Whether we like it or not, this decade will bring significant transformation to our society and organisations.  The latest IPCC report is a stark wake-up call, for many, to this fact.  But do we have the leaders who have developed the capability to lead people through the transformation?  Our current progress in tackling climate change would suggest not. 


Transformational Crises


Our society is currently facing three groups of interconnected crises.  We have environmental crises, which include, amongst others, climate change, species extinction, contamination with plastics and water and air pollution.  We are also facing social crises, which include loneliness, inequality and discrimination.  Then there are the psychological crises, which include declining mental health and increasing narcissism. While many good people are working hard to alleviate each crisis, little progress is being made. This is because there is a lack of consideration given to how each crisis reinforces and perpetuates the others and to what underlies them all. Fundamentally, it’s a problem of consciousness.  We still have the collective consciousness needed to create an Industrial Revolution, rather than to deal with its aftermath.


Each crisis, as it continues to unfold, will bring about a transformation in our society.  Governmental and organisational responses to the crises will also bring about transformation.  So regardless of whether we do nothing or try to put in place solutions, there will be a transformation in our society and organisations.


Organisational Responses


How organisations respond to the crises can be considered in terms of a continuum from ‘business as usual’ at one end through to preparing for ‘collapse and rebuild’ at the other. The response the organisation takes depends on the psychological capability of the most influential leaders within the organisation. It’s the psychological capability of the leader which determines how they perceive each crisis impacting on their organisation and, therefore, their response.


Let’s take climate change as an example.  Some leaders will become overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem and feel powerless to make a difference.  This is threatening to the ego of a leader and the most likely defence is to go into denial.  This allows the leader to continue to be successful in running the organisation as if it is ‘business as usual’. Leaders in denial will focus on launching new products, striving to achieve sales figures, finding ways to increase productivity, etc., with little regard to their environmental impact (Figure 1.).


Figure 1.


Other leaders, not in denial, will employ linear ‘cause and effect’ thinking to identify which of their organisation’s activities are contributing to climate change and look for ways to increase their ‘sustainability’. Measures are likely to include recycling, ensuring renewable resources are used in their supply chain, working towards becoming carbon neutral, etc. However, each of these measures is likely to be implemented in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system. Sustainability becomes a ‘bolt on’ to ‘business as usual’.


Leaders with a higher level of psychological capability, who are able to apply more systems thinking, are likely to see sustainability as an integrated part of the purpose of their organisation rather than as a bolt-on. Consequently, they ensure their organisation increases all types of capital alongside the financial.  These other capitals include social, psychological and environmental.  By increasing a wide range of capitals, their organisations become ‘regenerative’.  They seek to regenerate the environment.


Both sustainability and regenerative leadership work towards our salvation. They hold the belief that if we take action, we can still avert a climate catastrophe.  However, society will need to change or be changed by climate breakdown and the other existential crises we face.  To survive in a changing society, organisations will need to transform and adapt.  This is often termed as 'shallow adaptation'. 


Some academics and researchers are arguing that our salvation is no longer possible.  They believe that climate change has already passed the tipping points and will now progress rapidly and uncontrollably. As a result, they forecast there will soon be a partial or total collapse of society.  If societal collapse is to be averted then society will need to undergo continuous and rapid change as it seeks to adapt to the ensuing chaos. For organisations to survive in this scenario they will need to continually undergo 'deep adaptation'. 


Preparing for ‘adaptation’ to rapid change or societal collapse will be required if organisations are to survive long enough to be part of creating a new society.  Perceiving the need to prepare for adaptation requires the leader to have the capability to think in terms of multiple systems colliding and seeing the patterns which emerge from the resultant chaos.


While this Mad Max scenario may seem farfetched to some, you only have to consider how our electrical power network is vulnerable to severe weather events and/or an increase in sea level.  Without power, everything stops. Our water, fuel, money and information would stop flowing.  We would soon find we weren’t able to work, transport goods, grow and prepare food, run our finances, communicate over distance, etc. Then consider how difficult it is to grow food in volatile weather conditions. Starvation and mass migration would soon follow. With these possible scenarios in mind, societal collapse doesn’t seem so farfetched.


Implications for Leaders


As we progress along the continuum from ‘business as usual’ through to preparing for ‘collapse and rebuild’ leaders will need to be able to handle increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) situations. To perform well, leaders will need to have developed the complexity of their psychological capability to be aligned with the increasing complexity of their work environment.  This means developing high levels of cognitive agility, emotional self-regulation, and behavioural flexibility (Figure 2.). In short, leaders will need to have reached a high stage of consciousness development.


Figure 2.



Once leaders have developed their psychological capability, they will quickly need to turn their attention to developing how they lead others.  As the chaos of rapid transformation begins to take hold, their followers will experience a range of emotions, such as fear, anxiety and depression.  The leader’s role will be to accept and provide a safe container for these emotions so they don’t become overwhelming and lead to denial. By working with emotions in this way, the leader will be able to create the psychological space needed to help followers make sense of the new emerging world and find new purpose and meaning in their work. 


It is evident that if leaders are to be successful in leading us through a decade of transformation, we need them to have developed to the post-conventional stages of consciousness development.  However, research carried out by PwC in 2015 found that most leaders are still at the conventional stages*.  It’s unlikely there has been a significant change in the last six years.  Therefore, it is evident that as we progress through this decade of transformation, most leaders within organisations will increasingly find they have not got the psychological capability needed to succeed.


To be successful in this decade of transformation, our organisations now need to start developing the psychological capability of their leaders. With this capability, our leaders can prepare for the worst, while we all hope for the best. Otherwise, our leaders may soon find they are, literally, in over their heads.


Note: This article has been informed by the book ‘Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos’, edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read.  In particular, the article has been inspired by Chapter 9, ‘Leadership and Management in a Context of Deep Adaptation’ by Jonathan Gosling.


*PwC. (2015). Under Your Nose: Ten Ways to Identify and Retain Transformational Leaders.


Terry Sexton

Leadership Psychologist

10th August 2021


Contact us if you would like to talk with Terry about how to develop the leaders in your organisation.  Take a look at Terry’s profile to find out about his work.

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