My emotional job as a leader in sustainability

I keep in touch with Olympic gold medalist, Extinction Rebellion activist and guest on my podcast, Etienne Stott MBE. I think I can say we’re becoming friends despite not having met in person yet. England is a long way to sail and neither of us wants to pollute much. He shared some stories about his activism:

He shared more of the bleakness of watching society capitulate, mixed with how protesters feel psyched when acting. In my email back, I ended up covering what I find the greatest challenges of leading cultural change.

Is the greatest challenge avoiding meat or flying? Hardly. Avoiding them is joy. Is it saving money? No, despite everyone arguing that saving money costs money (I’d think they were crazy, but they just don’t know that McDonald’s doesn’t save time or money), saving money saves money.

It’s other people. They push back like crazy at someone doing something different, even when it benefits them.

Here’s what I wrote him:

I read the news stories and your reports with dismay at the situation and inspiration at your dedication.

To answer your question about my end, regarding bleakness, I feel like giving up every day. As landfills overflow and piles of garbage in the street reach six feet high, people blithely buy every single piece of food they eat, every liquid they consume packaged, not putting together that they are paying to drive a system in which living requires polluting. At every level from consumer to CEO, board member, elected political representative, celebrity role model, professors, and so on, with rare exception, everyone accepts and supports pollution from plastic bottles to container ships transporting junk, to space tourism, to extracting more resources, displacing more people from their lands, killing more plants and wildlife, and you know it all as well as anyone.

I’ve come to conclude that one of my major tasks is developing the social and emotional skills to find how to transform the powerful emotions of dismay, helplessness, and such into the powerful emotions of determination even enthusiasm. To recognize that I can’t change the past or things beyond my control, but that my sense of reward, meaning, and purpose don’t come from them. They come from how close I reach my potential for effective action, which I can control. Then I see that my potential sense of reward, meaning, and purpose is limitless and the route to it is to learn more how to lead myself and others to effective action based on authentic, genuine, intrinsic motivation.

I’m constantly struggling to find new strategies and tactics that work better or refine existing ones. Over time they are developing into new practices that I believe will work to lead polluters to choose to stop polluting based on their intrinsic motivations. Writing my book proposal (and, I hope, soon the book too, if a publisher offers me a deal) helps a lot. Sometimes I make a big breakthrough, like a decision-maker asks for advice and acts on it, which feels great. My ultimate measure of success, though, is people transforming themselves and organizations to embrace sustainability. I’ve barely made a difference by that measure, however much groundwork I’ve laid so far, so will keep at it.

Was that too long an answer? I hope you don’t mind my taking the liberty of using your openness with your vulnerability and your question to prompt reflection at a higher level than my usual daily level.

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