A Positive Deviant (PD) is someone who does the right thing for sustainability, despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and thoroughly uncooperative people.
Once a rare brave creature, now a growing band of PDs are creating a brilliant good news story. They are demonstrating to today’s panicking leaders that interconnected financial, ecological and social problems can have a happy resolution, if some basic sustainability principles are taken seriously.
This website is about how you can become a PD too (or polish your credentials!) wherever you are and whatever you do.
A couple of years ago I wrote a sort of DIY guide – The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a perverse world. It will get you started. Here you will find some extracts, but mostly this is about put its messages into practice. All to build confidence (mine as well as yours!) that it is entirely possible to decide and act in a way that is are more likely than not to take us in a sustainable direction.
Positive Deviance: A 21st Century Revolution
The odd title of this book was born of much frustration and not a little anger. For over 40 years I have campaigned for a great awakening from the fantasy that the natural world’s capacity to support unconstrained demand from us humans is infinite. ‘Think of your grandchildren’, we used to argue, ‘think of your children’. Now the cost of those decades of inaction means worrying about future generations has been overtaken by worries about this one. University leavers, where most of tomorrow’s leaders are being prepared, can expect over 60 years of healthy active life.
Yet long before the end of that time, scientists predict possibly catastrophic rises in global temperature – unless, that is, we change our carbon-addicted ways. We’ve got about ten years to kick the habit and avert the worst case scenarios. United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has made a parallel between the economic crisis and the ecological one: ‘continuing to pour trillions of dollars into fossil-fuel subsidies is like investing in sub-prime real estate. Our carbon-based infrastructure is like a toxic asset that threatens the portfolio of global goods, from public health to food security.’
Don’t go round saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.Mark Twain
Most people admit something must be done – and quickly. But what and how remains unclear. Coming out of a senior management masterclass on sustainability, one participant complained: ‘But I still don’t know what to do differently on Monday!’ She is not alone. If survey after survey is to be believed, many people are ready to get cracking on finding more sustainable ways of living and working, but don’t feel confident they know the right way to go about it. What they learnt at school or college has simply not equipped them with the right knowledge or skills. Missing too are unambiguous leadership signals from government or workplace. UK cabinet members, like the boards of most firms large and small, are split on whether climate change is (a) happening; (b) urgent; and (c) their responsibility anyway. Bewitched by the pond-skaters of public opinion – the pollsters, focus groups and the twittering media – leadership everywhere seems to have lost its macro- political compass.
The poor preparation and chaotic process at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Change Summit epitomized what is wrong with global leadership. As does the weak ambition of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) where halving global poverty by 2015 is deemed to be a legitimate target, and all goals are imperilled by the perversity of a global economic system that is dependent on overdosing on resources and under performing on basic human rights.
Hence the title of this book. We have left it so late to put our human house in order, that the only strategy left is that of positive deviance. We can’t wait for the international treaties, institutional reform or wise government leadership that will be too long coming. The only option is for as many people as possible to get on and do the right thing – wherever we are. It is a very positive revolution: against everything that leads back to behaviours that caused the ecological (and economic) breakdown in the first place, and for a stampede towards a future that puts improving the quality of life for people and the environment as the primary purpose of everything we do. In a Robin Hood sort of way, I’m inviting you to join the growing and merry band of positive deviants committed to doing the right thing, despite everything and everyone, and recruiting like mad as we go. A sense of urgency and passion about sustainability are the only joining qualifications.
But what about that Monday question? How do we work out what are the right things to do? There are next to no courses and no single book to help you get going quickly. You are likely to have some ideas and knowledge already, but perhaps do not yet feel sufficiently confi- dent in your decision making. This book aims to fill the gaps – in your confidence as well as in the marketplace for such books. An early warning though – it will not tell you what to do. My purpose is to stimulate you and help you build or refresh your own leadership ‘persona’ so you are confidently sustainability-literate and effective as a positive deviant. In my experience one size rarely fits all, particularly when it comes to leadership. To be authentic, and therefore trusted and worthy of being followed, you have to be true to yourself. Your personal sustainability leadership model is therefore as unique as a snowflake, and in the case of an organization, as singular as its logo. With this book as your companion you should find all you need to work out how to identify the right thing to do, in whatever circumstances you find your- self. Plus some tools so you can get started straight away.
To be authentic, and therefore trusted and worthy of being followed, you have to be true to yourself. Your personal sustainability leadership model is therefore as unique as a snowflake, and in the case of an organization, as singular as its logo. With this book as your companion you should find all you need to work out how to identify the right thing to do, in whatever circumstances you find your- self. Plus some tools so you can get started straight away.
As sustainability leadership may be exercised from everywhere in an organization, this book will be relevant to people in very different sorts of jobs. And I hope it will provoke a revolution too in those places where management and leadership development takes place. In fact, I hope it has a broader influence on education in general. If I had my way no one would leave any publically funded educational institution who isn’t sustainability-literate. Ideally, it will become one of the things good parents, teachers and friends inculcate in children from the earliest age so they become responsible and happy adults capable of bringing up the following generation in much the same way.
The Anatomy and Physiology of Unsustainable Development
As a one-time nurse, I know only too well that a successful treatment depends on a good diagnosis. Treating someone for a stomach ulcer when they are suffering from a heart attack, for example, may even make things worse. The best diagnosticians know enough about the body’s anatomy and physiology (how everything works) to quickly appraise the symptoms, make a good diagnosis and get on with the treatment.
Exactly the same principles apply when it comes to diagnosing and treating unsustainable development. Indeed, James Lovelock describes himself as a ‘general practitioner of planetary medicine’. This is not a bad metaphor for positive deviants to adopt, though it is well to remember St Luke’s injunction that first the physician has to heal himself.
This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectability of society.Thomas Malthus, First essay on population, 1798
In Chapter 1, therefore, I try to give you a good enough overview of the various symptoms of unsustainable development, enough for anyone unfamiliar with them to be able to explain them to others. I draw parallels with the human body, so, for example, biological resource depletion represents a wasting of the flesh and scarring of the skin of the Earth.
Like the human body, the anatomy of the Earth operates according to certain principles, which I have called ‘laws’. Chapter 2 starts by looking at how we have broken, and are still breaking, these laws. For a long time I would have said we did this out of ignorance or for want of reflection, but now there is a strong element of wilfulness as the consequences become more obvious. Which is why one symptom – a heart attack in the human economic system – is presented as a whole system or physiological failure. A diagnosis is made.
The treatment proposed in Chapter 3 is not so much a detailed prescription, but a consideration of the sort of treatment that will be needed to get the patient (i.e. ALOE+US) back on its feet. The idea is to help you differentiate between good and bad planetary medicine, and perhaps concoct a few remedies of your own.
Subsequent chapters are about leadership, and how to grow your capacity to offer sustainability-literate leadership in such critical times, becoming an effective planetary physician yourself. But this section is about why it matters, and why positive deviants have such an important role to play in what happens next.
Leadership is a vital ingredient for achieving sustainability. Without it, sustainability will never make it – in government, business or anywhere. In and out of organizations, what everyone does at every level matters enormously, of course. Widespread, often localized, innovation in how to live and work in low-carbon/high-happiness ways is where sustainability will be put into operation and made real, but only leader- ship will give sufficient direction, scale and pace to what works well. There is plenty of historical evidence that one without the other will not be sufficient.
Which makes it worrying that the volume of grumblings about the quality of leadership in all sectors has now reached shouting level. Dramatic failures in the finance sector are the iceberg tip of stories about mayhem and mediocrity in the public and private sector attributed to bad management or leadership failure. Who is to blame? The organizations themselves? Or does the fault lie with management education, currently a boom sector for universities and business schools? Stefano Harney thinks so. He has studied 2300 research papers in the field and accuses business and management researchers for focusing on solving ‘small technical problems’ such as product placement and supply chains, and failing to examine the larger social and political questions that could provide fundamental answers on how to create a better world. The Economist magazine is scathing about the legions of management gurus. ‘If management could indeed be reduced to a few simple principles, then we would have no need for management thinkers’, it says, wonder- ing why ‘their failures only serve to stoke demand for their services’.
Once they lost sight of their goals, they redoubled their efforts.Mark Twain
In the UK the complaints about the quality of leadership and management became so rowdy that the government set up a Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership (CEML) to find out what was going on. CEML’s report was damning of both public and private sector, finding leadership skills such as vision, commitment and organizational smartness to be ‘in short supply from the top to the bottom of organizations’, as were more routine skills such as strategy, communication and planning. The working group on management and leadership education concluded ‘we are dealing with a dysfunctional system’. The report’s conclusion was unequivocal:
Good management and leadership is pivotal to investment, productivity, delivery of service and quality of performance across both the public and private sectors. But despite the growth in formal management education over the last 20 years, and despite the increase in the amount of training received by managers in both large and smaller establishments in the same period, management deficiencies continue to be cited as a cause of poor productivity and performance. (CEML, May 2002)
Is it any better in the US, the birthplace of modern management education? Evidently not. In 2002 the US Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) identified a ‘global bazaar’ of courses. Studies consistently find that alumni cite skills like communications, interpersonal skills, multicultural skills, negotiation as most needed but most deficient in their education, while some of the externalities that current students think will have the biggest impact on organisational success – such as costs of health care, environmental concerns and climate change, quality of public education – get next to zero emphasis in their courses.According to Harvard Business school professor, Rakesh Khurana:
it remains a question whether university business schools, even today, have succeeded in creating a coherent, systematic, clearly bounded body of knowledge – much less one that is firmly connected with management practice – out of the individual disciplines (principally economics, applied mathematics, psychology and sociology) in which business school curricula and research are currently grounded. (Khurana, From higher aims to hired hands 2007
My hunch is that many readers of this book will have been on some sort of management training course, and that, to varying degrees, it will have been useful in some way. Teasing out what is relevant for a sustainability-literate positive deviant is explored in Chapter 4, via some of the ‘theories’ from which leadership ‘thinkers’ have tried to distil practical models.
I won’t say this has been easy, nor that great enlightening conclusions are possible. Not least because there is an impossibly vast, frustratingly contradictory number of books and journals on the subject. The British Library has ‘something in excess of 50,000 books … of which about 80 per cent have been published during the last 20 years’ while the Library of Congress admits to ‘at least 30,000 titles on the subjects of Business Management and Leadership’.
Unlike purveyors of snake oil with one remedy for multiple malaises, it seems management training has many complex remedies for one comparatively straightforward problem. The very large number of courses, in and out of universities and at all levels, have no common view on essential components. It seems that by and large teachers teach what takes their fancy, and, until very recently in both the US and the UK, public sector leadership theory seems to have followed slavishly the private sector model.
Nevertheless, with persistence, it is possible see through the fog of fashion surrounding leadership education to identify some useful insights – the babies we want to nurture and grow in a new vision for sustainability-literate leadership.
There are two chapters in this section. The first concentrates on the various theories around management (mostly) and leadership and uses two reflections – on women and on power – to help illuminate some of the deepest problems in the practise of leadership today. The second gives a twist of the lens to focus on business schools, where most management and leadership development takes place, and suggests they have been detrimentally influenced by ideologies and corporate interests. I also argue that that the advent of ‘corporate social responsibility’ may well have slowed rather than accelerated the passage of firms to genuinely sustainable practices.
Whether you agree with me about any of this or not, readers should find in these two chapters sufficient stimulus for reflecting on their own education and experience to date. Deconstructing what you know into a sustainability-sensitive mindset is the first step to analysing what you need to add as you develop your own sustainability-literate leadership ‘persona’.
The ‘wiring’ diagram on page 92 (not shown here) should help you keep some shape to your learning journey, which, ideally, will be a lifelong commitment to always trying to do better, and to do more. To be most effective most quickly you need keep four wheels turning simultaneously: your self- knowledge and broad general knowledge; how views about how the world works shape what people believe and do; the quality of your relationships with others; and various tools to sustain your personal learning and to improve the capacity of sustainability-literate action in others. Ultimately, your learning should translate into your own distinct leadership model or ‘persona’ which guides your behaviour and the actions you take.
Previous sections provide the reasons for shifting to a more sustainable way of life and try to harvest some key lessons from existing leadership education. The section following this will give you some headlines about global solutions to unsustainability, to demonstrate the true scale of the effort needed, but also so you can see where your more local efforts and that of the people you influence are contributing. This section sticks with the thesis set out in the Introduction to the book – that there is no one model for sustainability-literate leadership for an individual or an organization (which is a collection of often very different individuals anyway).
Here, therefore, we major on areas of thinking, learning and practice that will help you build your own, unique, brand of sustainability-literate leadership. A successful positive deviant can only persuade others to trust and believe in them if you are speaking from the heart, in your own way. Quoting and cribbing from others is fine – indeed essential – but won’t be believable if it is parroted without reflection.
In truth, there are many blurred edges between different parts of this section, but I’ve tried to organize and write so the ideas will be accessible to someone tangling with leadership and/or sustainability for the first time, yet also offer the more experienced some new angles and insights. I’ve tried to minimize (though not eliminate) the amount of jumping backwards and forwards, and to offer all types of reader a variety of trails of interest to follow through the references.
Each item is prefaced with a learning outcome (what you should expect to be able to do if you are sufficiently up to speed on each component) to help you quiz yourself on your progress. The exceptions is the Four Habits of Thought, which start with questions you should be asking yourself all the time, ideally automatically, to keep your immediate decisions firmly in a longer-term and broader sustainability context.
All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.J. K. Galbraith,1997, p330
Although my focus is the individual learner, if you are responsible for delivering leadership and management education or training that might be classed sustainability-light, I hope this section will help you transform your courses. If you are in a business school and looking for redemption for past sins of commission or omission, there is only one place to go – sustainability-literacy! By moving it from the wilderness of an optional module and mainstreaming into in all your courses, you can help bring battalions of allies in behind the positive deviants already out there in the field.