Having spent two decades working in conflict resolution, I have learned that feeling deep discomfort is a sign that I am heading in the right direction. So, while it has taken a moment to formulate my words, they have been weighed with care about how to use my rage, sadness and resolve constructively. My discomfort lies in acknowledging and owning that, despite my best intentions, I am part of the very system that I wish to change.
The words below will not assuage the guilt those of us with privilege experience. They will not offer enlightened wisdom about how to make this all ok. These words are my commitment to do more and bring others with me.
At a time when so many of us have felt intense helplessness – whether it stems from the depth of the systemic inequality before us, the fear caused by the pandemic and its economic fallout, or the crisis afflicting our planet – we are all searching for meaningful ways to make a difference.
The first question many of us ask is What can I do? – often asked with doubt and even despair…
In my years doing reconciliation work, I’ve learned that the first question we should be asking is How am I part of the system? That is how we can uncover the locus of our power and influence.
I realized recently that many of us have naively, possibly conveniently, socialized ourselves to think that racism is something that only impacts black people or people of color in America. The truth is that racism impacts all of us. As someone who most of the time passes as white, racism gives me privilege, access to opportunity, and a sense of safety for me and my family. Meanwhile, arbitrarily, for black and brown Americans, it is a suffocating reality, forming visible and invisible barriers, justifying inhumane physical and structural violence.
It is ever-present in our society – it’s in the way cities are designed, the way we learn, the way our judicial system is built, what we watch on TV, and in the way businesses are run.
Most recently, as I looked around, and took note of all the ways racism is woven into the fabric of my society, I became deeply uncomfortable – acutely aware that I inadvertently enable – and unconsciously perpetuate – systems of inequality. I’ve been reminded just how important it is to pay attention to the world…uncomfortable as it may be.
There seems little doubt that this third decade of our century will be marked by a great unravelling. It’s painful and, at times, paralyzing to witness the world as we know it coming undone. But some things need to be dismantled. Inequality and racism are fault lines upon which America has been built. If we have any hope of building our world back better, we must reset the foundation and address issues of equity and justice across all facets of our world.
Those of us with privilege need to be willing to hold the deeply uncomfortable truth that for our actions to have meaning and impact, we must pay attention to how we are part of the problem. I am part of the problem. Only then can we begin to be part of the solution.
Deconstructing racism and systemic inequality doesn’t need to be about assigning blame or finding ways to absolve ourselves of guilt. What it does mean is recognizing that our privilege and our agency are two sides of the same coin.
So, take a moment to tune into where you fit into the system. What are the uncomfortable, inconvenient truths you must face? Ask yourself: Where do I have influence? What more can I do?
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
― Arundhati Roy
You and I can and must breathe meaning into this moment with our actions, not just our words.
I do it for my children. For the generation of young people who are taking to the streets to demand a better future. And the generations before that marched for the very same issues that continue to plague our society today. I do it for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and for the countless others whose breaths have been tragically and unjustly taken away.
Darya is a Leaders’ Quest Partner. She leads LQ’s work on community engagement and the LQ Foundation.
We researched the most up-to-date work on purpose and interviewed more than 50 business experts and C-suite/executive leaders.
We learned how they define the fundamentals of purpose-driven business, and how much progress has been made. We explored what they see as the key levers to accelerate action and impact (using the Global Goals and planetary boundaries as a metric of success).
It’s crunch time for humanity. We’re living beyond our planetary boundaries, and the growing sense of mistrust in political leadership is undermining our ability to collaborate – at a time when joint action is imperative.
Yet there’s good news too. We’re seeing increasing momentum – from a broad range of stakeholders – for business to focus on people, planet and profit. And more importantly, business and investors are responding to the coalition of voices urging action.
From CEO roundtable announcements, to corporate coalitions on health, fashion and food. From public mobilisation efforts to employee campaigns and radical political policies that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The mood is turning.
And this puts business in the spotlight to make a wider contribution.
Purpose is top of mind for many CEOs, but there’s no unified view on how to articulate it, let alone embed it. There’s a face-off between a free-markets mentality and an anti-business mentality – and an ill-defined midway course, where responsibility is viewed as a key element of the license to operate.
But private sector business leaders – especially – face trade-offs if they want to embrace sustainability. Cost pressures today versus long-term strategy; profit-only objectives versus ethical innovation.
Current regulatory frameworks hinder progress, while benchmarking standards and metrics need consolidating and reshaping. Capitalism’s iOS, if you like, needs adapting.
The good news
There’s growing realisation that purpose-driven business helps leaders innovate, manage risks, attract (and keep) top talent and benefit from consumer/market opportunities on the horizon.
What can change?
A purpose ‘north star’ can set the course for operational plans underpinned by ESG metrics (eg Science Based Targets), to benefit multiple-stakeholders (not just shareholders).
There’s scope for relationships between business and state to be reinvented. A government can set standards, apply them to companies and offer a sense of stability. Known as ‘ambition loops’, these can operate at national or city level, reinforcing regulation which enables business to pursue long-term targets, rather than competitive races to the bottom.
Simplified, widely acknowledged public measurement metrics (scorecards, league tables) will incentivise companies to act.
A critical role can be played by institutional investors. For example, by applying higher risk discounts to regenerative projects (renewables etc) and encouraging strategies that align with the Global Goals, Science Based Targets and high ESG scores.
Progress will come from a combination of public campaigns, government regulation, updated benchmarks and metrics, and a rethink by investors. Above all, it will start with courageous individual leadership, at CEO, staff and Board levels.
Our report offers practical suggestions for action and invites you to join.
These are truly unprecedented circumstances. In so many ways, the disruption caused by coronavirus is a microcosm of our times: uncertain, full of leadership voids, lacking a clear path ahead, threatening our sense of control and personal freedom, and instilling feelings of mistrust and fear.
Many of us have been impacted in some way by this virus. We may not have fallen ill ourselves, but it’s possible we know people in our community who have. Ill or not, we have had to change our routines, cancel trips, postpone events, stay at home, and experience an onslaught of media coverage that challenges us to discern what we can trust. Safe to say, this is uncharted territory for most of us, a problem with no straightforward solution, no end in sight, which is creating uncertainty, unease – and paranoia – at a global scale.
It is easy to become unnerved, anxious, frustrated and even panicked. I am tempted to keep checking the news, knowing I will find more of the same. Another plane load of people quarantined. Another school closure. Another cruise ship denied entry to the port. The number of infected persons is skyrocketing globally. When, if ever, will this end? Has the interconnectedness of our world created a dynamic that is spinning out of control?
Anxiety begets anxiety; it’s contagious and creates a downward spiral. As leaders, we need to be able to counter the chaos and confusion with clarity and calm. We need to adopt practices that help us remain grounded and centered in the face of fear and uncertainty.
One of my tried and tested practices is to take time off and drive to the coast, my go-to place when the world around me seems to be falling apart. This week I took a long walk on the beach. I soaked in the gentle warmth of the late winter sun. I felt the damp sand between my toes and the cool breeze in my hair. I allowed the sound of the waves crashing on the shore to wash over me. I let go of all that I cannot predict, understand or control – and I re-connected with what I know. The sun that rises, the waves that break, the wind that blows. From this place, the virus no longer felt so scary and the uncertainty became easier to bear. I regained my clarity and calm.
What is your go-to practice for regaining clarity and calm? How do you integrate it in your life under normal circumstances? It could be a walk in the forest, a run or a swim. Or maybe a creative pursuit such as painting, dancing, journaling or sculpting. It might be having a conversation with someone you trust, a regular meditation practice, or simple breathing exercises.
To lead through uncertainty, we must have our own way to center ourselves, become clear and calm. In this period of extreme uncertainty, how are you using it and how is it impacting your wellbeing – and the wellbeing of those you lead?
The key for us, as leaders, is knowing how to shift ourselves out of fear and confusion into a place of knowing we can handle the challenges in front of us. The quality of our inner state has a direct impact on those around us who are looking for direction. Just as our fear engenders fear in others, so does our feeling of calm and safety. If we enjoy inner balance and a clear vision of the world, we’ll have a better capacity to enable others to feel calm, confident and safe.
Today, when the world seems to be falling apart under the infamous C-word, take a moment to reflect on your grounding practice. If you don’t yet have one, notice what helps you come back to yourself. And then use the extra time (perhaps freed up by this crisis) to experiment. Find what helps you to lead with greater calm and clarity through these difficult times.
Leaders’ Quest equips leaders with the capabilities to thrive in uncertain and disrupted times. Our leadership workshops can be adapted to your context and needs.
To help you tune in with your energy sources – and keep your spirits up to show up at your best – Leaders’ Quest will be runs virtual and in-person personal energy management workshops.
These sessions are an ideal way to connect with others and build your energy collectively. To learn more, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Towards a Regenerative Economy – the Seven Domains of Transformation
Globalised industrial capitalism has been a powerful system for generating and distributing wealth. It has supported massive population growth, lifted billions out of poverty, and brought countless labour-saving devices to people around the world.
At the same time, we face the unintended consequences of this success – an economy operating beyond our planetary boundaries, and systemic levels of inequality that generate social instability.
Many people are working to innovate the ‘rules of the game’ so that business and our global economy can use their influence to address these unintended consequences. Below we sketch seven ‘domains of transformation’: areas where existing initiatives can deliver solutions that will deliver a Regenerative Economy.
These domains are offered to inspire hope, and provoke inquiry, partnerships and further innovation. This kind of complex landscape is inevitably flawed – so please feel free to offer suggestions for further domains, and fresh examples of promising initiatives.
1. The madness and wisdom of crowds
We often miss the power of crowds to form social movements – for good or ill – but they may trigger faster political change.
A few to consider:
The move to a sharing economy: eg millennials not wanting to own a car.
Rapid dietary shifts towards veganism (or flexitarianism!), fuelling early-stage investment in the Great Protein Transition. (Why intensively farm cows when you can make burgers with less animal cruelty and environmental damage?)
Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes: over 1.5 million schoolchildren (and growing) taking to the streets.
2. Fourfold fiscal asymmetry
Current tax regimes tilt the economic playing field in at least four unhelpful ways:
Is it acceptable to society that the world’s biggest tech companies pay so little tax, while SMEs – the creators of most innovation and jobs – pay full corporation tax? How can society pay for roads and schools when the wealthiest corporate citizens don’t play their part? Recent attempts at transfer-pricing reform have been inadequate. Perhaps Tax Inspectors Without Borders or the OECD work to implement a Global Minimum Tax will make a difference?
Subsidies for fossil fuels and taxes on jobs and profits! Shouldn’t we use the tax system to incentivise desirable outcomes, and discourage damaging ones? See the work of Ex-Tax on this.
Two insights are key. Firstly, that freedom doesn’t drive entrepreneurs; limits do. Innovation is driven by constraints. Ask an engineer to make something smaller, lighter, faster, and watch the creativity fly!
Secondly, Earth systems scientists have defined the biophysical limits within which our global economy must operate (the 9 Planetary Boundaries.) We are already breaking three: GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, and nutrient flows (nitrogen and phosphorous).
The standard economic response is: “Just implement a global Pigouvian price.” (A tax on any market activity that generates costs not included in the market price, such as emitting carbon dioxide). This might work, but we have a poor track record of negotiating global fiscal instruments.
An alternative has emerged: Science Based Targets for business. To date, over 540 major companies have committed to reducing carbon emissions, in line with climate change science. This year the initiative will be extended to cover the eight other planetary boundaries.
Investors are already demanding evidence that companies are aligning their plans with such targets. Governments, such as Japan, are encouraging their take-up, and the G20 Financial Stability Board has issued guidance recommending all major companies and finance sector players ensure their business strategies are compatible with this limit. (The Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure was chaired by Mike Bloomberg).
Given growing awareness of the catastrophic destruction of biodiversity, it’s possible that progress on climate will soon extend to other aspects of our economic impact on nature.
4. Stewards of the future
Governance matters. Who sits at the table determines which conversations do/don’t take place, and which trade-offs are deemed acceptable. The German economy has thrived despite – or because of – the inclusion of works council representatives on supervisory boards. But decision-making is often short-term, and rarely considers the environment or future generations.
What if representatives of nature (and the future), sat on each board? Hydrogen car company River Simple is experimenting with this form of radical governance.
Entrepreneurs tend to follow certain forms of behaviour, but there are alternative corporate forms. Perhaps the best known is the B-Corp, a movement comprising over 2,700 businesses worldwide (example: publicly listed Danone is working to full B-Corp certification).
5. Beware WGMGM!
It’s a managerial truism: what gets measured gets managed. But what if we are measuring the wrong thing? Politicians and economists have long pursued an obsessive goal of growing GDP per capital. Yet ever since its inception as a crude measure of economic scale (in the 1930s), economists have known it’s a flawed metric.
It includes all sorts of economic activity – eg the cost of policing and incarcerating criminals – that don’t necessarily equate to quality of life. And it fails to capture others which do contribute to a better society – such as home care and volunteering. And of course, GDP does not measure the economic damage caused as we destroy natural capital.
But fixing our definition of P+L targets – remember, in the business world there’s EBIT, EBITDA etc, and the choice does matter – still leaves a gaping hole. We have no effective balance sheets for national accounts. Consider that the USA currently has an economic liability of overdue maintenance on its bridges of over $70 billion. There’s some real work for economists here.
6. Earthmoney makes the world go around?
The value of money has always been tied to something of physical value. Many believe the gold standard, the latest manifestation, was relegated to history in 1944, when the Bretton Woods Agreement linked international currencies to the dollar (rather than gold).
But the dollar was still tied to gold (the USA held 75% of global gold reserves at the time) and this linkage lasted until 1971. We are less than 50 years into an experiment that has severed all ties between the value of money and something physical.
Some might argue that this led to the financialization of the global economy, and the supremacy of Wall Street over Main Street. Money is created in two ways: approximately 3% is issued by governments, which print money; the remaining 97% is created by banks issuing loans.
New technology could change this. Blockchain has created a slew of new, decentralised currencies (Bitcoin is the prime example). But each Bitcoin is issued when someone solves an increasingly difficult computation puzzle, so it isn’t backed by anything physical. Recent cryptocurrencies are backed by sustainable economic transactions. For example, SolarCoin creates a currency unit whenever a registered power generator creates 1 kwh of electricity from solar panels.
As remote sensing capabilities combine with secure decentralised blockchain platforms, we may be on the verge of the creation of a ‘GaiaCoin’. It would be issued on the back of sustainable economic transactions (eg the procurement of a unit of sustainable palm oil).
This would be constrained by the total value of global ecosystems, usable by all in further transactions, and fully democratic (ie not controlled by any government). Perhaps one day the GaiaCoin will form part of the international basket of currencies?
7. The new laws of nature
The law is a component of capitalism infrastructure. The protection of property is the prime example, but the very notion of a company is an invented abstraction. It treats a company as a fictitious person in the eyes of the law. This is odd when you come to think of it!
So, the nature of our laws, and their application, will be central to the evolution of our economic system. Three trends stand out:
The enhanced application of existing laws, exemplified by the work of Client Earth. This legal NGO works on cases against national/city governments, compelling them to comply with existing environmental law. Recent wins include forcing the Dutch government to increase the scope of its climate law, and inducing several major cities to address illegal levels of air pollution.
The concept of Ecocide – written into the original articles of the UN, but deleted during negotiations. Recently deceased lawyer Polly Higgins made good progress in championing the idea that this should be recognised as a crime – allowing citizens to take companies and governments to court for actions deemed to have destroyed whole ecosystems.
The idea of legal rights for nature is gaining traction. Already written into the constitutions of New Zealand, Columbia and Ecuador, there are calls for this change to go mainstream.
What I learned about leadership by looking at moss
Leaders’ Quest Founding Partner, Lindsay Levin, reflects on how – in the face of pressing global challenges – we need to make the time to look at things differently.
Many years ago, I visited a forest in southwest England with an ecologist friend. He was describing the carbon cycle, explaining how forests and rivers work as part of the earth’s ecosystem. He asked me to lie face down on the ground and look at what was in front of me.
I lay there looking at all this lichen and moss right before my eyes. I saw clouds of colour, tiny flowers, exquisite patterns. And I thought about some photographs I’d seen recently – images of the universe taken from the space telescope Hubble.
Whenever I see these space images I’m reminded of an ancient Buddhist story about Indra, the God of the Heavens.
According to this story, when Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a net, and at every knot in the net he tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea – is a pearl in the net. And every single pearl reflects an image of the entire web. It’s a symbol of the universe as a web of connections.
Lying on that forest floor, I understood this idea for the first time. The beauty of the tiniest elements of nature and the wonder of a vast universe. The sense that each is part of the other. That we are all connected.
So, what does this have to do with leadership?
The idea that we’re all connected might sound obvious to some – but it can feel conspicuously absent in a world where the focus is on competition and individual attainment.
We’re now 10 years on from the financial crisis of 2008. Many of the consequences of that crisis – and the crazy excesses and leadership failures that led to it – are still with us. But today, I believe we’re in the middle of an even greater one.
Politically, in many places – including my home country Britain, and my adopted home in the US – we’re in uncharted waters. Socially, we’re facing real problems of inequality and polarisation. Ecologically, we’ve crossed into unprecedented territory. According to a recent UN report, we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change.
According to the UN’s recent report, we have just 12 years to limit climate catastrophe
Asking the big questions
As leaders, it can be all too easy to focus on the daily concerns of our own organisations. There’s a natural tendency to break things down into units that we understand and have some control over. It’s what companies do. Business leaders don’t want to spend their time worrying about things over which they have little influence. They have short-term targets to meet, and even doing that is extraordinarily hard.
But I believe there are bigger questions to ask. For instance: with the world’s population set to reach 9+ billion people by 2050, how can build a regenerative future, in which we live rewarding lives, in well-functioning societies, in harmony with the planet?
It’s a daunting question! But we must tackle these dilemmas. We can’t address today’s complexity in silos.
Our modern economies, our current way of doing business – where we measure financial outcomes but rarely focus on social or environmental ones – are simply not sustainable.
Business can be an incredible force for good. Companies have played a crucial role in human advancement. But some of the models that served us well in the past need a serious rethink. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Life is change. Nothing stands still. The idea that capitalism doesn’t need to evolve is absurd.
One of our great leadership challenges today is to turn a situation that feels frightening and overwhelming, into an opportunity to reimagine how we live and work. To see it as an invitation to creativity, passion and brilliance. To view this not as a political, national or business agenda, but as a human one.
What I’m describing sounds hugely ambitious – and some may say idealistic. But I would describe it as pragmatic.
At Leaders’ Quest, we believe people sometimes need a wake-up call to step up and shape a different future. To be reminded that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s why we focus on experiential learning in our leadership development work. We believe it’s the most powerful way to shift perspectives.
Increasingly, we’re asking our own version of the big question:
What kind of leaders do we need to build a regenerative future?
In reply, I offer four suggestions, inspired by the sense of awe and connection I felt looking at that lichen on the forest floor – and 17 years of working with senior leaders from business, government and non-profits:
First, we have to get over ourselves!
To get out of our own way. To let go of the fear of losing out or being insignificant; and the need to measure ourselves against one another to know we matter. This requires profound personal growth. It’s about slowing down as the world appears to speed up. Recalibrating between an obsession with doing, and a better balance with being. It’s about purpose, compassion, curiosity, humility. We won’t solve collective problems if we’re not committed to growing as individuals.
Second, we have to learn to lead from uncertainty.
To get comfortable with not knowing. To become better listeners and learn to disagree more intelligently. To balance having one foot in the present and one in the future, because so many of the decisions we make today have an impact 10, 20 years down the road. And the consequences of ignoring this are more profound than ever before. It’s a brave thing: owning our uncertainty.
Third, we need radical collaboration.
I’m thinking about the painstaking consensus-building that led to the Paris Agreement. In Leaders’ Quest we talk about relentless generosity. Some people get upset with me for using this word relentless, but I think it’s fundamental to collaboration and it’s not easy! It means constantly expanding our own circle of compassion. Balancing power and love and how we use each of them.
Finally, we need to make time to shift our perspectives.
I believe we can all find opportunities to pause and shift our perspective – whether in a forest, on the street or at our desks. To seek moments of stillness where we can experience things differently. To really appreciate the interconnectedness of life. And the power and responsibility and possibility that comes with it.