As a professional working on climate change, you may find yourself faced with an uncomfortable challenge - people are looking at you, probably paying you, to present them with your expertise and to 'deal with' or 'address' the problem - yet, we are operating in a field where easy answers are hard to come by.
If they were - well, we probably wouldn't be in this situation.
There are various possible responses to this.
One of them is elaborating on the problem. If we can firm up the data around the problem, if we can create a BASELINE before we move on to actions, if we can make a solid assessment of where we're at so we at least know what we're dealing with - all those things can't be a bad idea. And they make perfect sense.
The second possible response is RESEARCH. We can commission reports and investigations in what other people, elsewhere, have so far firmed up and found out and create a solid overview for ourselves as to what our possible options for responses are. As complex as the topic matter may be, there have been plenty of good people working on this for quite some time. Getting an overview of best practice is - of course - also a good idea.
A third potential pathway is to start with the obvious. We know what some of the elephants in the room are that we have to tackle: our in-house carbon emissions. Our transport fleet. The energy efficiency of our buildings. Maybe even our own ISO certifications. What falls under BEST PRACTICE or into the 'it would be rude and hypocritical not to' category is also an pretty straight forward approach. And we need to look at that.
And then, there's the unfortunately still so important task of creating AWARENESS around the problem. The lobbying, the endless meetings and conversations with internal and external stakeholders to ensure everyone really understands the complexity, depth and breadth of the problem and in some way shape or form makes it their own. In fact, a very recent survey by Oxygen Consulting has found that sustainability professionals spent 60% of their time influencing and only 40% of time implementing.
All of that together is enough to keep you more than busy, particularly considering that your team - and your budget - were probably already too small before COVID - let alone now.
It is also a very solid recipe for frustration and despair.
Because here is the thing: While we're doing all this important work around getting a better understanding of the problem, of figuring out where we're at and creating a baseline and keeping an eye on the rapid developments around the world in this area and working on our next annual report or strategy - all the while running around championing and cheering (and sometimes, let's be honest: pleading) - the clock doesn't stop. We're still burning fossil fuels at the highest rate in human history and despite all of our hard work, we're barely managing to make a dent. Meanwhile, the feedback loops are accelerating and every passing day the permafrost may be melting a little bit more, releasing that little bit more methane that - at scale - may well outweigh our hard earned CO2 reductions if only we were able to accurately measure all of that.
It can drive you crazy (and yes, I've got an article about that coming as well).
But what can you do?
Here's an idea (and it may be a bit uncomfortable).
Ask (the right) questions.
The reason why this may be uncomfortable is because as the hired expert, you have skin in the game. People are paying you for answers and solutions, right - not to have a hypothetical conversation?
It's critical to provide solutions - as far as possible, see above.
But what if we're missing something major, something essential? What if we are actually a bit too much like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights? What if we were able to stop running if we could just easily skip sideways to get away from that beam?
The big question that is missing from all of this is: WHAT DO WE WANT?
As in: What do we REALLY want?
Aside from all the climate data, the uncertainty, the resistance, the budget constraints... we have to ask beyond the surface.
Yes, we want to reduce our carbon emissions (do we? Or is it a SHOULD?)
But what for? What do we really want? And why?
Truth is: reducing carbon is B-O-R-I-N-G (at least for most people). It's uninspiring. And it's inconvenient and, likely, expensive. So no wonder we're dragging our feet.
Yet, there's another truth - and that is, that, when given the opportunity, NONE of us wants to knowingly and willingly f*ck up our collective planetary future. None of us want to take away our grand children's chance to THRIVE. We just by way of cognitive dissonance accept that as a collective outcome of our combined activity which we feel powerless about. The tragedy of the commons.
Yet, what we really WANT are all good things, at the end of the day: make sure everyone is doing well, is looked after. At least those around us. We just happen to have chosen an unfortunate strategy and now we're caught in it's trajectory.
The uncomfortable thing is this: if we as sustainability leaders can hold off the solutions for long enough and dig deep enough to uncover the REAL answers to those questions, we may well find that we can enroll everyone else really EASILY into coming up with entirely new strategies to achieve those goals.
While we were focusing on the 'REDUCTION TARGET' we forgot that that's not ACTUALLY the target.
The target is wellbeing. The target is LIFE. The target is taking our kids for a walk in the mountains on the weekend and still seeing wildlife abound. The target is to MATTER. To be surrounded by people we love, to experience community and belonging. The target is to contribute something of meaning, to be remembered. The target is to feel SAFE and SECURE. The target is to ENJOY and appreciate life.
And for your organisation as a collective - isn't there a similar target? Yes, it may look like it's all about shareholder return - but how much deeper can we dig? What does that actually mean? How many ways are there to achieve that? And how do those returns EMBED into the rest of the world? When was the last time we have had that conversation with the individuals - the PEOPLE - concerned - and really heard WHY we need those returns? What are the dreams that fuel this requirement? What do they REALLY WANT?? What do WE really want?
In amongst all the busy work (which, yes, is important too) - don't neglect asking the right questions.
As humans we are wired to focus on the problem. It's what has kept us alive. It was the ancestors that walked through the jungle and looked out for tigers instead of smelling the flowers that lived long enough to reproduce.
But our human progress was always fueled by the dreamers. The visionaries. The people who created the invisible and made it visible. The people who asked "What else is there?" "How could this be made better?" "What do we want instead?" "What is the right thing to do?" - and kept asking until the answers came.
And the most powerful answers come from our collective genius, from our shared creativity and ingenuity - if we can manage to draw our minds away from the problem for long enough to engage that other side of our brain.
We can't create a great future if we can't imagine it first.
As leaders today, we have to lead with, love and embrace the questions.
What the result of this will be? - I don't know. That's my point.
Natalie works with sustainability leaders and change makers on maximizing their impact, increasing their influence and maintaining their sanity as leaders of the most important transition in human history. You can connect with her via email@example.com or www.imaginal.co.nz
Disclaimer: I do not know Jacinda Ardern personally - nor have I ever had the opportunity to speak with her (as much as I'd love to). This piece reflects my own observations, projections (there, I said it!) and opinions (that's different from facts!), not those of Jacinda Ardern or the Labour party. - I just hope she'd agree.
So I'm told never discuss taxes, politics or religion - well - here goes....
Last night the New Zealand Labour party, led by Jacinda Ardern, received a landslide result and a largely unprecedented mandate to continue governing this small country of New Zealand, way down at the bottom of the earth. To those who have followed the polling and public discourse over the last few months, the election results were not necessarily surprising, but possibly unexpected in their magnitude.
Once the results firmed up around the 49% mark - resulting in an absolute majority of parliamentary seats - it was time for Jacinda Ardern to address her party - and her country.
Jacinda Ardern's victory speech - well crafted as always - may, however, have communicated more non-verbally than what was actually said.
Unlike what we may have expected, who entered the stage was not a fist pumping, victory-sign-flashing politician on a dopamine high (imagine Donald in this scenario!) but an unpretentious, understated young woman with a mix of elation and concern written onto her face.
During the first part of her speech, despite the overwhelming success and victory, Jacinda Ardern seemed tired and somewhat exhausted, underneath the well controlled mannerisms and carefully crafted words. Explainable, of course, by the obvious demands of being on the 'campaign trail' for the last few weeks and months while fighting a global pandemic and - incidentally - ridding New Zealand of the virus for the third time in the process. Let alone raising a small child at the same time (which is enough to exhaust most of us).
But maybe there was more to it than that.
Through the words, I felt like I could glimpse a part of her that may have secretly been wishing for a different outcome, one that would have sent her to the opposition bench and thus out of politics - free to spend time with her precious daughter and family. As a mother, I would by no means be surprised - although I may well be projecting.
And, maybe, a part of her that may be wishing she did not have to step out to slay the dragon.
Of course this is not who she is and it is obvious that our "team of 5 million" is in need and desire of her attention and focus. So even though that part of her may well exist - there was never a question she's step up and stay committed to job at hand, 100%.
Aside from the obvious though, I wonder if there was another level of exhaustion. The exhaustion of acting out of integrity after being more or less forced onto a 'classic campaign trail' through a cocktail of Judith Collins, standard practice and public/media expectation. I am not sure if the possibility to radically change an election campaign really existed within the forcefield that surrounded it - but I am almost certain that, if Jacinda could have had it her way, the last few weeks would have looked radically different.
Which kind of brings me to my point. My sense is that last nights election results were more than a strong mandate for the NZ labour party and a vote of confidence in Jacinda Ardern's leadership. My hallucination is that last nights election results were a - possibly unconscious - majority vote for a new way of BEING.
Which brings me to the point in Jacinda Ardern's victory speech where she talked about the 'increasingly polarized times we are living in".
If there was one single biggest mistake that opponent Judith Collins made (and continues to make), in my opinion, it was to completely and utterly miss the writing on the wall - and forcing a campaign based on the old, outdated and boring-as-hell method of polarization.
More than anything, I imagine this being the cause of Jacinda Ardern's exhaustion - being forced by circumstance into a way of BEING that is not really in line with the identity she has created for herself. Despite being called the 'greatest communicator of our time', which makes up for a whole lot - there was, at times, almost a sense of disbelief or confusion about her during this campaign, as if what she really wanted to say was "I can't believe we're still playing this stupid game - just grow up". The fact that she was confronted with someone who not only seemed to lack alternatives, but even takes pride in being some sort of a dinosaur in that sense (who wants to be called the 'crusher' for goodness sake?!?) only seemed to increase that confusion, but also served to force her into inauthentic territory at times.
Here's the thing though - I believe, on some level, we ALL share this exhaustion - and the confusion - not just in New Zealand. We DO live in increasingly polarized times. The reasons for this are, I believe, manifold: If you have watched the "Social Dilemma" (highly recommend) you may have gained an understanding how our use of technology and social media results in amplification of our opinions - by design, but not necessarily by intent. Yes, our attention is being trade off like a rented mule, the intention is monetization of our attention (or - in Judith Collins' case: gaining the attention of voters) - and the tools to achieve that are more and more sophisticated ways of capturing that very attention. I don't even necessarily believe there's any malicious intent in terms of undermining our social fabric or pushing any particular agenda. What leads to this crisis is more likely the combination of our own negativity bias and our mind's tendency to look for threats (which has kept us alive as a species) which happens to be picked up and amplified by the algorithm because it happens to be driving our attention.
Combined, this takes us onto something of a death spiral - one which is quite likely not actually compatible with our model of democracy at all. The idea of democracy was conceived in much smaller communities with a bell-shaped distribution of opinions, leading to a somewhat moderate manifestation of collective intelligence. Currently we're messing with the shape of this bell curve through social media algorithms, flattening the middle and increasing the edges. What this means going forward warrants a whole other investigation.
What we are collectively experiencing as a result, however, is polarity exhaustion. We don't want to argue anymore, yet we also can't stop. We hate it, but we love it. We are trapped between our instincts to defend ourselves and our opinions as a matter of survival - and our equally human desire to find peace, to connect, to "love each other". (Apparently, Jacinda Ardern in her early days was heard to have said the Labour party was about 'love', greatly confusing some of those who overhead this statement).
So Judith Collins tested us all on that. She tossed the bait of polarity out there to see if we would take it. Unfortunately - as Ran Prieur in his 'parable of the violent tribe' identified so well - the aggressive paradigm always wins. Which left Jacinda Ardern with no choice other than to try and stumble along on that fine line between getting drawn into the drama or quitting the game altogether (which would have meant, again, that the aggressive paradigm wins).
So now what?
Here's my hope: I hope that we all - including Jacinda Ardern - can see these election results as an expression of desire, of collective positive intent. Yes, we're all still trapped in our old narrative - of polarity, of scarcity, of competition, of economic growth, of dog-eats-dog, of exploitation, of colonialization - all of that. But through their vote this weekend, NZers have expressed their intent, their readiness to try and do things differently. They have shown they are as exhausted by this game as Jacinda appeared to be - and ready to abandon the CERTAINTY of what is familiar for the chance of finding a new way forward.
This election was a vote of trust, a vote of hope. And a vote for choosing love and compassion over polarity - without really knowing what that means and even though polarity still has its' icy grip on us. It was a vote for our humanity 'in principle'.
The question remains what we'll do with it. And our eyes are on this young woman who is now faced with the challenge of TRUE leadership - leadership into a territory that is still completely unknown.
Up until now, coalition arrangements meant being politically constrained by the old story that made radical change practically impossible. With these shackles removed, the only limits to our possible transformation are our courage - and our trust.
I saw hope and joy return to Jacinda Ardern's face when she spoke about what lights her up most: a vision for a better world. Opportunity. Fixing what's broken. Coming up with a new story. That's when life returned to her face - and, with it, her determination, strength and courage.
Being courageous doesn't mean not having fear. And it would be plain naïve and stupid to not be feeling fear when tasked with leading an entire country, however small, out of converging crises of health, economic collapse, polarization and climate breakdown. It would be INHUMAN not to be absolutely fucking terrified. But our chance at true transformation is not determined by the degree of fear we are experiencing - it is determined by our degree of courage.
Yes, last nights' election results were a 'mandate to accelerate'. But what if they were more than that? What if they were an expression of all our courage - our courage to let go of an old narrative and make room for something new. Something unknown. Something we will have to figure out as we go, just like we had to figure out our response to COVID-19 as we went.
The opportunities lying ahead now are much much bigger than just 'economic recovery after COVID-19'. They are even bigger than 'building back better'. I'm tempted to say the opportunities ahead now are for a radical transformation that is nothing but short of a leap in evolution. And as I open my mind to the magnitude of this opportunity, Jacinda Ardern - despite everything she already is and stands for - seems like a female version of David in the face of the Goliath that is our entire industrial civilization. And my feeling last night was that, on some level, she sensed that too.
The thing is though - every opportunity is an opening - nothing more. It's POTENTIAL change. An open door does not mean we'll step through it. We could close it again. We could stick our head through and have a look, but not enter. We could turn around and look for another door. We could even pretend it was never there in the first place. The options are endless.
So one possible conclusion to this article could be to say 'Well, let's see what she makes of it' - but that would be completely and utterly diminishing myself and the role and potential of everyone around me.
A more exciting, more empowering and far more hopeful conclusion from last nights election results is this: Let's interpret them as a 'mandate to accelerate' for all of us.
Despite the fear, the uncertainty, the struggle we are all going through at the moment, a vast majority of us have expressed an intention to choose courage and hope - and a general willingness to not only embrace change, but to CREATE it. This task is not just the responsibility of one courageous leader - it's the responsibility of all of us to choose again, every single day, to ask ourselves who we TRULY are, who we WANT to be - and how we want our world to be. The responsibility to choose to focus on solutions, engage our creativity - and be courageous again, every single day.
So my call to action to myself and everyone who made that choice in the last few weeks is this: Lets get on our feet and stand beside our courageous leader. Lets accept that we won't get it all right first time, lets accept that we'll have to figure shit out as we go. Let's embrace setbacks and mistakes that will happen and use them to rapidly learn and adapt. Let's shift our focus onto what we WANT, not what we don't want. Let's allow ourselves, right now in this time, to DREAM up new ideas and solutions, to do the unprecedented, the unusual - so that we can all move forward together.
New Zealand is a tiny island at the bottom of the world. But we have opened a door stepping through which could set a precedent for a transformation that could well sweep the globe. Because I think it's not just us here who are exhausted and who are ready for something new.
Realizing this opportunity is not up to Jacinda Ardern or the Labour party - it's up to all of us. My sense is we have just elected a leader who is courageous enough to jump in with us for the ride. A leader who has already shown that she holds values that allow for true transformation. Let's make the most of that. Let's START moving.
Natalie is an accredited judge, sustainability expert and executive coach with strong views on doing what it takes to make the world how we want it to be. You can find out more about her on www.imaginal.co.nz or www.nataliehormann.com.
"The only thing that remains the same is change". "Change is a constant".
AND: Change happens in an instant, in a heartbeat.
The kind of people I tend to work with are leaders of change. Visionaries. Different thinkers. Pioneers of new ways of doing things. Pioneers of the great UNdoing.
And yet, when we meet, most are still pressed firmly into the mold of change leadership 'as we know it'; change leadership as YOU know it and as I know it. Change leadership that involves strategy, vision and implementation, leadership that involves a carefully detailed communications strategy, endless conversations to generate buy-in - all while designing a new way of doing things that will somehow fit into the complete new system we all know we need but none of us can fully grasp in its entirety.
Change as we know it involves small step change. It involves compromise. Sometimes it involves setbacks and it always seems to involve the risk of going back to the status quo. It involves consultation and making sure people feel heard.
Change as we know it is pretty "PC".
And yes, that has it's place.
Then there is a revolutionary, activism / direct action sort of change... change where we are prepared to sacrifice the 'rules' - at least temporarily - for a higher, seemingly more significant cause. This change is usually fueled less by positive vision, and more by righteous anger and is employed by those 'not in power'. But even this kind of change follows a set of rules - disrupt, demand, polarize - and at it core it still accepts that change will take a long time of 'pushing harder'.
Usually there's a level of mutual distrustful suspicion and judgement between the 'leaders of the revolution' and the 'leaders from within', even though, at times, wanting the same thing.
In 411 BC, Aristophanes' comedy "Lysistrata" was first performed in Athens. As a woman, I have felt a bizarre kind of fascination with this story ever since I first heard about it as a teenager. For those unfamiliar, the play tells the tale of how Lysistrata, wife to one of Athens' most powerful senators, convenes the women of the various city-states at war with each other and persuades them to agree to a pact to end the Peleponnesian war. The pact is simple: deny their husbands all sexual pleasure until they are willing to bury the hatchet.
In ancient Athens, this worked a treat and after a short period of rather awkward encounters involving seemingly disproportionate (but what do I know) levels of sexual despair, the men agree, the war is ended and everyone lives happily ever after.
What am I getting at here? - No, I'm not suggesting celibacy as a solution to climate change (although...??)
What I'm suggesting is creativity. I'm suggesting breaking the mold of 'change leadership' and changing the way we do change.
How can we do that?
Well, as you all know, EMOTION is what creates motion - so let's start there.
Have you ever found yourself feeling so passionate about something - or so OUTRAGED by something for that matter - that continuing the status quo for even another day, another MINUTE was unacceptable?? Where change had to happen RIGHT NOW, where not another moment of how things used to be was tolerable - and where you were willing to do 'whatever it takes'??
How much were you able to achieve when you were in that state? How fast could you implement? And how long were you willing to wait for others to 'catch up'?
We've had a beautiful series of examples of change happening in (almost) an instant in recent history. Almost from one day to the next, we banned semi-automatic weapons. We shut down the country - and the world, for that matter. We all worked from home. We no longer enter a public building without sanitizing our hands.
Change can happen almost in an instant if we are serious enough about it. If we DECIDE. And if we have enough leverage.
Sometimes that requires leadership that is unconventional. That doesn't follow due process. Leadership that burns the rule books.
You see - the visionaries among us - we like to think up better solutions. We get all inspired by them. We create leverage within ourselves... and then, almost in an instant "THE MIND" (not just our mind - it's a universal trait of human consciousness) goes to work to try and somehow integrate our new idea back into the status quo. The moment we are faced with two different 'maps of the world' we can't resist the urge to force congruence, but there are two ways of doing this: One would be to instantly THINK, DECIDE and BEHAVE consistent with our new map of the world. Like the old one never existed.
But this is scary, uncomfortable, we might get push back.
The other way of getting our ideas for progress to align with what we know about the presence is accepting that 'change is slow and takes due process'. That way we can cling onto the new idea without having to live with the discomfort of ACTUALLY changing anything - for now.
See the problem? - We're fooling ourselves by negotiating with our new reality. And we don't even require others to push back for us - we do it to ourselves.
The antidote? - Stop it.
If you can think it, you can live it. Who says we have to wait for change. Who says we need permission. Who says we can't employ every creative (read: unorthodox) method under the sun to get the result we need??
And, if I may challenge you for a moment here, if you, dear leader, find yourself challenged by the idea of 'just changing it' - could it be that it is YOUR desire to please, YOUR comfort zone, YOUR pre-conditioning, YOUR attachment to something - YOUR lack of courage that is getting in the way of your passion and better knowing?
If you're being honest with yourself and maybe the answer is 'yes', let me assure you, it is the same for all of us. It's human. We are all torn between our passion and compassion, our desire to fit in and break out, our need for certainty and our need for growth and contribution - we're all navigating these paradoxes all of the time.
Anthony Robbins talks about his daily morning ritual of plunging himself into ice cold water not as a health tonic or immunity builder (although I'm told it is) - but as a way to condition himself EVERY DAY to not negotiate in his mind. There isn't a morning where he really WANTS to do it. But there is also not a morning where he doesn't cut off all other options.
The three commitments I encourage you, myself and everyone out there in the business or on a mission of leading change to embrace are these:
Natalie works as a transformational, leadership and impact coach both under her own brand at www.nataliehormann.com and under her corporate brand "Imaginal".
If you are a sustainability professional tired of waiting for senior leaders to enroll in your ideas or frustrated with the level of influence you create, join us for our "Influence for Impact", our 12 week training program for strategic influence. www.imaginal.co.nz/influence-for-impact.
If you're looking for support individual leadership support, break down barriers to progress and eliminate frustration or burn out, contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is a re-post of a blog post I wrote back in 2018... which seems to only have become more relevant.
I know two things to be true, simultaneously: what you resist, persists. And: revolutions have, at times, changed the world.
Which probably makes revolutions quite exhausting.
But let’s look at what this means, one by one.
Or, better: have you ever found yourself in a nasty exchange on social media?
The more we push against something, the stronger it is going to hold its ground, push back. And somewhere along the line, the actual issue goes away and it becomes about winning, not about what is right.
People are people, and they get defensive. And they are defensive, because they are trying to avoid pain. Being open to criticism, to being told you are ‘wrong’ requires a relatively high level of consciousness (and tolerance to being hurt) which is often not available to us when we are pressured, stressed, frightened, insecure, secretly wondering if we are enough, if we are loved… and when are we not? — So we defend ourselves — not the issue.
So the next time you are witnessing an online or offline shouting match and ask yourself WTF is wrong with these people — ask yourself why it may be their threshold for pain is so low today. Sometimes you can find clues in the conversation if you know what to look for.
2. Revolutions have, at times, changed the world.
History has shown this to be true for both violent and non-violent revolutions. They can, at times, change things. But if the assumption above is true as well and at the same time, this means that a revolution occurs when the resistance finally falters — be it because it subjects to the violence or gets worn down by the persistence of non-violence. Somewhere there is tipping point, the conditions of change become overwhelming — and things change. In any event — a significant amount of force (or persistence) is required to overcome the resistance and create the change.
Which, to me, sounds exhausting.
3. But wait, there's more: The aggressive paradigm always wins.
Another thing is also true: Sadly, the aggressive paradigm always wins.
I first heard this laid out in the Parable of the tribes by Ran Prieur, way back in the film “What a way to go — Life at the end of empire” (my most powerful initiation into the state of the world…). You could watch the clip, but it goes something like this: You have a tribe occupying an area. Another attacks to take over the area — if the resident tribe surrenders, the aggressive paradigm wins. If the resident tribe fights back: the aggressive paradigm wins. If they leave, the aggressive paradigm wins (over the geographic area).
And these are all the options.
I find there’s a great tragic in this — especially because the parable assumes nothing about who’s right or wrong. It could be women’s rights activists standing up for all the right things, demanding equal rights for women (a good thing!) — and the aggressive paradigm still wins.
So is there a way to do things differently? — Let's start with an encouraging example I’ve come across quoted in “Spontaneous Evolution” by Bruce Lipton, telling the story of Jim Rough, a great facilitator and mediator. He was called in to resolve a conflict between abortionists and anti-abortionists, both almost militant in their views. Yet — within within a short time he had them working together on the same problem, by using a reframe to find the common ground: He asked “How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived and born into families who want and love them?”
Resistance fell away when the issue was elevated.
What do I conclude from all of this for a new paradigm of leading change?
Well — we could continue to battle for what we stand for, wait for the conditions to eventually be right and, with a bit of luck, for change to emerge. The problem is — in the face of the planetary urgency we are facing, the timeframes on this are rather — sketchy.
For example, I think we are just seeing a tipping point when it comes to plant-based diets… have you noticed how suddenly almost everybody seems to be vegan? I would say it wasn’t like that even two years ago… Change in a social media connected world is emergent, but timing is unpredictable.
But even then, we still run the risk of the aggressive paradigm still winning. If I claim my victory through violent or non-violent revolution, whether I’m shouting the others down, threatening them or force them through persistent non-violent protest— I’m still, in some way, participating in the aggressive paradigm. It’s still us against them.
But what about facts? Can’t we create change by simply raising awareness? Sorry, but I have news for you… I doubt that any argument was ever won over facts… Wikipedia alone lists something like 175 cognitive biases — ALL of which not only get in the way of resolving a conflict over facts — but should also make you wonder whether your own ‘fact-based’ truth is as true as you think it is at any given time.
What the hell are we even talking about?
So what to do? How do we lead change in a new paradigm way, that doesn’t perpetuate the aggressive paradigm?
1. PLAY SHERLOCK HOLMES
This one is based on both the principles of NLP and permaculture. Three of the 14 presuppositions of NLP state this: “All actions have a purpose”, “Everyone works perfectly” and “People make the best choice they can at a time”.
Simultaneously, the first thing we learn in permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’, i.e. to get a thorough understanding of the territory and until then — do nothing. Watch a year pass and the seasons change before deciding where to build your tool shed. Don’t rush things you don’t fully understand.
If I take these to heart, what it means is to spend as much time as possible playing Sherlock Holmes, before embarking on my change mission. If I can get a thorough understanding of
- What motivates the behavior I’m wanting to change in the other person (Helpful hint: we all do things mostly to either gain pleasure or avoid pain — and often both)
- What priorities and values drive the other person — and why?
- What is important to them?
- What do they believe about the world and about themselves?
- What good thing are they trying to do (because we all want to do the ‘right’ thing…)?
Then I’m going to have a much better chance of actually discovering the LEVER that is going unhinge the problem. AND I am much more likely to have a positive, compassionate conversation, rather than a confrontational debate. I can actually create a the opportunity of working TOGETHER on each other’s problems, instead of arguing over how to solve them. And who knows — the solution may well transcend the initial problem.
This, by the way, is not to say I want to give up on my change mission. But I’m delaying it until I actually understand what is going on for the other person (or party), so that I can help them change in a compassionate, non-confrontational way.
(Disclaimer: and yes, I do expose myself to the possibility I may abort my change mission if I discover I am either fighting for the wrong cause or against the wrong person. That’s a good thing)
A good way to look at this is to remember (and this also comes from NLP) who ‘owns the problem’. If you are the one wanting change — for whatever perfectly good reason — you are the one ‘owning a problem’. Taking this problem, barging in onto someone else’s life and expecting them to make it THEIR problem (even if you think it is EVERYBODY’S problem) is a big ask… and unlikely to succeed. But if you take another approach by taking responsibility for ‘your’ problem, you can start working out how it might fit in with someone else’s view on the world — and what might need to be in place for them to be willing to help solve it for you.
2. LOOK FOR COMMON GROUND
For EVERY conflict, there is common ground — and in order to have a construction conversation, it is your job to find it. In deep rooted controversy, the common ground may be as high as the sky and seem a bit ludicrous, but if that’s what is, start there. Remember the abortionists and anti-abortionists? — If you want another to cooperate with you, find something you both believe in that you can cooperate on. Keep elevating the issue until you hit common ground. Maybe it’s the goal that every child has a healthy future that you can cooperate on even with those climate change deniers. Which may not immediately get them to sign the zero carbon agreement, but it may get them to do a whole lot of other positive things that help solve the problem. Focus on what you have in common, not what makes you different.
3. GET PERSONAL
The harsh and ugly truth? — We hide behind facts. Because if we can talk about the fact that atmospheric carbon is rising, we’ve reached 127 or so tipping points and every day 120 species go extinct — then we may not have to talk about the fact that we’re just plain shit — scared. That we feel guilty as fuck for our part in that. That we are overwhelmed with hope- and helplessness. That we look at our children and feel a painful empty void because we can’t promise them a great future. That we don’t really know what to do and are grasping at straws. That we feel alone in this. And that we very secretly still DO hope that even those climate change deniers or anti-feminists will still love and respect us.
Yet these are the very things that can create connection, not confrontation. Because we can all relate to these feelings, even if we experience them in an entirely different context.
And yes, that makes us vulnerable and potentially exposes us to criticism — and pain.
Well, how badly do you want change? And what are you willing to risk for it? Or is it that maybe you, too, value something more than that change — maybe it’s your own comfort zone? Well then, don’t you and those deniers have something in common?
That’s the scary side of getting personal.
The non-scary side of getting personal and a great tool to remember is putting a face to replace numbers — because we are emotional beings who connect through stories. The scientific probability (however high) of a x cm rise in sea levels by xyz is not ever going to be as powerful (or relatable) as the story of the single mother who lost her home and livelihood through a storm surge. The mother who has a name — let’s call her Lisa — and whose children have faces and one who likes to play hopscotch and “let’s call him Peter” who wants to be an astronaut — but now his school books got soaked — and how many Peters will we see next year? Or the year after? And what can we do for Peter?
You get the idea.
4. GET CLEAR ON WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT
This is something that we like to think is SO obvious, but so often is not.
Let people know what you actually want.
I picked up a leaflet today from a group promoting the ‘Zero Carbon’ Act. It was a folded A4, with information on every page. I learned about the carbon levels, legislative approaches here and overseas, what climate change is and why it’s important… and had to leaf to the very bottom of the last page to find the CTA (if you are a marketer, you know this stands for ‘call to action’). It was: “You can join us! — Sign the petition (a website link). Sign up to volunteer (another website link). And was given the opportunity to ask for even more information.
Look — signing a petition is a pretty small thing if I can do it online. I don’t need all this information to do that. AND — now that you’ve given me all this disturbing information — I am left feeling like ‘signing the petition’ is not going to make any difference anyway.
But at least it was specific. Because often, our calls to action are not. “Do something about climate change”. “Drive less cars” (and MAN — I’m guilty of this time and time again!) or ‘Recycle’.
a) not know what you mean
b) not know how to do that
c) when to do that
d) where to do that (and when not)
and therefore, simply dismiss it into the ‘too hard’ basket of denial and overwhelm.
That doesn’t mean they are bad people. It just means they have other stuff to think about. Who doesn’t?
Or. if you think that ‘just making them aware’ will be enough to ‘make them work it out’ you are making your own life WAAY too easy.
How badly do you want change?
The clearer and more specifically you can say what you want (and why) — the greater your chances of getting traction. Spend more time on the what than the why… people need surprisingly little why if what you’re asking isn’t that hard.
And what is the point in asking other people to do something you can’t even do yourself? Or that you are not sure of? “Use less plastic” while you’re still often enough buying plastic items? Let alone requests like “reduce carbon emissions” (Do YOU have the formula of how to do that across the board? — Let me know!)
Here’s where authenticity comes in — role modeling and walking the talk. Which doesn’t mean you have to be perfect — you just need to be specific about the things YOU are doing (and the ones that you aren’t).
And don’t get me started on requests like “take action!” “take a stand” or “speak up about..”. Wait — what? How?
IF you want people to change, you need to do as much of the work for them as possible (forget the ‘but they shoulds’ — you’re not entitled to anything). So, do the thinking, consider the options — and make one, clear, specific request at a time. “Purchase some reusable shopping bags next time you’re at the supermarket — and then put them in your car so you always have them on hand. Use them every time you go shopping”.
Sometimes the scale of change you’re asking for may be bigger than that — but always keep it specific and do the thinking for them. Point out how this will contribute to (insert the cause) and how it will benefit them.
5. LOVE LOVE LOVE THE “WHATABOUTS”
And finally, learn to love the ‘whatabout’s’. Quite often, when we are trying to influence someone and they raise a question like “But what about… ?” we may feel like we’re dealing with objections. We may even feel attacked and start getting defensive. We may feel like we have overlooked something or are not taken seriously. Or like ‘they are just not listening’.
That is your own confidence issue, not theirs.
The reality is, the ‘whatabout’ is a critical step towards change. If you can get a ‘whatabout’ you have actually already won: it means the person is seriously considering your proposition and is now looking for your HELP to resolve the last issues they have about it.
Dismissing these issues in any way only sets you back.
Instead, learn to love the ‘whatabouts’ and take on the challenge of solving these problems with them — and know you’ll have a passionate proponent for your cause afterwards!
Hopefully you found these ideas helpful! I look forward to your comments!
This post was first published on my personal coaching site www.nataliehormann.com. Sign up for future articles.
Here's the thing: We currently live in the time of Covid-19. And new information about Covid-19 is emerging all the time. Infection spread that turns out to be higher and death rates that appear to be lower than originally anticipated and then not. Treatment options that seem promising one minute and not the next. Potential long-term effects that are emerging or potentially related conditions affecting other parts of the population - or turn out to be unrelated.
We're getting to witness scientists, medical doctors and researchers around the world racing to try and make sense of it all, to compile data, analyse information, draw conclusions and give recommendations. We watch companies responding - from shifting their production from car parts to ventilators or others trying to create treatment options or vaccines.
And we are watching the public debate become more and more polarized, fueled by social media and a general crisis of trust in organisations, corporations - and the new media overall.
(If you are feeling yourself affected by the pro and con of lockdown debate and emergent 'explanations' thereof, I can't recommend enough to read Charles Eisenstein's recent essay "The conspiracy myth" for a birds-eye view!)
I don't want to dive more deeply into the exact content of any of this (I'm neither a doctor nor a scientist), but instead 'chunk up' and take a summary view for a moment to talk a bit on what I DO know something about: Leadership.
The summary view is that we're operating in an environment of great uncertainty. An environment of changing science, new information and evidence and constantly shifting territory.
Now, again, there are parallels that can be drawn between Covid-19 and the climate response - except that Covid is playing out in fast forward mode, speeding up the the development and thus - conveniently - making it more visible.
But in the end, if you've been working on climate responses, you have spent years working in uncertain, constantly shifting and evolving territory, with new science, evidence and research coming out all the time and a more or less polarized public debate - except that climate change is more like the slow moving (and fast melting) glaciers than the Covid tsunami wave in terms of speed of development.
So what can we learn from this situation about leading through uncertain times?
Lesson 1: Acting with certainty and going all in
Jacinda Ardern who's leadership style I referenced in a recent article, has shared that a lot of the decisions that were made early on with regard to the New Zealand 'go hard, go early' approach were based on 'instinct' - for lack of anything firm to go by.
Which is fascinating and relates to an unconfirmed story I quite like to share: it's of a military general who is presumed to have been brought in to take charge of a complicated and conflicted situation that had stalled for years due to a scientific stale mate. Scientists had analysed the situation ad nauseam and the arguments pro taking action were as valid as the arguments con. The general, upon assuming his new role, attended the briefing on the situation that summed up 3 years of research work, but, so the tale goes, interrupted the presentation a few minutes in just to say "Do A".
The scientific team was stunned, proceeding to argue how it was impossible for him to even fully grasp the situation at this point. The general responded "It doesn't matter. I have understood that we don't really know. The only way to find out is to take action".
What we've seen from most leaders around the world is making a decision based on best evidence - and instinct. Some have wavered in their commitment to this decision, some have compromised more than others, but all have acted despite having conclusive evidence one way or another. And most of them have, once the decision was made, gone all in to carry it through, at least for the time being.
It was the best one can do at the time - and just as the general predicted - we are finding out what is happening as a consequence as we speak.
Lesson 2: The law of unintended consequences
As the ripple effects of the decisions that were made are taking hold and playing out, leaders are having to respond with support packages and clarifying guidelines, putting out new hot spots where they become apparent while the blame game is running on high.
In our local area here in New Zealand the cases of rheumatic fever in children just spiked - is this a consequence of the lock down measures (imposed by Labour) or the high rates of poverty, bad housing quality and overcrowding (arguably a result of the previous governments' long term policies)? Who is to say? Both mark conditions sine qua non. Was this predictable? Maybe. - It was certainly not intended.
At this point, leaders have to continue to act fast and decisively while staying engaged in the conversation. Pretending unintended consequences are not happening is only going to undermine public trust - the best approach being to align with the evidence as it appears, acknowledge the problem and get onto finding and administering solutions - fast. And be prepared for more unintended consequences to appear over time - in fact, preframe them as much as possible, make the unexpected expected by openly acknowledging their existence and making the community their ally by encouraging them to look out for them with high vigilance - focusing on early detection.
Lesson 3: The power of momentum
This is where it gets REALLY sticky. Because once we've started heading down a particular track, we've set in motion a powerful trajectory - a trajectory of expectation. Now things are getting political. Because what if the constantly changing evidence starts to align and accumulate to show that our early decisions were not 100% on the mark (and, to be real here for a moment - what are the chances???)
We now have created a ton of expectations (and ripple effects) - and have positioned ourselves publicly with a particular course of action. No matter how hard the decision was to 'sell' in the first instance, if we've done anything right the momentum will have shifted and there will be a point in time where it would be easiest to be washed away with the momentum we created and persist with the course.
This stays true while the risk of changing course is greater than the risk of sticking with it. But what if this balance starts to shift? What if evidence is mounting to show that our initial response was, indeed, not ideal?
This exact situation is more often than not what stops leaders from taking decisive action in uncertain situations in the first place - because, what if we found out it was wrong? What if we overreacted? Better to not decide at all? - Let's order some more research instead.
At this point, it's good to remember that military general and the fact that the REASON we decided in the first place was to FIND OUT. Which creates not only a possibility for changing tack later on - it creates up to 50% likelihood.
Yet, our current culture is not particularly well prepared for this. In politics, we have a strong tradition of heads rolling, lost elections and leader resignations in the wake of 'wrong' decisions. It's an almost certain consequence.
Apart from oppositions taking political advantage of situations like this, this is also caused by our human predisposition to look for what is wrong (instead of what's right), our negativity and confirmation biases among others - and the deep seated convenience and simplicity of the drama triangle.
But does this really make a lot of sense? Yes, we want leaders to make the right decisions - but, even more so, shouldn't we want them to detect and CORRECT any wrong decisions as quickly and thoroughly as possible??
From a societal perspective, attaching all-or-nothing consequences to leadership mistakes often leads to a change of leadership - and with it, eliminating all the things that were right about the decision in a knee-jerk reaction, creating a climate of further uncertainty for the short lived satisfaction of 'rightful revenge' and political gain - and often, powerful momentum in the other direction (until this proves to be wrong as well).
The alternative then becomes staying locked into the momentum and continuing with "Option A" despite long having realized that "Option B" "C" or "F" may have been more appropriate. This is a dangerous situation - and will, as evidence mounts, ultimately lead to failure anyway - and even more dire unintended consequences along the way.
So how do we respond as leaders to the power of momentum? How can we revise 'big' decisions made in uncertain times without losing face, public trust and credibility?
Firstly, we have to role model the non-judgement we desire. We can't look for what or who is to blame for neither the uncertainty, lack of information or who should have figured what out earlier. We have to be forgiving to those who advised us, and to ourselves.
We also have to role model CHANGING OUR MINDS. Because, in sustainability leadership at least - isn't that EXACTLY what we're asking others to do, all the time? To shift their world view maybe from one that centers around economic growth to one that includes the well being of all life? - If we can't make it safe to change our mind without severe consequences for our career, status and credibility - how can we expect others to do exactly that!?
And then, we have to act, pivot and respond fast and with the same decisiveness we applied in the first place.
Now, this is a challenging concept in a world of male leadership which values linear and one-directional processes, setting firm goals and not diverting from them all that much. It's a kind of thinking that has come to dominate our culture, society and especially political debate.
And it is yet another opportunity for emergent female leadership qualities to really change the course of the world.
Because, frankly, as a woman - what does it worry me what it was I said 5 minutes ago? - My inner world has probably changed multiple times since - and with it, my state - and my view point.
This is where we can learn to harness the feminine freedom of - changing our minds. It's a culture we can foster and should seek to establish - because of the opportunity for growth, learning and genuine progress it offers.
Yes, we need to take full responsibility for our mistakes and their intended and unintended consequences. And we need to fix them. No doubt. But we must not let that cause us to step down in shame. Remember - we acted TO FIND OUT. And we just did.
The essential ingredient here is the courage to change course, becoming highly adaptable and responsive and communicating liberally throughout. Again, preframes are our friend. Speaking about the possibility of revising our view early on even while we believe we probably won't - setting expectations for reviews early on in the game. Laying out options even if we don't initially choose to take them.
And embracing and promoting our amazing human ability to LEARN.
The power of momentum is something to be harnessed when the time and conditions are right. And it is something to be broken when they are not.
Leadership excellence is to know the difference.
Natalie is a leadership coach, facilitator and speaker. For more information about how to harness influence in sustainability leadership, increase resilience and lead through uncertainty, contact email@example.com or visit www.imaginal.co.nz.
Full disclosure, before I begin: I love Jacinda. I think she totally rocks. But you may not think so at all - and that's perfectly ok too. If you want a powerful lesson in leadership though, you should be watching her regardless.
So the 39-year old, mother-of-one leader of New Zealand scored an 80% agreement rating on the lock down measures among the New Zealanders. Lock down meaning: shutting down 98% of the economy, getting people to not leave the house, not even to attend their aunties' funeral - all while watching their job or business go down the drain with little hope of recovery. It was NOT a small ask. But: 80% of New Zealanders were ok with that - which must include political opponents. So whether you agree or disagree with the measures that were taken - try beat that score!
If you have spent as much time working in sustainability as I have, you know what it's like to be enlisted to promote unpopular ideas - such as: spending more on materials to reduce carbon emissions. Ditching long-standing suppliers because they don't meet waste minimization or material standards. Getting staff to do boring or uncomfortable new things like turning off computers at night or walking to work. Or: telling farmers to give away profit margins just to reduce methane emissions or water pollution.
It's not exactly fun - and you deal with a lot of push-back while progress is often slow. Over time, you learn to be happy with incremental improvements.
So how does a young woman manage to get 80% of people to relatively happily do something they REALLY don't want to do - at an unprecedented scale??
The list of leadership masterpieces that Jacinda Ardern has pulled off during her term of office is long and impressive. Some have already been highlighted in this analysis by Suze Wilson:
But there's so much more - including the question 'How does she ACTUALLY pull it off'?
Here are some more of the cornerstones of creating deep buy-in, as demonstrated in this real life masterclass, unveiled:
Listening first and listening closely
Jacinda Ardern held an ear to the ground, all along the way. She's been inviting questions, feedback, comments relentlessly - and fearlessly. From (sometimes painfully populist) reporters during daily press conferences to Joe and Jane Doe commenting on her facebook feeds - Jacinda listens closely to what is happening in the community. This allows here to pre-empt arguments, objections and challenges and respond early and before they get out of hand. It allows her to use language that is relatable and actually makes said empathy super easy - because she's speaking to people, not statistics. All the way down to addressing commentators by their name ("Jesse is asking...").
Giving people the feeling they are understood opens the doors to influence. And it can't be faked. Pretending to listen doesn't cut it - neither does letting defensiveness or judgement get in the way of understanding. Understanding means clearing your own channel, overcoming your own reactivity - but without having to abandon your message.
Staying close and being relatable
Jacinda Ardern constantly looks for commonalities and thereby creates a feeling of belonging and community. She positions herself as 'one of us' and is careful to attack problems, not people. By live streaming in her jumper from her bedroom and sharing her daughters Easter egg sharpie scribbles on the parliament house carpet - she makes us all feel more comfortable about being human.
Influence requires building know, emphasizing likeness and building trust - which means focusing on what makes us the same, not different. It means opening up a (carefully framed) window into her private world, which turns out to be just like ours. And it means making people feel good about themselves - knowing that people usually won't remember what you say, but how you make them feel. And it means building trust by consistently doing what you say you would - including announcing an employer subsidy scheme and having the money turn up in people's accounts within a week.
Especially when we are deeply passionate about something - as many sustainability professionals are - it's easy to get lost in the topic discussion and forget our humanity. By doing so, we give away our strongest means of influence.
Harnessing identity and higher values
People will do anything to act in accordance with what they perceive to be their identity. And they will always do more for others than they do for themselves. Jacinda taps into this with the phrase 'Stay home - save lives', and framing the sacrifices people are making as being "for our fellow New Zealanders" - who often have a name and story - another tool she uses well and frequently.
But more importantly, she creates a positive identity by consistently expressing an unshakable belief in the cooperative and caring nature of her people (disrupted only by a few 'idiots' - one of the very few occasions where she utilizes 'us vs. them') - and thus inspires people to live up to the expectation. This becomes all the more powerful in a country stricken with poverty, a deep cultural divide and high levels of personal dis-empowerment. There will be people out there who have never felt like they can achieve anything of greatness - but here they are, able to save lives - just by staying home. Referring to them as her 'team of 5 mio' creates the same type of belonging - perfectly suited, again, in a country with a strong sporting culture.
For the sustainability world, there's great potential in this which is often underutilized. Our nature tells us to focus on 'what's wrong' and distinguish between 'us' and 'them', although finding even the tiniest seed of caring in someone else and then elevating it to create a new, compelling identity is a much more powerful tool for change.
Not being boring and breaking the pattern
Armed with the intel gained from listening deeply, Jacinda Ardern was able to break the pattern of what people 'expect' from their political leaders - creating positive surprises along the way. Whether it's by starting her 'Chat with Jacinda' podcast (a stroke of genius) or instigating a New Zealand wide Easter egg hunt - Jacinda Ardern isn't afraid to do the unexpected.
Again, anticipation is your friend and creates the opportunity to respond to emerging issues in creative and unexpected ways - a great way to grab people's attention and escape the boredom trap. (Remember? - People remember how you make them feel!)
Maintaining absolute certainty
Last not least, for today, Jacinda Ardern mastered the art of creating certainty in uncertain times. The truth is - we don't have all the answers. We might not even be sure about the questions. This applies to Covid-19 as much as it applies to climate change. To wait until all the information or science comes in would have disastrous consequences. So the way forward is to DECIDE - something - and do so with absolute certainty, going all in.
Jacinda Ardern didn't know the way - so she made the way by introducing the 4 level alert system early on in the game (and then figuring out what the levels meant as she went along). She relied firmly on science where possible but didn't hesitate to act where science was not available.
Making a bold decision and then figuring stuff out as you go is the best way forward in shifting territory. Should the decision be wrong, you'll find out soon enough. Of course this requires not being tone-deaf, maintaining agility and humility and quickly correcting any errors that are found. It would also require, in the worst case, to know when to change course completely - and do so with the same level of certainty, derived from the lessons just learnt.
There are many more gems to be found in Jacinda Arderns response - but those might be for another day. Before I move on though - a word to the skeptics among you (yes, I see you!). I know some of you will have the word 'manipulation' flashing through your minds in bright shiny letters. And yes, I get it. You are concerned we may all be manipulated - and you are hesitant to employ 'manipulation' to further your own cause.
The reality is - we are being manipulated all the time - deliberately or not. It's in the nature of responding to events around us. So if you are wondering if you are being manipulated, the answer is 'yes' - but it ALWAYS is - for better or worse. The manipulation industry is running on high, no matter what you do, or don't do. One of my mentors was an activist turned NLP trainer who joined the profession because she realized that 'manipulation' was liberally employed by 'the bad guys' and if she was to intervene, she needed to beat them with their own weaponry.
Likewise, my business is to help good people step up and become powerful influencers - because if they won't, someone else will.
As for Jacinda - I don't know how much of her genius is deliberate and a learnt skill and how much is simply great intuition. And I'm not here to say whether what she's doing is right or wrong. My sense is one of genuine care and integrity, which is near impossible to fake - and as I said at the start of this article - I DO like and admire her. And not just because she's a woman of similar age and background (know, LIKE, trust - remember?).
But whether you do or don't share my positive regard: I do encourage those of you who have an important mission and message to share to carefully watch, listen and learn.
If you are keen to learn more about effective influence and how to harness it for the sustainability space, reach out for more information about our program 'Influence for impact' www.imaginal.co.nz/influence-for-impact - or simply send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, download our '10 tips for influence' manual here: https://futurelivingcoach.ck.page/influence-tips