Our planet (our home) is in trouble, there is little dispute. Freshwater is becoming ever scarcer, wildlife populations have declined exponentially since the 70s and the burning of fossil fuels is having horrific impacts on the environment.
Speaking about climate change recently, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon appealed for ‘leaders to act’. When we hear rallying cries like this we tend to think of world leaders. We look to governments to solve problems and make tough decisions that seem abstract to our daily lives.
More and more people however, believe that the corporate sector will bring solutions to aid the creation of a fairer, greener, more equitable world long before governments wake up to the urgency of the problem. And, this must go deeper than business innovation; this is about recasting corporate purpose to accomplish a great change to our economic and social system – so we can live within the carrying capacity of our planet.
In my work at Earthwatch and study with the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, I come across many people who are quietly working away inside their organisations to shift the needle on sustainability. They would not define themselves as leaders, they may not be at the top of the hierarchy or hold the large pay packets or be particularly ‘charismatic’, but they are definitely leaders in my view.
Conversations with them reveal that in spite of cross sector working groups and online communities, driving change is a lonely business that often feels futile; it is all too easy to lose momentum and fall into old habits. A recent report from the Guardian identified that even CEOs feel powerless to drive sustainability in their companies given the pressure to achieve short-term success.
In ecology there is a concept called resilience, defined as the capacity of species or ecosystems to deal with change and continue to develop. To my mind, our sustainability leaders need more support to become resilient and hold on to the sense of purpose that drives them.
The Co-Active coaching model has a lot to offer here: a fulfilling life is not about owning more things and achieving more goals, it is about a life of meaning and the ability to imagine a future where this meaning can be lived and honoured.
Fulfillment can exist when daily life feels uncomfortable and exhausting. As Whitworth, et al. remind us "the paradox of fulfillment is that it is possible both to have a sense of inner peace and to experience an outer struggle at the same time." Co-Active coaches hold this as a guiding principle and as such can be (and already are), powerful enablers for sustainability leaders, offering recognition and acknowledgement for what can be a thankless quest.
Co-Active coaches seek to connect with their client’s hearts, minds, bodies and spirits, rather than simply focusing on individual problems and working with ‘the head’ as some coaching disciplines tend to do. I have seen for myself the re-connection that takes place in clients through this approach – often preceded by a sense of discomfort at the idea of listening to the body, perhaps for the first time since childhood.
This way of working is immensely powerful for sustainability and many would argue that rational Western thought has separated us from the natural world and led to the crisis we now find ourselves in. According to the philosophy of deep ecology, bodily experience and emotional arousal can lead to a heightened sense of empathy for non-human life and an appreciation of how dependent we are on the well-being of nature for our own well-being.
This is the kind of transformation we need to induce if we are to visualise and create a sustainable future; we cannot do this with our intellect alone – as great as that may be. Love, care and empathy are not words that feature widely in management vocabulary but they deserve to be given a voice in organisations.
We need more powerful alliances between Co-Active coaches and sustainability leaders in order to nurture and sustain the courage to challenge organisational status quo so profit becomes just one driving force amongst many others, and to do so without feeling the pressure to replicate traditional models of leadership. There is no template for success. Everyone is creative, resourceful and whole.