Few would debate the need for radical social change (RSC). It feels that we’re facing myriad problems, as a global society, that, while RSC wouldn’t be sufficient to solve all of them, it is necessary to solve all of them (ambiguity acknowledged).
I come to this through a lens of climate change. In my opinion, technology is an important part of the solution and we have all the technological know-how and capacity that we need to move rapidly to carbon-free world. So, the challenge at this point is not technical. This problem is ‘solvable’ (ambiguity acknowledged). The challenge is swaying hearts and minds to make the RSC we need to make.
I think that we’re seeing some organic, grass-roots RSC but that won’t be enough to solve climate change. We need leadership to inspire broad-based RSC. We’re facing a threat far more existential than WW-II and yet our willingness to make change in the face of this threat pales in comparison to the civic-engagement and the willingness of the masses to make sacrifices during WW-II (think the Victory Garden Movement or Rosie the Riveter). We need leaders.
Which leads me to contemplate leadership styles. I want your help here, dear reader, in thinking through a specific question on the relative merits of two leadership styles; I’ll call them the AG style and the GT style.
Both AG and GT leaders are equivalent in terms of their morals, their sense of service and commitment, and their understanding of the science of climate change. We’re making no judgment as to their relative moralities, we’re just evaluating the capacity of their leadership to inspire global RSC.
Here’s how their styles differ:
- AG leaders will not hesitate to hop on a private jet to fly from (say) Virginia to Oslo to attend important meetings on climate change. In so, they incur quite a bit more carbon emissions than they might do had they chosen alternate modes of travel.
- GT leaders will choose to sail from Sweden to the Americas to attend important meetings on climate change. While their chosen mode of travel is practically carbon-free, it’s time-consuming and effortful.
Which style will be more effective in inspiring the RSC that we need?
I don’t think that this important question has one right answer but in contemplating it out loud, I’ve come across the opinion that the leader must lead by example. This opinion often leads to disqualification of the AG style, in favor of the GT style, often with a hint of judgment.
I struggled with the conclusion that the AG leader should be disqualified. Should he or she be disqualified? Even if we may find the style hypocritical or morally problematic, is that grounds for disqualification?
Now the answer is pretty simple. When we look back in 50 years, either the leader’s actions, regardless of the carbon costs of their lifestyle choices1, will have been credited with inspiring the RSC needed to save the world or not. If the AG leader’s work clearly succeeded in saving the world, then their actions and leadership style are entirely justifiable.
While the AG model may be justifiable, and even perhaps required, I do admire and respect the integrity of the GT style – so much that I often choose that style. But – we must be careful to not let the moral appeal of the GT style dissuade us from also supporting a different style that might ultimately, save the world.
1 For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that while one leader may make more extravagant lifestyle choices than the other, neither leader will contribute enough CO2 emissions through their lifestyle choices to significantly impact the fate of the planet.