Government leadership is dead

Teutonic Knights at Malbork Castle, Poland 2013.

This essay* on leadership was produced by Green Herald editor Caroline Gonzalez in May 2015, for the subject Sustainability, Governance and Leadership as part of her studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It cannot be reproduced in any form without the prior written approval of The Green Herald. *All facts were correct at the time of writing.

Arguably, nation states are playing a less prominent role in addressing major sustainability challenges than before. To effectively address these challenges, do we need much stronger leadership from nation states, or is effective leadership more likely to originate from elsewhere?

Leaders from all facets of life and history have shown great determination and courage to lead others to a place, or a future, away from major upheavals such as war, famine, and social decay. From Che Guevara to Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela, various sequences of time and place have given birth to long-lasting role models who changed the course of their countries’ history.

Today, there is a much bigger challenge that crosses borders of all countries around the world: climate change. By its very nature, climate change is not an easy beast to tame, so it would take a powerful, global force to set things right.

Climate change poses multiple challenges (National Research Council 2011 cited in Gerrard 2012) not the least of which include:

  • significant time lags in the climate system, between emissions and impacts
  • human systems take a long time to react
  • decisions affecting climate change are made at all levels of society
  • adaptation needs, risks and judgements vary widely across different contexts
  • limiting the impact of climate change requires actions on a global scale. (p.10).

Gupta (2013) points out that turbulent environments foster leaders who motivate individuals to see problems as opportunities and embrace new learning.

Who is most capable of this task today? In his book Doppelt (2010) refers to a current mantra in developed countries that ‘the era of big government is over’ (p.260), because many of the decision-making systems are outdated and inappropriate for the ground-breaking requirements of achieving sustainability. Many businesses are prepared to take risks to innovate and lead the way by example. There is compelling evidence that individuals, particularly from private sectors, have been making a difference (Young 2007, Lovell 2009, Robinson 2014)

Entrepreneurs are especially prone to taking major risks and can operate much more freely of nation states. This is the central argument of this essay: that entrepreneurs are making a major contribution in the fight to save the world from irreversible climate change because they are publicly and repeatedly spreading strong messages of mitigation that nobody else seems to be doing.

I will demonstrate that entrepreneurs are utilising transformational leadership in practical ways to lead the business world: namely by framing a public discourse and using it to harness innovation.

The failure of nation states

A nation state is defined as ‘an independent state where the population is all of one nationality’ (Macquarie Dictionary 2005). In further context for this essay, nation states are most commonly based on an interdependent network of capitalist economies with liberal values and democratic institutions (Hearn 2011). Formed as nations with an ideology of nationalism, nation states tend to be inward-looking, focused on their own culture and thus tend to have a sense of superiority over other nations (Kumar 2010).

Nation states have been signatories to a raft of major multilateral environmental agreements and frameworks. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated to mitigate ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate’ (Gerrard 2012). Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol was set up to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries that would in turn help developing countries to mitigate and adapt (p.11). In 2009, the parties met again for the annual UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen. This year the nation states will meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Conference. Two of the biggest nation states – the US and China – signed a bilateral deal last year to further cut emissions and set the international stage for negotiations in the French capital (The White House 2014).

It is completely ironic that despite all of these frameworks and conventions that greenhouse gas emissions have now reached a historical high for humankind – 400 parts per million (NASA May 7 2015).

Even in their own countries, many of these nation states have failed the very people they were elected to be serving. In the case of Australia, the Federal Government – the first country in the world to do so – scrapped the carbon tax to help lower the ‘high costs’ of running businesses and families (Liberal Party 2015). The government’s Direct Action Plan has been criticised (Hannam 2014) for being too weak to meet the major challenges ahead. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has publicly backed coal as a continuing source of energy for future decades, stating ‘coal is good for humanity’ (Massola, J et al 2014).

Clearly, something is very wrong.

The key reasons why nation states are failing in their duty to tackle the problem are multi-layered and interlinked. As Hale (2010) points out, constituents have become sceptical of political leadership, which inhibits political action. In addition governments have been afraid to enact ground-breaking changes for fear of affecting international trade markets and of losing the favour of multinational companies that provide the flow of jobs and taxes in their countries.

Politicians from nation states, and their staff, have not been exemplary. Robinson (2014) makes the note that at the UN Rio +20 Conference in Brazil, most diplomats were unaware of their own countries’ environmental laws and practices. As he clearly puts it, a lot of foreign ministries need to be ‘ecologically literate’ (p.476).

An analysis by the American Bar Association (Gerrard 2012) shows that climate change mitigation laws ‘are barely sewn together’. In addition, adaptation laws are not even that: he adds ‘there is little cloth, and the existing scraps are hardly linked’ because there are almost no international laws that exist to explicitly enact adaptation, increase resilience or reduce vulnerability to climate change (p.11).

Christoff (2013) makes the key point that the failure of nation states is based on outdated governance structures and systems that are influenced by ‘neoliberalism’ and which don’t cross boundaries of space and time – the very elements of climate change, as affecting future generations beyond all borders. Economic globalisation has allowed multinational corporations to flourish and in many cases, not be held accountable for environmental degradation that they leave in their wake. In essence, sustainable development transcends nation states (Robinson 2014). The conditions have thus been ripe for non-state actors to emerge as a new form of governance and leadership in climate change.

Transformational leadership: framing a discourse and encouraging innovation

The complexity and high-stakes nature of climate change requires an unique type of leadership. Social influence through ‘words and deeds’ is what differentiates environmental leadership from traditional leadership that is based on power and hierarchy (Egri and Herman 2000 p.572).

Egri and Herman therefore define environmental leadership as:

‘the ability to influence and mobilise organisations to realise the vision of long-term ecological sustainability. Guided by eco-centric values and assumptions, environmental leaders seek to change economic and social systems that they perceive as currently and potentially threatening the health of the biophysical environment.’ (p.572).

There are various examples of leadership in sustainability (Robinson 2014). Chiefly among them are businesses, multinational corporations, scientists and academics, citizen scientists, individuals such as conservationists and religion. Effective environmental leadership is two-fold, both internal and external. Individuals can influence internal stakeholders to follow, such as an employee who tries to get a co-worker to participate in recycling program (Portugal and Yukl 1994). There is a symbolic function to environmental leadership, where individuals demonstrate their commitment to their vision of a better way of looking after the environment by deciding to not have a car and travel by public transport (p.275).

There are various theories and concepts of environmental leadership. Integrative leadership has been defined as bringing together a diverse range of groups and organisations to foster cross-sector collaboration in solving major public problems such as global warming (Crosby and Bryson 2010). Civic leadership centres on how individuals and groups of civilians as a democratising force can rally for ‘the common good’, including the environmental movement (Chrislip and O’Malley 2013).

Sustainable governance has also been studied to show its effectiveness in transforming organisations and businesses into sustainability leaders (Doppelt 2010). Adaptive leadership has been identified as a function of complexity leadership theory (CLT) whereby interdependent agents, such as individuals or groups, work together to come up with novel and innovative solutions for adaptive needs of a system (Uhl-Bien and Marion 2009).

James MacGregor Burns (cited in Chrislip and O’Malley 2013) first identified two central different theories of leadership – transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership operates administratively usually in exchange for ‘money, status or votes’ (p.6) but without a higher purpose, whereas transformational leadership moved leaders and followers beyond day-to-day activities to ‘higher levels of motivation and morality (p.6).

I believe transformational leadership is the central type of leadership needed to transform the way the world approaches climate change. This type of leadership reflects a fundamental theory that leadership is an activity or process, as opposed to a position or an authoritative role (Chrislip and O’Malley 2013).

Egri and Herman (2000) argue that transformational leaders are needed to change the way we relate to the natural environment. It is for their ability to inspire people with their vision to follow them, to create excitement and develop fresh approaches to old problems that transformational leaders are more likely to succeed (p.575). Such leaders, especially in for-profit sectors, are ‘reform environmentalists’ and innovators who have high levels of eco-centric, self-transcendence and openness-to-change values among a diverse set of leadership skills. Such an adaptive combination – especially visioning a future – are suited to the problem of climate change that is heavily tied-up with framing the future. Portugal and Yukl (1994) refer to key environmental leadership behaviour as creating a clear, repetitive and inspiring vision, which is communicated emotively with ‘stories and slogans’ through mass-media.

Two prominent examples of this type of leadership are entrepreneurs Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk, who have both used their positions as powerful and very successful businessmen to rally other business leaders to move quickly to renewable energy sources and mitigate climate change.

Virgin Group founder and chairman Sir Richard Branson is a consummate communicator who leverages digital technology to inspire and influence the world around him. Known for thinking outside of the box, he has approximately 5.58million followers on twitter (@richardbranson 2015), where he has said that ‘communication is the most important skill any leader can possess’ (2015). In his blog (2014), Branson says that businesses should operate for both the well-being of people and the planet, not just for profit. As Portugal and Yukl (1994) point out, transformational leaders encourage people to consider the long-term implications of business decisions.

Branson publicly backed Apple CEO Tim Cook who said climate change deniers should ‘get out of the stock’ (2014), adding:

‘More businesses should be following Apple’s stance in encouraging more investment in sustainability. While Tim told sustainability sceptics to “get out of our stock”, I would urge climate change deniers to get out of our way.’

Lovell (2009) categorises Richard Branson as a corporate/business entrepreneur whose main activities are creating and growing businesses with ambitious, aspirational, creative and innovative personal characteristics (p.497). She points to a lack of government action as being the impetus for policy entrepreneurs to get out there and demonstrate what can be achieved. Branson has set up the Carbon War Room with eight other founders, to generate $1trillion of investment by matching profitable carbon reduction technologies with eco-centric entrepreneurs who want to tap into the economic opportunities (Carbon War Room 2015).

Further along the path is SpaceX CEO, Telsa electric motors and Solarcity entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who repeatedly spreads his message of a clean energy future. He personifies the different type of thinking required for tackling major sustainability challenges such as climate change.

Musk, who has 2.1 million followers on twitter (@elonmusk 2015), has expressed concerns at the lack of speed of global innovation to replace fossil-fuel dependent transportation (All in MNSBC 2014). While he acknowledges the legacy of a ‘trillion’ dollars worth of global fossil-fuel based infrastructure is difficult to change quickly, he says there should be a price on carbon to help transform the market to one that pays the real price for emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Musk has also encouraged people to see lack of action on climate change as a crazy experiment (Koebler 2015):

‘If we know we have to get off oil no matter what, we know that is an inescapable outcome, why run this crazy experiment of changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans by adding enormous amounts of CO2 that have been buried since the Precambrian Era? That’s crazy. That’s the dumbest experiment in history, by far.’

By framing the problem in a novel way, Portugal and Yukl (1994) argue, transformational leaders encourage creative and innovative solutions environmental problems.

As Blewitt (2008) explains, successful environmental leadership creates a public dialogue or discourse that challenges opposing views and starts a conversation. Such leaders, who are usually passionate about the subject, encourage ‘flexibility and creativity in thought and expression’ (p.243).

In the unveiling of Telsa’s new Powerwall Home battery – a stationery battery that can power a whole house – Musk said transitioning the world to clean energy was within reach (Russell 2015):

‘This is within the power of humanity to do. It is not impossible, it is something we can do. But there’s going to (need to) be other companies involved.’

Clearly, Musk is trying to rally other businesses to follow his lead on a clean energy vision. As Seyranian (2014) notes, inclusive language has been proven to generate followers and support of renewable energy.

Additionally, Blewitt (2008) says being open to radically different approaches to thinking and operating in the world, such as open source computer software, could be a useful form of environmental leadership. Elon Musk’s electric car and battery company, Telsa, has an open-source policy of its patents, to encourage other companies to develop cars that run on clean energy (Russell 2015).

Entrepreneurs – such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk – are best placed to harness the opportunistic nature of transformational and strategic leadership because they are constantly breaking new ground away from the old, fossil-fuel technologies. Gupta reminds us (2013) that strategic leadership supports sustainable development when it harnesses the ‘entrepreneurial discovery of market knowledge’, coordinates this knowledge and then works to fill the gaps in the market of today with that needed in the future (p.223). It is also an adaptive function of leadership, to create opportunities for innovation and new knowledge while creating a sense of urgency (Meijerink and Stiller 2013). Such leaders create a compelling and practical narrative that cannot be ignored.


Communicating a vision of where we want to be, and getting people to follow, is at the heart of mitigating and adapting to climate change. The principle of creative tension (Senge 1990) – seeing the destination clearly, framing the current reality succinctly, and having a strong vision – all perfectly fit the purpose. The energy of change in this context comes from grasping the vision and what we want to create (p.9), with the reality comfortably sitting in the passenger seat. Unfortunately, nation states just don’t seem to be on board. It’s as if a whole lot of passengers got on board while they dithered on the subject. All around us in the world are examples of people, organisations and individuals working to ensure the future world that generations inherit is not the one that unabated climate change will create. As Elon Musk says, ‘this is within the power of humanity to do.’



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