Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I spent a busy and productive weekend teaching students in a PhD program at Benedictine University, outside of Chicago. The program is named “Values-driven Leadership,” and I was one of several others talking sustainability to the candidates. The preparation for this class propelled me into closely examining some of the underlying ideas in my own work on sustainability.
At one point in the program, I asked the students what a “leader” is? I offered this definition as a conversation starter: “A leader is an actor who has a clear consciousness of his or her important (the topmost) values, and is able to enroll others in enacting them.” I was a little wary of raising a question about the name of the program, but it started a long and fruitful conversation. After the discussion and with some reflection on the plane ride home, I have changed this to read, “A leader is an actor who has a clear consciousness of a vision of the future and is able to enroll others in realizing it in the present.”
I believe the key to leadership is acting out of a vision of the future. Alfred Schutz, a German philosopher and social theorist said, “Our actions are conscious if we have previously mapped them out in ‘future perfect tense.’” For those, like me, that have forgotten our grade school grammar lessons, this means talking in the present about something that has already happened in the future. I think it fully describes vision. Vision is a portrayal of how we wish the world to be in the next moment. A consciousness of time is critical. It is always something other than the world already is; otherwise we would be simply describing what is now.
Schutz’s definition suggests that action is intentional by definition. Acting has the sense of bringing the future into the present; it is always aimed at changing the world. An actor always intends to change the status quo. Action does not, then, define all of the movements of the body that an observer might look upon. We might make a “Freudian” slip, saying something by mistake. Speaking is also a form of action; we intend to change the world via what we say. Slipping on the ice is also not action by this definition. When we act on our own, we might say we are leading ourselves toward a vision of the future. The action, per se, tells us we have enrolled ourselves in the act.
When we act after a request or any directive (order, demand, command, plea, etc.) coming from someone else, we are simply following the leader according to the definition above. I have written so far in a rather academic fashion to dispel the mystique that so often goes with a discussion of leaders and leadership. In the phenomenology I fall back onto to make sense of the world being presented to my sensory organs, I become conscious of changes in the context of a static background. What these changes mean needs an explanation from the actors or from me, the observer. If there are no human actors out there to tell me what is going on, I have to fall back on all the science I learned, on my own experience of having observed a related situation earlier, or by invoking some mysterious transcendent process.
A leader, thus, shows up only after the fact, and according to two criteria: 1) his or her statement that the action that ensued came from a vision of a future perfect state, and 2) an acknowledgement by others involved that they were acting in response to the directive. Sometimes leaders, by this definition, have difficulties in explaining what their vision was. In organizations or any collection of people acting routinely, both the leader and the vision fade into the background after a while, but were present when the routines were being learned.
The many scholars who have studied how leaders arise and act in social settings have described a diverse set of models that can be used explain the basis of “leadership” and to train leaders. These models connect to many styles of leadership, ranging from charismatic to servant. I am not going to discuss leadership in further detail in this post. Every school of management has at least one course devoted to the subject of leadership, often embedded in a class on organizational behavior. Getting back to the opening paragraphs, I am going to probe the idea of values-driven or mission-driven leadership because these names are cropping up in MBA curricula in many places and sustainability as I define it needs a clear understanding of what they mean. From the outset, I will say that I think these labels are misleading. Action always follows a vision of the state of the world that the actor aims to create.
Again, in the phenomenology I come from, values are ascriptions given by observers to order the actions they observe over time according to some scale of importance. In the linguistic practices of modernity, the ascriptions have become reified, and we talk as if values were some thing resting in the body. Values have no inherent content; they are a measure of importance. The commonly used term, family values, is nothing more than a code for a particular set of visions. Values and visions are linked, however. Visions are nothing but thoughts that float around in one’s consciousness. We all know how difficult it is to stop thinking and quiet the experience of consciousness. Values could be seen as the input to a kind of sorting mechanism that picks one of the visions to act on from the stream that goes roaring by. We are aware of our values only after we have acted for a while and can see patterns develop. If asked about them, we will respond with some answer, but the true set of values comes not from within, but only through the actualization in action. Because pressure from the societal voice that is always ringing in our ears is strong, our stated values may not be our own (authentic), but, rather, a response to show alignment with the norms.
Values-driven leaders are guided by a particular vision that stands out and becomes a source of attention. The combination of vision and values is critical to effective leadership. In stable organizations, the vision may have become so embedded in the consciousness that is is taken for granted. Mission-driven is, in my terms, a variant of vision-driven where the vision has been reduced to an explicit set of goals related to the kind of world the organization is seeking to create.
Why have I gone to such lengths so far? As usual, it’s because it pertains to sustainability. Sustainability needs leaders who are clear about the vision that constitutes it. Sustainability is the possibility that flourishing will emerge (and last for a while). Flourishing is the vision, couched in the context of the future perfect tense. Possibility always refers to some state in the future that we would like to see realized in the next present moment. Further, since flourishing is an emergent property of the planetary system that is always in flux, we can never be certain flourishing, even if present today, will stick around until tomorrow.
Anyone who would lead us toward flourishing must always come from its vision, even when it appears to be present. The same would be said of anything that is only a possibility. Values may be enough in the machine-like world we think we inhabit. We can stop thinking about the outcome and focus only on the levers we have to pull to keep the machine running. This thinking has gotten us into deep trouble because we have stopped envisioning the future—the ends, and act only toward the means—the machine. If sustainability-as-flourishing is your goal, please stop talking only about being values-driven and make this vision the source of your leadership.