The poem ‘Hieroglyphic Stairway’, by Drew Dellinger, had a significant impact on me when I read it a few years ago. It’s about a man who lies awake at 3.23 am because his great-great-grandchildren ask him questions in his dreams, such as: “What did you do when the earth was unravelling? What did you do once you knew?” What if one day my grandchildren ask me, “what did you do when you knew?” Would my answer be, “I did nothing”? 


At the time, I thought, I’m not an economist, politician, ecologist or environmentalist. I’m a psychologist. I can’t save the planet. So, I carried on with business as usual. But the poem would not leave me. The line “what did you do once you knew?” became an earworm until, one day, this logic hit me:


Our society is unsustainable. Who creates our society? Our leaders. Therefore, our leadership is unsustainable. What is my work? I develop leaders. I must be part of the problem.


So why is leadership in our society so unsustainable?


Business is Still Predominantly Led by Conventional Leaders


Adult developmental psychologists have found that we continue to grow psychologically throughout our lives.  This growth tends to occur in stages of plateau and transition. While the theories developed by these psychologists differ, they all tend to correlate around seven stages.  These stages can then be applied to leadership development (descriptions of the stages).  A survey carried out by PwC in 2015 found that 52% of leaders operate at stage 4*.  Consequently, stage 4 leadership has a significant influence on how businesses are run. Being the highest level of the conventional stages, it has been considered the height of adult maturity.  Stage 4 is the point in our psychological growth when our ego (self-identity and self-esteem) is at its most dominant; it needs a lot of defending.  Stage 4 leaders defend their ego by delivering good results for the business, through increasing productivity and sales, which translate through into more profit. 


So, what’s the problem?  Clearly, stage 4 leaders are what businesses need so they can succeed.


The Productivity Trap


Productivity is a measure of efficiency. It’s about businesses producing more with fewer resources, including labour. Through increasing productivity, companies can maintain their competitiveness and remain in business. Machines can produce more, work longer, work faster and with a more consistent quality than people. Therefore, when businesses have access to additional capital, they like to invest it in automation. In the new post-Covid-19 economy, there is likely to be significant investment in automation. Machines do not get sick or need to isolate. Also, for economies to recover, interest rates will be low for a long time, allowing many businesses to borrow the money needed to invest in automation.


The problem with increasing productivity through investing in automation is that people lose their jobs. However, governments prefer the economy to function with virtually full employment. People who are not working are not good consumers. In a consumer-led economy, if too many people are unemployed, the economy goes into recession. Therefore, governments encourage businesses to produce more to keep more people employed. To employ people who have lost their jobs due to productivity increases, governments encourage new start-up businesses. These new businesses then produce more products. To keep people in work, while increasing productivity to maintain competitiveness, we must continually increase production and consumption. We are trapped in an economic machine that needs to keep turning faster and faster!


The Impact of Productivity Increases on the Environment


As a consequence of productivity increases, our society is continuously swamped with products to consume. For businesses to constantly produce more, we have to be encouraged to keep buying more. ‘Built-in obsolescence’ is commonly used by companies to artificially limit the life of the product, such as ensuring goods break down after a period of time or become too old to function correctly, e.g., when new software does not run on an old system. Another way business encourages us to buy more products is to appeal to our greed or fears through public relations and advertising. As a result, many societies have developed a ‘throw-away culture’.


All this consuming provides people with jobs, funds in pensions and generates a wide range of products for us all to enjoy.  The problem is, we are consuming the planet.  At the current level of consumption, we need 1.7 Earths to sustain us (Global Footprint Network, 2017). By 2050, it’s predicted we will need 3 Earths to meet our consumption levels (United Nations, 2018). Climate change, species extinction, plastics in the oceans etc., are the unintended consequences of increasing productivity driven by the need of stage 4 business leaders to continually protect their ego by delivering results. 


So, what are we to do?


Our Society Needs More Post-Conventional Leaders in Business


If stage 4 leaders stop striving to deliver results, the economy is likely to go into recession and many people will suffer. However, if we are to live sustainably, we need business leaders who can co-create a new economic system.  These leaders will need to have developed beyond stage 4 to the post-conventional stages of psychological growth. Ideally, to stage 6. The PwC research found that only 8% of leaders had reached this stage in their development. At stage 6, leaders have reached the point where they no longer feel the need to defend their ego.  Consequently, they use their leadership to serve people, their organisation and society. To serve, stage 6 leaders tend to ask the following questions:


  • How is producing and selling more and more product benefiting society?
  • What is the purpose of our business and how does this serve society?
  • How can the needs of the diverse stakeholders in our business be integrated into its purpose, including the environment and future generations?


These are difficult questions, but they must be answered if business leaders are to co-create a new economic system that will drive sustainability in our society.


We are Entering a Decade of Transformation


Most people develop to stage 4 in their lives and some people naturally develop into the post-conventional stages. The problem is our society has got stuck at stage 4.  The consciousness of leaders creates the consciousness of their organisations, which creates our economic system and the consciousness of our society.  Our business leaders are then spawned from the consciousness of our society.  We still have the consciousness needed to create an industrial revolution, not to deal with its aftermath.


As we tackle climate change and recover from the pandemic, the 2020s will become a decade of transformation.  Businesses led by post-conventional leaders will thrive as they take a leading role in this transformation.  Businesses led by stage 4 leaders will continue to hide behind the finely crafted words of their PR and Advertising Departments and, inevitably, will be found to be ‘greenwashing’.


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


Terry Sexton

Business Psychologist

8th April 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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