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Managers of climate change

by Hinrich Mercker
Slowing down climate change requires more than overburdened experts chasing from conference to conference. We need leaders with new ideas and the courage to implement them. [ By Hinrich Mercker ]

From 7 to 18 December 2009, fifteen thousand people will meet in Copenhagen for the most important climate change summit of the year. Politicians involved in climate change and the environment, experts, lobbyists, representatives from business, NGOs, scientists, media representatives and development organisations from 192 countries will all be there. Among them are skeptics, the committed, cynics and those full of hope, but above all, hopelessly overburdened people. They rush from conference to conference, from one activity to the next. The pressure to perform is enormous. Meanwhile, climate change is a highly complex topic. We still cannot estimate precisely what would happen if several trigger switches were flipped simultaneously in the upheaval of global ecosystems.

As a consequence, work in the field of climate change is especially characterised by uncertainty, pressure to perform and complexity. Experts and decision makers from politics, business, science or civil society are becoming more and more specialised in various topics – at a time when creative and interdisciplinary action is most relevant. Leaders in the climate change sector need special leadership qualities if they are expected to be “hurdlers” as well as complexity managers, system thinkers and networkers at the same time: leadership skills with which they can forge international alliances and act beyond their national and personal horizons.

In the international debate on management and leadership, no one is sure any more about what skills these could be, especially since the economic and financial crisis. Traditional hierarchies are gradually disintegrating and managers have to redefine their identity as leaders. While one may follow the secrets of leadership in the backgrounds of Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama, for others, the lists with the supposed differences between managers and leaders are becoming longer and longer – and more arbitrary. The third stream, headed by strategy guru Gary Hamel, wants to reinvent the future of management and is reportedly already on track to Management 2.0.

Key competences

All agree, however, that leaders in fields as complex as climate change need certain key competences. According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in addition to disciplined, creative and synthetic thinking, ethical and respectful action is also required. Other approaches refer to interpersonal competence, empathy and interpretative competence. Over and above this, the actors in Copenhagen will need reflexive competence above all to ensure they do not resort to irresponsible action due to the enormous time pressure.

Three things are relevant for leaders who work in complex fields such as climate change: focus on meaning, mindfulness and learning from the future.

“The world is not well but it can be healed.” This phrase by Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) describes the challenge for those in positions of responsibility today. The feat of healing requires people who can deal with opposition, disunity and excessive demands. To do so, they have to have found meaning in their work.


According to Frankl, originator of logo­therapy and existential analysis, we are all searching for meaning and this is what motivates us.

This motivational approach has been rediscovered today as a basis for meaning-oriented management, for instance by Helmut Graf. It is based on three pillars:
– Motivation: man is only fully motivated if he has to deal with something that is higher than himself, be it a person or a task.
– Freedom to decide: despite multifaceted dependence, man has the freedom to decide how he responds to this.
– Responsibility: acting means always being responsible.

Leaders and decision makers who have answered questions of meaning and have a sound value system can further expand the boundaries of their thinking and become open to ethical problems.

Climate change negotiators are constantly faced with ethical problems when debating about equality, justice and responsibility in the international arena. India, for example, is currently asking to be allowed to raise per capita emissions to the level of industrialised countries. Anything else would be unjust. However, this would make the fight against climate change impossible. India emits 1.7 tonnes per capita today, compared with Germany’s 11.7 tonnes.

In the run-up to the conference in Copenhagen, hardly a day goes by without a new study on climate change, without rounds of votes in the EU between departments or organisations. Ministry officials reach the limits of their ability to withstand stress. The subject of climate change requires ideas and creativity, understanding and a "new communication ecology" – a term established by Miriam Meckel from the University of St. Gallen.

Mindfulness is the ability to see clearly what is happening at the present moment. Mindfulness is therefore always being mindful of something – an object, a direction or a subject. In this respect, mindfulness leads to concentration and enables new insights.

Take a break

In order to develop mindfulness, one has to be able to pause in the present accelerated society. Thich Nhat Hanh, an 82-year-old Vietnamese Zen master living in France, has developed ways to achieve this: be it through walking or seated meditation, deep relaxation or mindful breathing. He emphasises time and again the connection between times of silence, purely unintentional acts and intentional action in this world. Through the art of mindfulness, having regained their strength, leaders find access to their inner resources and thus adopt a mental attitude which allows them to immerse themselves completely, with more focused energy, in what they are doing at the time.

Climate change issues are problems of the present and the future. For example, what will happen if the rise in temperature is not limited to two degrees by 2050? Learning from the future in the field of climate change is therefore of particular importance, yet we are learning on the basis of our experiences in the past. So what happens if yesterday’s experiences are no longer sufficient if climate change forecasts get dramatically worse?

Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founder of the Presencing Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts spent many years of research and consulting studying how change comes about and how learning from the future is possible.­ ­In his book “Theory U”, he describes a ­­­u-shaped process in three movements:
– looking closely, observing and changing one’s perspective in order to identify where developments are leading (sensing),
– reflecting and retreating, searching for the “inner place of stillness”, where the new appears and wants to emerge (presencing) and, from there,
– moving quickly to the development of prototypes and possible courses of action and implementing them (prototyping).

Scharmer’s “Theory U” is a leadership approach and a roadmap for new learning. It is about the essence of creative action: to sense and then implement the new and that of the future. A large number of companies which consider themselves as learning organisations call this process corporate foresight or “thinking ahead”. In the representation of the highly complex field of climate change, it is not more of the same that is sought, but rather, to begin with, a paradigm shift in thinking, in perception and in responsible action.

The three competences for responsible leadership covered here mutually reinforce one another. The focus on meaning and values as a basis for the actions of a leader is substantiated time and again by the principle of mindfulness and can become efficacious through the three movements of “Theory U”.


In the past two decades, international cooperation has been devoted increasingly to organisations and systems. By doing so, the key actors of change, the leaders and “champions”, have faded more and more into the background. Today, responsible leadership is called for once again. It is time for a paradigm shift: it is time to look into principles and orientation guidelines for the work of decision makers and decision influencers.

The more quickly future scenarios become reality, in the field of climate change for example, the greater the necessity to face these challenges will be. And then it’s their turn: the champions of leadership, values-based, mindful and capable of learning anticipatively.