Let’s face it, the future is uncertain. It always has been. Perhaps though, the dependency of the future on “leadership” has never been quite so profound. In their times, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Caesar Augustus ruled over astonishing swaths of humanity. They shaped history. But none of them had the capacity to melt vast glaciers, to swamp whole sea-coasts, to turn great rainforest basins into prairies, and continental prairies into vast deserts. The very notion would have been absurd to them.
Fast forward to 2022, and the leader of a single middle-power nation has more power over the future of humanity than these legendary conquerors of history. Just consider what was at stake for climate, deforestation, and biodiversity in the recent election in Brazil. And if that’s true, we must also expect that leaders of major corporations also enjoy a power to shape the future conditions of humanity in ways that exceed the great conquerors of antiquity. Money is an index of power. Measured by annual revenue, of the top 100 entities in the world, 63 are corporations. Brazil is number 8 on that list, just ahead of Canada at 9, and Walmart at 10. Measured the same way, Shell, Exxon, BP, and Toyota are all bigger than Russia.
COP 27 is on the doorstep, and we can already hear voices pointing to the inauthenticity of corporate leaders gathering there to “greenwash.” In cases where there has been a systematic attempt to deceive (such as corporate sponsorship of climate-change denial) the harshest criticism is warranted. But we should also consider another dynamic at play – adjusting a society, or a corporation to the “sustainable” setting is harder than it looks.
Sure, there’s help available. The research community has modeled cause and effect relationships with ever-growing clarity. The software industry has jumped into action to provide tools for measuring, managing and reporting emissions. The consulting industry has jumped into action to support methodologies for identifying issues, and setting priorities. Regulatory agencies are moving to enforce transparency around “Double Materiality” and the investment community is increasingly attentive to risks of both stranded assets and disconnects with consumers, employees and civil society at large. Still, adjusting to “sustainable” mode is complex despite all the help that is available.
For leaders of states, and corporations, what’s proving hardest about adjusting to “sustainable mode” is getting the great bulk of people to change their behaviour – and doing it at scale and speed. And one of the things that makes that hard is a double-bind of human psychology. On the one hand – we humans have an evolved capacity for trading off long-term rewards in favour of short term satisfactions. And at the same time when we face up to something terrifying – like, say a growling tiger, or the prospect of the oceans boiling off into space – we develop tunnel vision, we become “reactive” and we allow the primitive “fight or flight” part of our brain to take charge of our actions, and interactions.
This brings us back to leadership. Given that the leaders of nations and corporations have unprecedented power to shape the very future of the planet, they also have unprecedented responsibility to deal both skillfully and ethically with both these quirks of human psychology: They need to draw attention to the long-term rewards of collective action on sustainability, and they need to do so in a way that does not trigger tunnel vision, and atavistic instincts of self-preservation that fuel divisions. Instead they need to activate creativity and mobilize collective action aimed at shared long-term rewards.
Interestingly – in the corporate setting this is exactly what “Double Materiality Assessment” at its best can and should accomplish. If you’re a leader who wants to bring about this kind of effect among the people in your organisation – these tips can help.