The ecological challenge is a leadership challenge

There is hardly any company now that does not talk about ESG and sustainability, and yet, the feeling is that no advancements are actually being made. What is standing in the way?

by Christian Schneider

Steven Kamenar / Unsplash

Environment 11 March 2024

How does a leadership tradition rooted in power and control affect our response to social innovation and climate change? Fear of the consequences of continuing to ignore our impact on climate change, coupled with growing unease with existing structures and systems, from organizations to governments, is being clearly expressed by various groups, especially the younger generations. Some rely on laws, rules, and regulations to guide their actions, but beyond those activists, there are many forms of support, from vocal advocacy to silent understanding. In response to this widespread awareness, governments are introducing new sustainability and accessibility regulations. Consulting firms are posting their ESG credentials on their websites, and companies are trying to address this societal concern with equity initiatives and greenwashing. However, many of these efforts are short-term rather than substantial interventions to drive meaningful change. What is standing in the way?


The feel after the facts

Simply put, top-down, imposed leadership can’t control those bottom-up movements. Once a tipping point is reached, people’s thoughts, feelings, and desires can have a powerful impact. For far too long, systemic changes have been minimal while individuals have been asked to make sacrifices. This has played into the hands of those who have continued with business as usual, whether because of the difficulty to change or for the sheer advantage of doing so. Now we have reached a point where our happiness is at stake. What can we desire when rivers run dry and we fear yet another, even hotter summer? How do we cope with growing uncertainty while our trust in leadership is evaporating?

We are no longer in a situation where raising awareness is enough; we must now confront substantial changes that affect our lives. We are used to controlling our environment, using a lot of energy to heat our homes in winter and cool them in summer. But now we have lost control: even our solar panels are made in China.

In our organizations, the desire to dominate, control, and enjoy ourselves individually or within limited groups is waning. Self-centric, frontal leadership approaches that use any contribution to validate their principles and ideas are running out of fuel. We can observe the inability to accept and integrate diverse perspectives, almost always viewed as threats to one’s own ideas and identity. Nostalgia is used to justify maintaining power and control. But there is also a paradox: change is needed to maintain a struggling system. For example, we need immigration to sustain our economies, which are suffering from demographic change. To go on with the same, we need others.


Illustration by Francesca Ragazzi

Arising new leadership

The key challenge is integration, not to be confused with adaptation. Focusing on how someone new does not fit into an established system is not productive. Instead, it would be wiser to see how we can benefit from new perspectives. It is a misconception that immigrants have lower levels of education than the national workforce and a fact that, for instance, in NYC most local small businesses are owned by immigrants, often without the necessary paperwork.

In our large systems, we lead with democracy. People are free to speak their minds, but many struggle to do what they excel at. Initiatives are contrasted with perfectionism and claims of tradition and experience. Very few know how difficult this becomes when you add the bureaucracies of different systems to overcome. We are forced into a new mold, whether clearly structured or invisible. Emerging new international business units facilitated by remote working and HR departments that must comply with DEI and ESG regulations now face the challenge of contrasting structures and new ways of collaborating.

Diversity can drive innovation. In design-driven innovation processes, we cultivate a leadership approach that is comfortable with uncertainty. Rather than focusing solely on achieving numerical goals, we first create a space for diverse contributions and then codify the input received instead of presenting ideas and taking everyone along. The principles of Transversal Strategic Design aim to engage diverse contributions and uncover opportunities by connecting each project to diverse people, analog realities, broad networks, and ecosystems.

Here, the value of cultural content and diversity is the engine that drives the quality of any project and its integration into our systems and environments. The interaction of different thought and behavior patterns is always enriching and forms the basis for any innovation process.


A desire for the new

The overdue next step towards a democratic way of living and working together would be to advance from freedom of speech to free and independent contributions from everyone. What we do and how we do it speaks louder than many words — which can be influenced by manipulation, bias, and categorization. In 2006, the UN defined “the right to remain distinct.” It would be a good time to implement this right by turning it into an opportunity.

We can benefit from a syncretistic approach and open up to what is different from where we come from and are used to working with. Instead of clinging onto “the way we’ve always done it” or insisting that “we know how it works best,” we can design flexible, adaptive frameworks that allow leeway. We can make decision-making processes transparent and connect them to communication models to enhance efficiency. We can boost our innovation and competitiveness by taking bottom-up approaches. We can strengthen our economy by reversing an elitist approach and not only letting in but listening to those that have been excluded from the game.

Culture drives the economy, and different cultures can enrich the economic landscape if there is both a framework and the leeway that allows individual contributions.

Local understanding and knowledge can offer unique perspectives and bear great potential — if they connect. Communicating diverse approaches leads to mutual enrichment, engagement, and catalysis. In contrast, selective integration into a uniform, static system inevitably leads to exclusion. Our future could benefit from the interaction of diverse cultural contents and knowledge, such as how to adapt to extreme climatic conditions.