By Dave Newport
Among my favorite Boulder bumper stickers is “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
Nationally, we’re not quite there yet--or maybe we are.
Either way, there are signs from both sides of the political spectrum that “the people” are at least trying to take leadership into their own hands.
For example, Tea Party people have exerted measurable grassroots pressure on their target audience--with demonstrable results. On the other side, while the Occupy Movement has yet to deliver a tangible result, there is no denying the breadth and significance of that growing populist quest. Globally, the ongoing Arab Spring is testament that we may be entering a worldwide populist age.
“When the people lead...”
To me these grassroots moves are, in large measure, the result of the nearly total leadership collapse the Boomers must own. Unlike my father’s generation (a WWII veteran) that has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” we Boomers have brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe across an array of critical parameters too numerous to mention--but too compelling to deny.
While some my age have shown great individual leadership, as a generation it is undeniable that we are bequeathing some pretty tough times to our children. As a Child of the Sixties born of Woodstock hope for an ethical and equitable planet, I accept some of the responsibility for my generation’s failures. We have not only failed ourselves, we have failed the planet, and those we have brought into the world. I am not trying to be depressing, just realistic.
Likewise, the reality is today’s leadership vacuum will not be filled by my guys, we’ve had our chance. Today’s leaders will come from today’s college students--and they must fill that space with real leadership, not the feel-good self-indulgences my generation substituted for courage.
And students are beginning to move profoundly towards the front of the pack. Peaceful civil protests are increasing on campuses coast to coast, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The UC Davis pepper spray incident will no doubt transform more bystanders into participants and then into leaders. Likewise,many colleges are establishing “leadership studies” programs in droves as today’s students seek the skills to truly make a difference. Students are filling those leadership programs on our campus--and many others.
Sustainability is also about a new brand of leadership--one that is inclusive, transparent, altruistic, and equitable; values that didn’t show up much in the evolution of my generation’s leaders. Now, demand for them is high. Enrollment in sustainability-related programs is booming; for instance, the sustainability-education pages are the hottest on the AASHE website. Students are looking for real leadership.
“The idea is that leadership—like scientific disciplines, for example—consists of a set of skills, methodologies, and ideas that can be taught,” writes noted leadership education scholar Richard Greenwald of Drew University. “The difference is that unlike, say, biology, leadership should inform all aspects of life. Leadership programs teach important life skills, such as introspection, cultural sensitivity, moral acuity, people skills, and decision-making acumen.”
Similarly, sustainability involves all aspects of life, and sustainability leaders are those that integrate sustainability principles and practices into all aspects of organizational existence.
Respected sustainability author and scholar Bob Doppelt calls this “second order change;” where organizations reframe fundamental goals and structures to deliver sustainable outcomes instead of simple “first-order” incremental goals like 20% less energy use by 2020; nice but hardly revolutionary. The late Ray Anderson’s firm, Interface Carpet, is seen as an example of sustainability leadership where the entire reason for the corporation’s existence was re-purposed around sustainability. That’s real leadership.
When I reflect on my father’s Greatest Generation, I see leadership drivers in today’s students that were absent from me and my Boomer buddies--and as such, provide a fertile context in which to grow a new brand of sustainability leaders. New York Times columnist David Brooks has been chronicling “Life Reports” from what’s left of the Greatest Generation and has identified some trends in them that we see re-emerging today.
Brooks writes of these now grey-haired folks, “most of them learned work habits in an age of scarcity and then got to explore opportunities in an age of growth. Unlike later generations, many of the men went through a phase in which they did physical labor in a factory, even if later they went on to become professionals....Resilience is a central theme. I don’t think we remind young people enough that life is hard. Bad things happen.”
I suspect that today’s students understand bad things happen. Life is hard. Inconvenient and hard truths surround them. Most get that they live in an age of growing scarcity. Many are graduating into jobs that involve hard toil seemingly beneath their aspirations and college training--but toil they must for now. From that toil, they will build resilience.
In my father’s time, life’s tough crucible forged real leaders--and a generational sense of gratitude and appreciation for our better angels. My generation sadly converted our fathers’ age of thankfulness and respect into a sense of entitlement and exploitation. Decades later here we are, reflecting on what we have wrought.
Now we all know we need second-order change--not incremental lip service. On all sides of every issue, we hear cries for wholesale, bright-line change. No new taxes, carbon neutrality, an end to Wall St, freedom from dictators; the list is as crystal clear as it is decidedly daunting.
But these are the words on lips of today’s emerging leaders, our students, the people of the world.
“When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”