How to go from past failure to future success

going beyond “blah, blah, blah”

As COP26 discussions progress this week in Glasgow, what will be the outcomes and what will enable these?

I’ve been pondering the likelihood of success from the two weeks of talks and negotiations of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference.  With the participation of nearly 200 countries, this is the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted.

How do you get so many diverse peoples to come to agreed, actionable conclusions which will have lasting consequences for all of us?  The complexity is mind-boggling!

The critical ingredients of success

I recently listened to an excellent webinar entitled Facilitating Breakthrough where Adam Kahane interviewed Christiana Figueres, an internationally recognized leader on global climate change.  Ms Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) after the failed Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009.  She was determined to lead the process towards a universally approved regulatory framework.

What interested me, in particular, was that the interview focused on the HOW rather than the WHAT.  At GBL, we consider the HOW to be at least equally as important as the WHAT and name our core pillars as “being, connecting the dots, dialogue and collaboration.”

So how does this approach align with what Ms Figueres did, as a leader of a highly diverse, global organisation.  How did she move from despair to determination and from confrontation to collaboration? And how can we, as organisations with diverse stakeholders and wicked problems learn from her successes?

starting with purpose

Ms Figueres started by learning from mistakes.  She used the 300-page of analysis from “the most successful failure of the UN” as she called the Copenhagen Climate Conference, to understand what not to do in the future. It’s clear that she also started with purpose, which is what powers her determination. Her response to the question “why this work?”: “Because it’s necessary”.

This was not intended as a trite comment. Ms Figueres had drilled down into the “necessary” to further define a purpose that would inspire those who had not yet connected with the compelling need. The “because it’s necessary” led to:

“Our purpose is to fashion a planet that has thriving conditions for all forms of life and protect the vulnerable”.

This purpose then served as the “shining light” calling her and others forward. It gave her the momentum to facilitate the breakthrough work.

three steps to facitating breakthrough

STEP 1: Prepare the ground. 
The objective of this stage is to gather collective wisdom.  Over time, the actors involved achieved this based on the enlightened self-interest of the many – no one wants a dead planet. At this stage all stakeholders need to be represented and their voices heard. These included spiritual leaders, scientists, young and old, indigenous peoples etc. There are many differences of opinion and you have to work with these. It’s also important to have the naysayers calling out the weaknesses.  The process is not complete without the dissenting voices that test the arguments and the conclusions. 

STEP 2: Nurture by building trust.

This is the HOW of the wisdom gathering stage.  It means being truly in the moment, without concern for arguing a case just for the sake of winning. It means asking questions and practicing deep listening with hearts and minds.  By taking this respectful stance, people are encouraged to offer their ideas which are incrementally built on so the sum is always greater than the parts. At this stage, the sapling ideas can be selected that will eventually bear fruit.

STEP 3: Till the soil. 

In this final stage, all participants should be invited to harvest the first fruits. The mindset needed for this process is to have one that is unwavering in moving forward, not giving up.  Both persistence and an open heart are critical.

For environmental protection there is no time to lose.  The clock is ticking – we are not minutes, but seconds from midnight.  The urgent triple concern is to go fast and far and together.

Ms Figueres points out that there is no one single anything that can tackle this.  It must be done by all. Over the last five years, there has been greater awareness of the inter-connections of everything – the sustainable development goals, soil, water, etc.  We are called to think systemically and consider the whole ecosystem.

The whole ethos of the Discovery Prism is that for alignment and powerful collaboration consensus cannot be forced or imposed. Whether the system is large and complex (like the fate of the planet) or small and impactful (like how we return to the workplace), representation from all major stakeholders will provide the platform for supported thought-out solutions.  Through dialogue, collaboration, being and connecting the dots, a different kind of wisdom can emerge and the whole system can change. This is the gift of the Prism, that represents all hues of all colours to emit a focused intensity.

leader as facilitator

What does all this require of a leader?  Ms Figueres offers words of wisdom from her own experience.

You cannot lead by title.  Forget what’s on your business card, and don’t think you can tell people.  Recognise that you alone cannot have the answers! You may be knowledgeable in your field but delete the word “expert” (who is that anyway?) – this is the stance of a command and control approach.

What you can do instead:  be genuine and authentic about what we are facing and how we can tackle this together.  Leading in this way offers an important way of connecting with self.  Working from the heart brings a completely different quality of work.  Allow yourself to say “I don’t know”!  Strive always to have a beginner’s mind.

Have a sense of justice and show people where you stand.  Be persistent, this challenge is not something we can give up on.  Humour can go a long way to move beyond an impasse if it can be used in the right way at the right time.

One the toughest roles as a leader is not to think and act in binary ways, which is most likely how we have been trained.  It is rarely either/or but finding the space to hold both polarities.  This is where the fruitful ground lies.  As leaders we have to encourage people to move forward AND to hold them accountable.

Our definition of a successful leader is one who is a facilitator to allow people’s best thinking, an inspirer to ignite people’s highest purpose, and a motivator to move people to courageous action.

Our wish for COP26 is that there are open hearts and generous listening, that all who can contribute will be given the space and respect, so that the best outcomes can be achieved, making the most of the rich diversity of all participants.

What is needed today is leading with values grounded in a higher purpose… This requires innovation that leverges our interconnectedness, to accelerate changes that restore our relationship with nature and each other and make us all more resilient.

Leadership through Covid-19 and Beyond

Dr Eliane Ubalijoro

Deputy Executive Director, GODAN & Professor McGill University

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