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Leadership for the Anthropocene

Pause for thought

At a recent academic conference I attended, one of the most thought-provoking sessions (at least for me) concerned ‘organization studies and the Anthropocene’. It was a call to arms for organizational scholars to engage through their research with the myriad ways in which human activities have impacted on the planet and for them to be a force for change beyond the self-imposed boundaries of the Academy. This raised a number of questions for me, which I explore below.

What is the Anthropocene?

The word ‘Anthropocene’ derives from the two components of ‘cene’, denoting a geological age or epoch, and ‘anthropo’, relating to the human species. Generally understood to begin with the Industrial Revolution, the Anthropocene is thus the period in the Earth’s history during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. With mounting evidence that activities such as fossil fuel consumption, intensive food production, ongoing urbanization and deforestation are adversely (and potentially irreversibly) affecting the planet’s complex and fragile ecosystem, we are all (I think) coming to the realization that it is time to act. As a leadership scholar, I find myself pondering where I and my colleagues are in this picture and, more broadly, what role leadership and leadership studies need to be playing in addressing the effects of the Anthropocene.

Political leadership?

Thinking about leadership as an activity, there is the question of who should be leading the charge to secure the future sustainability of the planet. A knee-jerk response to this question is often a call for political leadership – effectively, to drive change through national legislation and international treaties. Recent news items – for example, Trump’s move to pull the US out of the Paris international climate agreement or Teresa May’s intention to enshrine a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions in UK law, but not until 2050 – are sufficient to make clear the challenges and pitfalls attached to this expectation. Indeed, there is a suggestion being voiced that in an increasingly industrialised, consumerist and capitalist world it is only organizations (both public and private) that actually have the power to bring about change on the required scale.

Organizational leadership?

The question is whether they also have the will. There is evidence in the progression from CSR reporting to ‘sustainability’ management in organizations that CEOs and their cadre are starting to shoulder this burden. Most recently, the growing call for ‘integrated reporting’ – capturing the need to maximize returns on natural, human, social and intellectual capitals as well as financial and manufactured capitals – and to think in terms of stakeholders rather than just shareholders suggests that a ‘root and branch’ approach to these issues is starting to take hold. Organizational scholarship has done much to underpin the credibility of this fundamental change in understanding of the role of such organizations in our societies.

Thought leadership?

This brings me back to my own part in this picture, and the role of leadership scholars. As an observation, it is unclear to me whether we are everywhere or nowhere in the growing response to the problems of the Anthropocene: whether it is all about leadership or leadership is notable by its absence. This, I think, is about the related question of what kind of leadership scholarship we need to be undertaking. Are we fulfilling our role if we continue to study better ways of doing leadership, be it Transformational, Authentic or some other theoretical leadership construct, on the basis that any kind of leadership can be brought into play to support the changes required? Or should we instead be turning our attention to the purposes to which leadership is being put and to developing a better understanding of how leaders can be motivated to engage in the kind of leadership required to make a difference to these important issues?

Setting the leadership agenda

I’m not sure I have a conclusive answer to this question. What I am clear about, however, is that leadership scholars have a role to play – through what they research and what they teach – in setting the agenda for management development, and hence for the perspectives future leaders develop concerning their own role in addressing the Anthropocene. That being the case, we need to exercise a duty of care – to the broadest possible constituency – in what we do, and don’t do, in shaping that agenda.