Bridging the gulf between sustainability norms and leadership theory Geoffrey Ahern

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Bridging the gulf between sustainability norms and leadership theory

Geoffrey Ahern University of Liverpool, UK


The article considers adaptive and transformational leadership theories and through a critique of them identifies sustainability leadership potential. Adaptive theory is not as close to sustainability sense-making as initially appears, but can be an aspect of it; and transformational theory, when immature projections are withdrawn, potentially has a developmental connection with sustainability leadership. The article raises awareness of apocalyptic interpretations, including ones if devastating scientific environmental predictions are borne out, and identifies a contrasting longitudinal leadership possibility involving the introjection by followers of split off charismatic and apocalyptic energies. The leadership development places irrational resistance to scientific measurement and adaptive disequilibrium in a broader ecological context with risk management and responsibility at its heart, and brings the potential for an owned, and thus integrated, inspiration in an extended self. It complements the transactional culture best suited to the sense-based corporate task of supply chain and physical environmental measurement.


leadership, sustainability, environment, apocalypse, green

There is a gulf between sustainability norms and leadership theory despite predictions by the world scientific consensus of environmental devastation by the end of the century. Finding responsible, integrated and inspirational leadership solutions is thus essential. The article considers adaptive and transformational theories and through critiquing them identifies sustainability leadership potential. A working definition of ‘sustainability’ as used here is putting the planet first with a universal approach to human welfare (a fuller exploration of sustainability as it impacts companies comprises the first section).

Much has been written about the leadership of sustainability both as a planetary social movement and in terms of detailed practices (sometimes almost manuals) for organizations, but much less work has been done on more specific relationships between leadership theory and sustainability theory. The key to the nature of this theory shortfall is the divide between the corporate business-as-usual of short-term shareholder profitability, which has in fundamental ways shaped the thinking behind existing leadership theories, and the planetary perspective and broader social norms of new, inter-related sustainability movements.

Both sustainability and adaptive leadership theory have been presented in ways which refer to Darwinian evolution, and so evolutionary compatibilities between the two are looked at here. Transformational theory and charisma have for nearly a generation taken hold of much of the corporate leadership imagination, so it seems appropriate to explore this area also in relation to sustainability. The conclusions reached are, broadly, that adaptive theory is not as close to sustainability sense-making as initially appears, but can be an aspect of it; and that transformational theory, despite often being an immature opposite, has potentially a developmental connection with it.

The business leadership impacts of the sustainability worldview are defined in terms of synthesising profitability with sustainability’s unprecedentedly incremental yet radical challenge, managing risk in relation to ecological measurement and science, surfacing underlying resistance to sustainability, championing long-term sustainability ethics in a short-term profits culture, deciding the mix between morally considerable and artificial sustainability, balancing the extended self of ecological experience with loyalty to the company, proposing a universal, non-discriminatory approach to human welfare, and facilitating mindset change on sustainability pressures for degrowth. Sustainability theory’s connections with adaptive leadership theory are approached through making universal human welfare explicit through uncovering the fallacy of adaptive theory’s inherent democracy, containing adaptive theory as an aspect of a more inclusive and co-operative evolutionary analogy, and scaling-up situational factors connecting corporate performance/profits with planet/people. Sustainability theory’s connections with transformational leadership theory are considered in relation to moving from transformational theory to the ecologically extended self, transcending the binary split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership, and raising leadership awareness of dooms, utopias and implicit apocalyptic thought-forms.

Through the exploration described above, the article identifies a longitudinal leadership possibility involving the introjection by followers of split off charismatic and apocalyptic energies. It places irrational resistance to scientific measurement, and adaptive disequilibrium, in a broader ecological context which has risk management and responsibility at its heart, and brings the potential for an owned, and thus integrated, inspiration in an extended self. It complements the transactional culture best suited to the sense-based corporate task of supply chain and physical environmental measurement. The formulation of these underlying thoughts is at an early stage and I hope to be able to develop it at the conference.

Business leadership impacts of the sustainability worldview

Sustainability perspectives and subject matter as they relate to companies are the starting point here. Its worldview is new for companies, and shapes critical dimensions of the leadership discussion in this article. The term ‘sustainability’ is used here in a planetary ecological sense, and so is distinct from that of corporate viability (de Geus, 1997).

Synthesising profitability with sustainability’s unprecedentedly incremental yet radical challenge

First, to set the scene, the unprecedented nature for companies of sustainability’s challenge is considered. It challenges companies in unprecedented ways because its impact is incremental (Redekop, 2010), and yet is an intrusive call to arms against negative externalities, such as pollution and carbon emissions, which previously were not known to be significant either by capitalism or socialism. In contrast to sustainability’s incremental intrusiveness, socialism’s challenge to capitalism hinged on whether the state was Marxist or not, and so tended to have the clarity of being once and for all if at all. Environmental sustainability is corporately unique because its legitimacy (derived from the need for custodianship of the planet) is outside the business, yet it seeks priority without necessarily desiring to supplant shareholder capitalism.

Corporate leadership is becoming ever more aware of powerful and urgent sustainability claims transcending the legitimacy of shareholders (Ghoshal, 2005). These legitimacy claims are increasingly being embedded within companies as entities in themselves (Santana, 2012; Higgins, 2013; 263), for example through creating the role of the Chief Ethical Officer, maybe with a seat on the board. Meanwhile ‘profits, profits, profits’ is the pre-existing identification. The mutual opposition of these forces is accompanied by strategic ambiguity (Wexler, 2009), greenwash or the pretence of sustainability, and implicit ‘Trojan Horse’, or thin end of the wedge, environmentalist tactics (Elkington, 1997).

Managing risk in relation to ecological measurement and science

The expert consensus in environmental science forecasts climate change (IPPC, 2013), water shortages, species extinction, disease emergence, abrupt changes in water quality, and the excessive nutrient loading of, and major shifts in, ecosystems (UNEP, 2005). On the assumption of the validity of scientific method, scrupulously and comprehensively measuring the supply chain and other corporate effects on the physical environment is indispensable. That the validity of the hypothesis of the anthropogenic threat to the biosphere is science and measurement-based, and so potentially to a considerable extent transcends subjectivity, need not stop the processes also being social constructions (Kincaid, 1996). Such science-based thinking is of course in terms of risk and risk management, not certainty, just as the re-insurance business assesses probabilities in relation to flooding and water shortage premiums.

The corporate transition from the older view that nature is “indestructible by human agency” (Grey, 1937: 295-96) is of course culturally problematic. Given the alarming scientific predictions, the process of communication of the science becomes seen, often accurately, as normative, emotion-laden and doomful. The science and measurement of sustainability can be perceived as close to ideological conviction, even to religious conversion. Though awareness is not a precondition for being a sustainability stakeholder (Mitchell et al, 1997), the arts of triple loop reflexivity are significant in persuasively making the case. An example is the labelling of inaction over climate change as ‘denial’ when it is rationally based on self-interest (for a doubtful interpretation of it as denial, see that of Stoll-Kleeman et al, 2001: 114-115).

Surfacing underlying resistance to sustainability

Thus leadership questioning of resistance (Schein, 1999; Ford and Ford, 2010) to sustainability becomes critical to the risk management of climate change and other environmental threats. It is a challenge that doom-laden scientific environmental predictions, unlike the hopeful applied science habitually utilised by companies to develop their products and services, elicit an empty, disempowered, inner space. Furthermore, corporate leaders are challenged, in unblocking freeze reactions and bringing in fuller horizons in others (Cuilla, 2008), to examine such reactions in themselves. Such ambivalence in the self needs to be confronted while outwardly dealing with what are often fiercely unfair attacks. Opponents such as climate-change probability deniers often seem to avoid what feels like a threat to their identity (Schein, 1999) through denigrating scientists’ motives. Also sustainability measurement can be belittled because commentators make little or no distinction between the physical and more interpretative social environments (Norman and MacDonald, 2004; compare Vanclay, 2004: 265). This appears to be cognitive dissonance, and so an aspect of resistance, given that they do not own the view – one which has been largely restricted to humanities academics (Midgely, 1995) – that environmental science is nothing but a social construction. These pressures might be countered through the provision for key environmentally concerned employees of voluntary and confidential longitudinal support.

Championing long-term ecological ethics in a short-term profits culture

Ecological ethics are another irreducible component of sustainability. They (Curry, 2011; Sylvan and Bennett, 1994: 137; Jonas 1984) constitute a philosophical relationship to the scientific predictions based on measurement. Championing ecological ethics is vastly different from putting corporate short-term profits first, wherever these ethics are placed on the spectrum from light to dark green (or eco-centricity), whether or not human survival is prioritised in relation to the biotic community, and whatever attitudes are taken towards issues such as the precautionary principle (Giddens, 2009) and restoration (Ladkin, 2005). This is currently the critical difference for corporate leadership.

A leadership theory of sustainability needs to prioritise the long-term. The UN (1987) report Our Common Future (the ‘Brundtland Report’ Ch.2.1) famously defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The planet seems to be interpreted by most environmentalists as including future generations of the biosphere. This can be justified through anthropocentric as well as eco-centric (Earth-centred) reasoning. Humans are obviously crucial because, whether or not they are considered to be ethically privileged, they are the only presently known moral agents.

Deciding the mix between morally considerable and artificial sustainability

The more one’s criteria include ecological experience (described below), the more likely it is that one prefers self-directed and morally considerable sustainability to artificial environmental solutions. Conflict occurs especially over big system building (Adams et al, 2012), and to arrive at durable compromises leadership needs to model listening, not the groupthink of transformationally predefined, premature closure. High-tech innovations involve a man-made second nature, such as nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions, and geo-engineering to mitigate their effects. The outcomes may be tolerated as the least bad possible, or alternatively be rejected as ominous and unstable Baconian nightmares (Jonas, 1984:140; Wright, 2004; Matthews, 2011: 380- 382; Berry, 1988). The latter form of environmentalism often sees nature in some melancholy, perhaps Romantic, sense as ending through human agency (McKibben, 2003: 236-37; Wright, 2004; Jonas, 1984: 140; Berry, 1988; Lovelock, 2006: 146). A parallel vision of doom, but without mourning, is to be found in the fatalism of many geologists and scientists (for example, Herzog, 2007). 1

In order to support long-term environmental implementation which has much internecine dispute along the way, longitudinal leadership development systems will be required, not the quick hits of in and out consultancy interventions. Intra-green ethical conflict is inevitable. Biological research, genetic modification, nano-technology and other high-tech innovations also of course arouse ethical commentary which is separate from the sustainability debate.

Balancing the extended self of ecological experience with loyalty to the company

The basic point here for leadership is that ecology as a cultural movement involves identification of the self with the planet, biosphere and environment. Ecology as a movement experientially mirrors the holistic methods of ecological science. This is expressed in various ways, often with a pantheistic sensibility.

Examples include expansion to a wider self (Sylvan and Bennett, 1994: 108); humanity needing wisdom (Schumacher, 1974: 26, 160, 250); the earth awakening (Russell, 1982); ‘ecosophy’, that is a personal worldview guiding decisions involving oneself and nature (Naess, 1989); our becoming a collective mind for the earth (McKibben, 1989: 170); ‘the Way’ (Goldsmith, 1996); the transformation of human consciousness through engaging with Gaia, the living earth (Kumar, 2012 and 2005); eco-therapy (Jordan, 2009); eco-psychology (Totton, 2011); and the emergence of the shamanic personality through the development of consciousness (Berry, 1988).

Pro-environmental corporate employees seem to have quite similar experience. Awareness, profundity and reflexivity have been identified by several leadership researchers as necessary qualities for corporate transformation for sustainability (Lowcarbonworks, 2009: 77, 80 & 83; Kakabadse et al, 2009: 53, 55,56; Quinn and Dalton, 2009: 34; Ballard, 2005: 144 & 149; Bekker, 2010: 219; Ladkin, 2007). This is not to deny that it is possible to be a purely rational advocate of it through ecological science (risk management) and ethics with no holistic experience, but such a stance appears to be relatively unusual.

Ecological experience, if not explicitly linked by the employing organisation to environmental measurement, science and ethics, can be relegated to nice-to-have niches (Geels and Schot, 2007) to await a more favourable day for environmental transformation, and meanwhile to act as double loop enthusers of business-as-usual profitability. This of course defeats the purpose of ecologically based sustainability. To counter this, committed, hands-on board policy-making is required: this needs to define the company’s commercial distinctiveness within the overarching context of planetary sustainability.

Proposing a universal, non-discriminatory approach to human welfare

Corporate leadership needs to be aware of a variety of potentially non-democratic sustainability voices today, for example, those welcoming commodity monopolies, biocracy (Berry, 1988: 161) or famine (Smith, 2008). Nationalist and fundamentalist visions explicitly or implicitly take the state, or ethnic cluster, or religion, as their main point of reference. Social ecology’s best-known early expressions were ethnically particularist: pro-Nazi ‘Blood and Soil’ environmentalism was powerful in the 1930s (Bramwell, 1985).

The coalition between environmentalism and universal human welfare, which itself is based on contentious mixes of human rights with economic convergence, is only about a generation old (Mebratu, 1998). For various reasons today, but maybe not tomorrow, a great many take the human individual as the main unit in global sustainability negotiations. Western sustainability tends to link environmentalism with the UN Universal Declaration approach to human rights (Svensson and Wood, 2008). It is in the obvious interest of poorer countries to argue for the type of GDP convergence which uses the absolute energy emission averages per head within a state, not percentage variations taking a state’s aggregated energy emission starting points as given, as units of comparison (UNEP 2005).

Facilitating mindset change on sustainability pressures for degrowth

Degrowth (Adams and Jeanrenaud, 2008: 31-32) as defined by GDP, pending technological innovation, is likely to be selectively necessary (Jackson, 2009) if there is to be sustainable global convergence towards lessening human inequality, both economically and in terms of rights (put together, ‘welfare’). For example, if the world’s poorest billion’s time is to be freed for productivity beyond the poverty line through using washing machines, in order to keep the planet within necessary carbon emission limits the richest billion or so will very likely have to pay a great deal more for holiday flights so that a ceiling can be put on airline expansion. The triple bottom line ideal that environmental, social and economic needs can and should all be reconciled, is obviously problematic. A response is to accentuate the critique of consumerism and its inflated wants from points of view such as Aristotelian flourishing, wellbeing (Adams, 2006) and spirituality. The corporate leadership of such a profound mindset change, which perhaps has some analogies with employee disorientation after the fall of the Iron Curtain, will require considerable sustainability sense-making.

Sustainability theory’s connections with adaptive leadership theory

Now leadership aspects of sustainability theory as it impacts companies have been outlined, we can move on to leadership theory gaps and how they might start to be filled. Adaptive theory’s links to Darwinian evolution and democracy would appear to make it well-suited to be the main leadership approach to sustainability. This is disputed here; but it could form part of a solution.

Making universal human welfare explicit through uncovering the fallacy of adaptive leadership theory’s inherent democracy

Assuming a leadership analogy with biological evolution can be made, a problem with adaptive leadership theory is that it gives the impression of being both Darwinian and democratically aligned with a universal approach to human welfare when it is a contradiction in terms for it to be inherently both. Uncovering the fallacy of democratic inherency is necessary because if a universal approach to human welfare is to prevail, the case needs to be made explicitly.

Ronald Heifetz’ theory makes an analogy from the intra-biological level of genetic mutation to the social level of organisations. It uses the vocabulary of organizational thriving, experiment involving courageous diagnosis of the non-technical causes of disequilibrium, diversity, variation and selective pressure over time (Heifetz 1994; Heifetz et al, 2009). Contrasting adaptive with command and control leadership suggests a democratically normative universe. For Heifetz ‘adaptation’ is dancing on the edge (Heifetz et al. 2009). It is about radical leadership need arising from disequilibrium, and he likens the conditions creating genetic mutation to those creating democracy. Heifetz’s (1994:26) adaptive thought-world is centred on examples mainly from the US, a culture which happens to combine democracy and innovation. Thus Heifetz’ adaptation superficially might appear to match the worldview of sustainability through combining its onward social process of ‘evolution’ (something like ecological measurement and science, ethics and experience) with democracy (something like a universalist approach to human welfare).

Clearly, however, the natural world of Darwinian adaptation for survival is not inherently democratic. Nature does not, without cultural assistance, serve human liberty. It is reductionist to identify human society completely with the natural world. We are not genes: genes do not have our purpose, volition or reflexivity. As Mary Midgley (1995:146-7) points out, amoebas survive best; in contrast, what interests us is what the life of the species is. Furthermore, Darwinian theory involves randomness, and this has nothing to do with human rights or equality.

The necessary linking of Darwinism and democracy is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, adapting to environmental sustainability has already involved dictat, not democracy. Examples are the one child per family edict in China, the relative preservation of the rain forests in the Dominican Republic (Diamond 2005:340) and calls for ‘choice editing’ (a telling euphemism: Roger 2011) for consumers. There is much environmental pressure to relativise democracy: for example, through the forces favouring unilateral geo-engineering to combat global warming (Brand 2009: 282); and on strong states in Asia to put an end to underpriced environmental and resource inputs (Nair 2011:155). As Giddens (2009:54) observes, there is nothing necessarily democratic about the green movement; indeed, as has been mentioned, the first popular environmental movement to get alongside power was linked to the Nazi party and the selective eugenic ideal of Nordic breeding (Bramwell 1985:71). Sustainability’s processes could well freeze (Schein 1999), on becoming accepted, into authoritarian positional leadership; and so ‘adaptation’, even where it starts democratically, could simply reflect sustainability’s initial unfreezing of the business-as-usual paradigm, not a permanent democratic unfreeze involving open-ended continuous change (Weick and Quinn, 1999).

Containing adaptive theory as an aspect of a more inclusive and co-operative evolutionary analogy

A more inclusive and co-operative evolutionary analogy than that provided by adaptive leadership theory is required. This is both for overarching ecological and, within that, universal human welfare purposes. An evolutionary analogy centering on human responsibility towards the planet and society provides a closer match with sustainability norms than does adaptive leadership theory. Adaptive theory could be an aspect of this. Adaptive theory seems ultimately to be oriented towards success as measured by corporate profitability. Its rhetoric is well matched to competition, and this presumably will remain a major must-have for economic effectiveness within the overarching imperatives of putting the planet first and universal human welfare. However adaptation’s red-in-tooth-and-claw popular associations lack the cooperative consciousness required to rise to the urgent collective challenge of the Earth-centred, socially-created ecological crisis; this includes the critical need to secure big-power (Giddens, 2009) restraint to avert a massive tragedy of the commons.

Outside the field of leadership theory, other forms of post-Darwinian social evolution better express environmental and social sustainability theories. Julian Huxley (1957) seminally proposed the ‘religion without revelation’ (supposedly) of evolutionary humanism, and today such anthropocentric agency has been radically taken further to a stance of eco-centricity. A development of consciousness or, most minimally, a stewardship approach involving ecological agency or responsibility transcending biological determinism, is a common normative strand in much environmental thinking. This goes much further than servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977/1991), which is based on the individual and is not framed by the planet.

Scaling-up situational factors connecting corporate performance/profits with planet/people

The two outer, containing rings (planet and people) in this version of the much-used triple bottom line model provide the ethical framing for the inmost circle (performance/profits). Situational factors at the level of the business organisation connect the inner circle of performance/profits with the two outer ones of planet and people, and so scaled up situational leadership thinking may also be significant in a new evolutionary leadership analogy. The individual is currently the unit of analysis for situational leadership theory, not the corporate stakeholder cluster. Yet the latter is also seen to be unique, striving (Galbreath, 2009) and situated. Creating shared value (Porter and Kramer, 2011) sheds some of the primacy of the traditional individual homo economicus and instead, through distinctive positioning and location, emphasises corporate social identity which develops the unique sense of ‘us’ (Haslam et al., 2011). It involves building industry clusters at the company’s locations through unique positioning, and value chains and profits involving a social purpose, with ecological corporate measurement carrying on alongside. This approach is perceived as driving the next wave of technological innovation (Porter and van der Linde, 1995: 133), and as a higher form of capitalism.

Sustainability theory’s connections with transformational leadership theory

Transformational theory, the dominant theoretical approach in leadership studies for several decades, is contrasted with sustainability theory. In doing so, a potential developmental path is traced, leading from the introjection of the immature energies involved in the projected aspects of charismatic leadership to the extended self-boundaries of ecological experience.

Moving from transformational theory to the ecologically extended self

The pinnacle of corporate transformational leadership, the charismatic visionary, is typically made prominent through a supporting structure of cognitive and affective evasion. Such collective identity is created by follower reverence (Conger et al, 2000) and the attribution of charisma to the leader from the group. Though the leader may also genuinely possess the charismatic qualities perceived, the attribution often arises through social interaction which takes place outside direct leader-follower relations, through secondary leaders routinizing the charisma projected onto the leader (Meindl, 1990). The corporate, follower-leader charismatic field tends to be intrusive, coercively persuasive and monocultural, and may involve a money-based spirituality (Tourish, 2013). Typically the charismatic leader is narcissistic (Maccoby, 2000), often in an organisationally damaging way. Charismatic leadership is frequently justified through a merely functional claim that it is effective at generating profits, though even this itself is very questionable.

Sustainability theory is in contrast. The spirit of its experience involving extension to a wider, ecologically-rooted self is about a broader identification with nature: what Mary Midgely (1995/79: 346) terms the ‘entirely beyond us’, not about inflating the narrow ego (1995/79; 346); and what Freya Matthews (2011: 377) in an ideal formulation terms ‘biosynergy’, or the highest stage of biomimicry in which the agent’s conativity or ends are mutually adapted with those of other entities.2 The necessity for environmental measurement is a humbling, sense-based reality check which, if carried out independently, reduces the room for charismatic falsification. Furthermore, the huge pay packages of many charismatic business leaders fly in the face of a universal approach to human welfare.

Projected fascination becomes owned inspiration in the move from the charismatic follower-leader field to an ecologically aware, extended self. It involves using much the same energies in a different way. The follower has the cultural opportunity to confront his or her projections onto the leader of an ideal self, the secret desire to be charismatic oneself, identification with the aggressor, fear of challenging, the desire for safety and simplicity, protection from fears and vulnerabilities, and delegating responsibility to the leader alone. These and similar evasions result in trust being placed in an individual often marked by grandiose self-importance, fantasies of unlimited success, a sense of being special, a requirement for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, exploitation of others, a lack of empathy, and envy, arrogance and haughtiness (Stokes, 2007). A developmental path out of the dark wood of cultivating charismatic leadership could on its journey begin by revisiting the two-way participation of the transforming theory of Burns (1978:141-257), though this is largely restricted to Anglo- and Francophone humanism. It might detox the organisational culture to a ‘decaffeinated’ (Tourish, 2013: 203) form of transformational leadership, such as authentic leadership, or consider managing quietly (Mintzberg, 2009).

Transcending the binary split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership

Ecological experience and a universal approach to human welfare transcend getting stuck in the roll-out of ‘good’ (in contrast to ‘bad’) leadership solutions which, without regard to ecological ethics, modishly match members’ egos to short-term profitability. Gradual development towards the ideals of sustainability theory will require transcending the binary split into good and bad leadership, and rediscovering instead the traditional model in which even the best (or least bad) leadership has doubtful aspects to it, and even the worst leadership has some positive aspects. The most acclaimed leaders, such as Mandela, Gandhi and Lincoln, also have their critics and failings. Even the worst become formidable through bending good qualities to achieve dark ends: for example Himmler’s Posen speech about the extermination of the Jewish race is particularly disturbing because it makes a virtue out of the inner emigration required (Cohen 2001: 80, 156, 159). In the higher reaches of enabling the development of others, coaching, spiritual direction and therapy recognise the warping nature for practitioners of the power involved, and take steps in mitigation: it cannot be entirely abolished. As Plato said in The Republic (quoted in Grint, 1997: 36) of the philosophy into which we backwards project leadership, transcendence of the primary socialisation process is necessary; and it is not humanly possible for leadership in the irreducibly emerged corporate world to entirely attain to this notional state.

Raising leadership awareness of dooms, utopias and implicit apocalyptic thought-forms

A development path for sustainability leadership may be important as a stable model in a chaotic world if the predictions of environmental science are borne out. For risk management purposes, a middle path consensus seems to be about 3°C overall global warming by 2100 with perhaps half a metre of sea-level rise, and a relatively under-populated Americas (north and south) and Europe of about one billion each, compared with four billion each in Africa and Asia. Of course, this could be radically altered by other factors, such as a new ice-age, a mass epidemic reducing the population, a catastrophic volcanic eruption at Yellowstone, the outcomes being outside the confidence levels, or the predictions turning out to be just plain wrong-headed. The social effects of the predicted environmental outcomes are likely to be turbulent, including attempted mass emigration to the more northerly parts of the European landmass. These borderline, stigmatising (Steyrer, 1998), mass crisis conditions with desperate families are likely to be breeding grounds for charismatic leaders. This could be more in the wider society, involving total institutions and a reversion to Weber’s full category of prophecy, than in companies, many of which may be relative havens of transactional survival.

Over millennia charisma has been channelled prophetically through apocalyptic projections in troubled times. For example, Norman Cohn (1970: 53) describes how the messianism (a form of Christian apocalypse) of the disoriented poor in the Rhine valley from the end of the eleventh to the sixteenth century was accompanied by ‘serious overpopulation’ and rapid economic and social change. The cultural template of apocalypse is active in environmentalism, both through excessive automatic alarmism in the green movement, and through the misguided optimism immanently within neo-liberal environmentalist interpretations of markets. Thus apocalypse functions as an implicit leadership theory: it has historically included millenarianism and, in the last century, notions of both the thousand year Reich and the Marxist withering away of the state. It operates through splitting the self into present and future states, which in turn are split into the plus and minus of salvation and damnation, or secular equivalents.

‘Apocalypse’ is used here in the culturally longitudinal sense of meaning more than doom. Cohn (2001 Foreword) summarises apocalypse as a single, final consummation, upon which ‘the elect will thereafter live as a collectivity, unanimous and without conflict, on a transformed and purified earth’, and ‘the human agents of evil will be either physically annihilated or otherwise disposed of’. Apocalypse is not culturally universal but has a specific history (Cohn, 2001: 105, 163, 215), developed initially in the Middle East from combat mythology. Through the total ultimate defeat of demonic powers in the Christian Armageddon, it is a major, often latent, Western way of making sense.

Environmental sense-making frequently emphasises apocalypse’s downside, not the redemption for some which is also intrinsic to it. Apocalyptic links with the environment may be quasi-Christian (for example, McIntosh, 2008 on Nimrod’s pride); or extended metaphor (as in the evocation of Dante’s Inferno in Mark Lynas’ (2007) Six Degrees; or apparently scientific, as with James Lovelock’s (2006) Arctic Rim circle of salvation in a hellishly heated world, and UK ex-Astronomer Royal’s, Martin Rees’ (2003), Our Final Century, with its suggestion that only a few may survive the applications of science, and this through exiting Earth in a spacecraft; or visual, as in in Franny Armstrong’s (2008) disturbing film, The Age of Stupid, on runaway climate change; or in the form of science fiction. Such depictions typically claim ontological realism (based on environmental science), and for many appear to carry added force because their predictions are not seen also, in a post-Kantian way, as clothed in contemporary social constructions. Though apocalypse originally meant uncovering (Cohn, 2001: 163), not many environmentalists, while retaining the ontological validity of dire scientific predictions (Arbib and Hesse, 1986), seem to follow Emerson (Hodder, 1989: 24, 33, 71) in conceiving that the veil of the apocalypse-to-come can be taken off in the here and now.

In pro-corporate forms of environmentalism there are also echoes of apocalypse, but typically emphasising the salvific, upside aspect. There is a strand of faith that capitalism will inherently see us through the environmental crisis (Lomborg, 2007, and 2001: 312, 318, 329). For example, in more than a mere echo of apocalypse, Desrochers (2010: 172 & 189 especially) argues that the interplay of voluntary exchange, private property and self-interest has generally and immanently (Voegelin, 1974: 329) resulted in environmental sustainability: this is through the more efficient use of materials (dematerialisation, transmaterialisation and by-product development). This type of neo-liberal ideology goes beyond Hayekian claims for the boundaried morality of markets, and though it is latent and authorially unexamined, something like utopian dialectic is thereby brought into ontology.

Through raising awareness, including disseminating the already existing research into the historical background, and through ecologically aware development which owns projected charismatic energies, alternatives to the harmful effects of ecological apocalypse can be strengthened.


This article identifies sustainability leadership potential through focusing on the mismatches of two current theories, one which is not as inclusive as appears, the other a currently predominant one which misleads. Adaptive theory, with its resonances with Darwinian evolution, needs to be positioned as an aspect of a broader evolutionary analogy with sustainability, one in which the imperative of responsibility (Jonas, 1984) is to the fore. Transformational theory with its fascinating charisma is critiqued as being at the wrong end of a developmental path that leads to the ecological experience of the extended self and its inspiration. Finally, apocalypse combined with charisma is critically examined, both in its current guises of excessive doom-mongering and neo-liberal utopianism, and in relation to the scientifically predicted end-of-the-century state of the planet.

It is held here that there is a much-needed, longitudinal developmental possibility leading away from the excesses of transformational charisma with its affective energy field of projected fascination. Initially this involves the introjection by charismatic followers of split off energy. The development links corporate adaptive disequilibrium and the resistance to scientific measurement to an ecological leadership frame with rational risk management and responsibility at its heart, and leads to an owned, integrated, inspiration in an extended self. Other splits to be transcended include the idealised notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership, and the splits inherent in the implicit leadership theory of apocalypse, which projects present states into the future, and energises them in a way which is itself split into plus and minus alternatives. The developmental possibility complements the transactional culture which, unlike charismatic inflation, is best suited to the painstakingly detailed, sense-based and humbling task of supply chain and other physical environmental measurement. The latter’s comprehensiveness is an ecologically mandated priority for companies. A transactional approach, as part of a responsible, integrated and inspirational leadership response, also gives space for the creation of human dignity and for greater exercise by the individual of principle-based ethics.


1 Bill McKibben (2003: 236-37) cites Paradise Lost on man being cut off through being ‘lodged in a small partition’: he states that we have ended nature because we have altered it, and so we cannot feel the same about it. James Lovelock (2006: 146) compares anthropogenic climate change to the cosmically irrevocable and dark moment of the breaking of the ropes of fate in Wagner’s Ring. In Werner Herzog’s (2007) documentary Encounters at the Edge of the World, the current dominance of mankind is explained as just another evolutionary bloom in which ecological mishap is to be expected and, in the light of the Earth sciences, to see this is merely to discover what has been there all along.

2 Ecological thinking emphasises the significance of the planet. E.F. Schumacher (1974) states that economics as a thing in itself is a deluded vehicle for greed and envy, and takes as his starting point a damaged biosphere. In Mary Midgley’s view, instead of conquering nature we should acknowledge our kinship with the rest of the biosphere: she sees a continuum, not a divide, between animal and human communication. The influential American visionary, Thomas Berry (1988: 167, 75, 215, 21) sees the earth as our best model for any commercial venture, in contrast to the Wall St Journal, the daily diary of the American Dream, and calls for renewal of our human participation in ‘the grand liturgy of the universe’: biocentricity is re-enchantment. In Freya Matthews’ (2011: 377-378, 385) biosynergy, Goethean science can be used for the imaginative understanding of the ‘signature’ of a forest. She claims that such reflexivity is not sufficient to amount to dividing the wholeness of the cosmos (i.e. dualism), because although it gives some choice it does not extend, in a pan-psychic universe, to mind.


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© Geoffrey Ahern PhD November 2013

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