us with somewhat privileged access to the weight of science and evidence – is incredibly serious. And some might say we have known for a while, illustrated by this headline from the Guardian ten years ago, Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes.

This week, a new report says 300 million people living in coastal communities are at risk from rising sea levels if we don’t manage to cap global warming at 4°C above pre-industrial levels. And on our current trajectory, we won’t. Bluntly, leaders of businesses and governments around the world are failing to take the transformative actions needed, to protect this and future generations from climate and ecosystem breakdown, and the subsequent catastrophic impacts on communities around the world.

A report on the future of food, farming and the countryside might not be the place you expect to find thoughts on leadership. But the Commission is clear – we need a new version of leadership more capable of tackling the global crisis in front of us.

The Commission recognises that a new approach to leadership is now essential, which;

  • Acknowledges with humility that leaders in the past have not had all the answers – or else we would not be facing the challenges we do
  • Is genuinely curious, inquiring and open about where possible solutions might come from – not advocating more of the same
  • Collaborates with other leaders wherever they are – from the grassroots to established positions, young people and elders
  • Appreciates the importance of diversity, inviting people with different perspectives into respectful dialogue, keeping the concerns of the whole system in view
  • Focusses squarely on the actions needed, sticking with the challenge of working through real tensions and dilemmas, and
  • Learns fast, in cycles of action, reflection, learning and adaption

At the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, we talk about about convening new conversations – things like bringing leaders together from different professions and sectors to share what they know and what we can do; or citizens assemblies where people deliberate together, with the evidence they need, to work out what needs to be done; and to influence those institutions who have the power to help bring about change. We talk about some of the radical and practical actions needed, experimenting with what’s possible. And we emphasise the importance of carrying out such actions, not only to show what works, but to create momentum and give courage to leaders everywhere. Through our Commission inquiry we found inspiring examples of this all over the UK.

But what if – when “colleagues know what we know” – their response is: it’s too hard, there’s nothing I can do, other people/sectors/countries should change first…?

At our President’s Lecture last night, Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency and UK Commissioner on the Global Commission on Adaption, quoted Professor Jem Bendell, saying:

“Executives in the private, government and charity sectors all face growing frustration at the clear net impotence of our actions on climate change.”

Citing a professor of sustainability leadership might not be especially noteworthy; except that Professor Bendell is a founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum and of Extinction Rebellion. In their assessment of the evidence, they say we have already passed the tipping point where we can prevent global disruption and that “…‘stasis anxiety’ will grow as the news on extreme weather and the latest science becomes more worrying.” It is now time, they contend, to refocus people’s attention on what is really important to us. Yet, coming to terms with this can be overwhelming, likely to tip people into collective denial. I can’t tell you the number of times I’m asked: “Yes, but…are you optimistic we can fix this…?!”

The answer is: it depends…am I optimistic that we can continue with business as usual, tinker at the margins and somehow all will be well? Am I optimistic that the tech bros of Silicon Valley will save us with ‘hi tech solutions’ – or an escape plan to another planet? Am I optimistic that there’s a hero leader, wearing his pants on the outside and the Cloak of Charisma, coming over the hill to lead us all to safety? No. I’m not. There are no heroes, and no one is coming to save us. But equally I choose not to sink into the paralysis of despair. I am optimistic that enough people are starting to ask fresh questions, whose responses might equip us to deal with the world as it is, in front of us. And I am optimistic that we have what we need to craft a different path, for a fair and just transition towards a more sustainable, and regenerative future. It’s down to us. As Emma said “everyone in society – government, businesses, and individuals – needs to put the climate emergency at the heart of everything we do.”

Deep Adaptation invites us to reflect on four questions:
  • Resilience – what do we most value that we want to keep, and how?
  • Relinquishment – what do we need to let go of, so as not to make matters worse
  • Restoration – what can we bring back or rediscover to help us through these times?
  • Reconciliation – with what and whom do we need to make peace as we come to understand our mortality?

We need to make the spaces for people to come together in thoughtful conversations – and the leadership to facilitate it. Leadership that tells the truth, even when it’s hard, and a leadership that involves people everywhere, to make a plan together, with a sense of urgency, and a relentless focus on the radical and practical actions we need. In the words of Sir Ian Cheshire, change is possible, but it will take real courage – from governments, from businesses and especially from people taking up leadership in their communities.

Sue Pritchard is Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

Note: this blog was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.