Story-telling on sustainability as urgent crises rise
I have written before about the Leaders Circles I host with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar, where the participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.
The topic of the last one I reported on was “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example”, and we certainly needed a dose of that optimism to reflect on our latest theme, “Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind”.
Our invitation letter spelled out that as we continue adapting to the disruptive challenges of Covid, and as we struggle to handle other ongoing global issues such as inequality and climate change, we are more than ever obliged to look beyond tomorrow, beyond the next quarter.
Responsible leadership requires us to focus on sustainability, the introductory letter continued, suggesting this implies being fair to all key stakeholders.
“Short-term imperatives must be balanced with long-term aspirations, and we must figure out how to influence people to endure sacrifices today so we and those who come after us can prosper tomorrow,” we wrote, “All this in an increasingly unpredictable world, one where change keeps accelerating relentlessly.”
During our afternoon together several among us talked about feeling overwhelmed by global threats such as climate change, given both the scale and urgency of the issue and the refusal by far too many to adapt despite the fast-increasing severity of the disruptions it causes.
For even when crises like climate change or Covid or violent conflicts hit us, to whatever extent change is the only route through which sustainability can be achieved, too often the needed transformation is obstinately blocked.
Frank and I always search for appropriate quotes to display around the room that can inspire our storytellers, and among those we selected on this occasion was this one from nurse Terry Swearingen, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize: “We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”
We also included Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”, and a Native American proverb which reminded us that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
The afternoon was far from filled with fatalistic dismay though, as we resonated with this wonderful assurance from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Like when one participant shared that “when something in this world moves you, that’s when you can follow your passion and make a difference, doing what you can in your sphere of influence.”
Among us were a couple of peace-builders, one of whom talked about the need to embrace the Ubuntu message of “I am because we are”, and this in a contemporary world where the compassionate “We” has increasingly given way to the selfish “I” of short-term personal gratification.
If we are to build sustainable societies, the other peace-builder contributed, we must work at resolving conflicts, overcome bureaucracy and mend broken institutions – however hard this is to do. Which leads me to another of our quotes, from Gaylord Nelson: “There is a great need for the introduction of new values in our society, where bigger is not necessarily better, where slower can be faster, and where less can be more.”
We heard about professionalising family businesses so they can survive multiple generations; about keeping our hearts open during these times of Covid, being fair and empathetic to both our employees and our customers; and about ensuring our organisations promote the kind of trustworthy cultures that allow them to operate effectively even in these days of physical separation.
As our minds and spirits have been stretched by what the pandemic has thrown at us we have had to force ourselves to think beyond day-to-day issues, we heard, to engage with each other more deeply and to find new ways of coping.
Being a Covid survivor myself, I mentioned that I almost missed out on being sustainable a few months ago. But happily I am now back in action, relating to our final quote, from Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”