Leaders-toward-Sustainability: The Importance of the Dashes

leaders wanted

I am going to teach a weekend class in a few months in a new Ph.D. program in “Values-Driven Leadership” at Benedictine College near Chicago. My class is named “Leading Corporate Sustainability.” In preparing for the class, I have had to visit the concepts named in the syllabus I share with a few other instructors. The following come from the topmost level in the description of the course: value-driven, leadership, and corporate sustainability. I suspect I start with a different view of these than do the rest of my colleagues.

Let’s start with “corporate sustainability.” If you look at the semantics of the phrase, it means a condition in which the corporation prospers for a long time. I don’t think this is what it was meant to refer to, but there it is. It’s important to get this straight because so many firms are adopting a program of “corporate sustainability,” complete with a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and a well-equipped PR department. It is great to see firms show that they are thinking about sustainability, but they have it mostly or completely wrong. Sustainability is a property of the whole system in which the firm is situated and is interconnected to many other nodes: other firms, customers, the natural environment, regulators, banks and so on and on. What matters is the health of that worldly system, not the health of any particular enterprise. Sorry to break the bad news, but that’s the way it is, like the three musketeers motto: “All for one, one for all.”

Sustainability, the word alone, refers to the ability of a system to create some desired output continuously. It means absolutely nothing in practice without naming the end being sought. That is why I struggled for some time to come up with an end to sustain that would capture the bundle of ends I identified in my own work on the subject over some years. I settled on flourishing as a workable metaphor for the bundle of things that make life worth living and produce well-being. Further, the concept appears universally in all cultures, and applies to both individual organisms and collectives: cultures (human) and ecosystems (non-human).

Now a small diversion before continuing. The world is in such bad shape because our dominant social paradigm no longer fits the world. As long as we operate according to its structure, we will continue to produce unintended consequences that threaten and even overwhelm the desired outcomes. We need a new story to guide us. In the jargon of change theory, one might say, “We need a new paradigm, but, here, new story will do for the time being.” The job of “leaders-toward-sustainability” (note carefully that I have changed the connection and relationship between the words “leader” and “sustainability”) is to embody the new story and impart it to those with whom they coordinate their actions, whether at home, in enterprises, on the ball field, the halls of legislatures—everywhere.

So this kind of leadership is not values-driven; it’s vision-driven. People leading the way toward sustainability-as-flourishing must begin with a vision of the world they hope to create, enlisting the help of others. Values is another piece of jargon. What does it really mean? When we see the phrase, values-driven, we are supposed to imagine someone acting from a base of internalized lofty ideals, all of which are “good” in the philosopher’s sense of good. Even using this model of action, we know that some “leaders” act out of a set of values that many would deem as “bad.” They, however, are just as value-driven as the good guys.

Values do not reside in the practical consciousness—the embedded cognitive structure that guides action. They are only ascriptions as to the cause of the actions that are made by an observer (who may be the actor). They relate to the ordering of actions in the context in which they are seen. By observing actions carefully over time, one can tease out the ends (intentions) of the actions and order them according the frequency and effort involved. The array of actions, so ordered, can be translated into a scale of values, a word used to predict how actors act over time and according to the situational context. The actor can also assert, if asked, what his or her values are, but these belong to the disconnected realm of discursive consciousness, and may or may not line up with the observations. We know that people often say one thing about their values and act in a contradictory manner. I tend to leave “values” out of my vocabulary and encourage others to do the same unless we are clear how we are using the term.

In place of values, I use the word, care. Humans care about the world they inhabit. Their actions arise out of that caring. This simple statement is a fundamental part of the new story that a leader-toward-sustainability(-as-flourishing) must embody. We are not creatures with insatiable wants/desires although that is what the current political economy wants us to believe. When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans and all the rest of that world out there. Flourishing is a state when all our cares are being addressed satisfactorily.

We are not Cartesian beings with a mind separate from the body, taking in and representing the world. We learn through experiencing the world via the actions we engage in. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist I often quote, writes, “Learning is doing; doing is learning.” Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing works in essentially the same way. We find the truth in practice, and express it as statements that underpin and explain our successful actions. And if the cares that drive actors are persistent and important, we seek this kind of truth by continually experimenting and acting until we arrive at the end we envisioned: flourishing in this case. Flourishing is nothing more than a state recognized when one says, “My cares are being satisfied, at least for the moment.” Not just the narcissistic set of cares directed inwardly, but all of one’s cares, including other people (the social world) and the external world (nature or the environment in conventional terms).

It would be all right, in the name of expediency, to drop the word flourishing from the definition of sustainability if we were all in agreement that this is end we are talking about and seeking. Unfortunately, there is no such agreement out there yet and so talk about sustainability without any end in sight is largely impotent, confusing, and, worse, produces mischief by those who see the drive toward flourishing as threatening. I will. however, drop the word in this post because by now you should know I always append “-as-flourishing” to sustainability in my mind.

The next part of the new story that leaders-toward-sustainability must learn is a different model of how the world works; maybe learning it first through some didactic method, but ultimately by doing. The world is not the (complicated) machine that Descartes and his followers thought it was. It is a complex system, different from the machine-like Cartesian model in important and fundamental ways; so different that we can say that complexity is part of another paradigm. The complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behavior. Future behavior cannot be related to the present and past states of the system with any certainty that the predicted outcome will occur. Further, the future states may be disconnected from the present and be located in an entirely different region where behavioral patterns are nothing like those of the past.

The behavior of complex systems requires a different kind of decision-making process than we have become accustomed to. Leaders and ordinary managers of all sorts should understand that all organizations involving humans are complex, but perhaps not quite as challenging as is sustainability. What I have said for sustainability goes for managing or, better, governing in general. In the past we have used analytic knowledge about the system at hand, gleaned from scientific studies and logically related to those studies. We call on experts to construct the best way to move ahead, in essence predicting the future. But they cannot tell us the unintended consequences that come along as hitchhikers and have become so large that they have produced today’s unsustainable world.

The requisite understanding to guide the world toward flourishing is best found in those who have observed the behavior of the system and have acquired local, rather than positive, knowledge. The leader’s frame must be pragmatic, as above, where no one is particularly privileged with the learning needed to guide the system effectively. The Greeks knew this. They called the kind of knowledge to use used in governing, phronesis, close to what we call wisdom. They saw this body of knowledge as distinct from theoria, the kind of knowledge that Cartesian methodology, which has evolved into the scientific method, produces. Our paradigm today collapses the two, and tends to devalue wisdom.

This feature of the world, the new story we need to follow, requires leaders to enlist many others with the same understanding and interest in a flourishing future, that is, those who share the leader’s vision. Charisma doesn’t help; neither does a type A personality or a Myers-Briggs ENTJ Type. Listening skills become paramount. I’ve written more than usual, but this exercise was designed to help me prepare for my forthcoming class in developing leaders-toward-sustainability. Having a vision of where you want to get to is essential, operationally more important and relevant than whatever values one holds. For a while, it’s critical to join flourishing explicitly with sustainability and sustainability to leadership (why the dashes appear), and soft pedal the values label.

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2 Comments

Indigo Johnson said:

I'm a member of the class that you will be visiting. We are tasked with reading volumes upon volumes of literature and documents pertaining to sustainability. As a part of an assignment to blog, I just read through your many blog entries, and WOW!!! Your voice is to be heard, and I'm looking forward to hearing it in a couple of weeks. Safe travels...
Indigo

Tiago said:

http://seedmagazine.com/slideshow/appetite_destruction/