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Jim Walker on the DNA of leadership, at Rio+20

28 June 2012
Jim Walker on the DNA of leadership, at Rio+20

Jim Walker, International Programs and Strategy Director, The Climate Group, spoke at the launch of The Clean Revolution Campaign at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, Brazil, June 19, 2012. 

The industrial revolution was driven by the leadership and innovation of a small group of people - as were the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the internet revolution. The Clean Revolution will be no different.

However, leadership is perhaps an overused term. Since we established The Climate Group eight years ago, we have regularly produced profiles and insights into leaders on climate change, both personal and organizational. 

Last year, we started to increasingly question what leadership meant: what were its characteristics, what did it really look like and how was it evolving in the face of the challenges and opportunities we are all here in Rio to discuss.

In particular, we became interested in whether we could define the DNA of leadership on sustainability - some fundamental principles by which to guide the dialogue on leadership, identify and profile leaders, and learn lessons that could be propagated.

The Leading for a Clean Revolution report is our first attempt to do this, based on the body of leadership profiles we have amassed, and sage feedback from our advisory board.

We've distilled it down to five phrases: innovate, early adopt, reduce, align and open source.

What do these mean?

  • INNOVATE: Adopt the new agenda of disruptive low carbon innovation

This will be increasingly central to leadership going forward. Why? The pace of change requires non-linear progress. How else can we double urban infrastructure and the size of the consumer economy while radically reducing carbon emissions, water and resource use?

Innovation also is about competition, it allows leaders to reap benefits. Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, said recently that if there's going to be disruption in your sector, you are better off disrupting yourself than waiting for others to do it to you.

What does this look like? A serious low carbon business play for every major company. We see it in Philips LED business, in GE's ecomagination. For Governments, it means redoubling of support for low carbon research and development. For everyone it also means tracking the work of entrepreneurs - the Postcode Lottery's Green Challenge has been finding and supporting innovations from an organic substitute to expanded polystyrene to a water recycling shower.

  • EARLY-ADOPT: Embrace low carbon technology, policy and financing

Nobody is asking for adoption of uneconomic or uncompetitive solutions. But leadership requires going the extra mile to work out where being an early adopter is competitive. We have shown that LEDs and EVs can work today in commercial settings. 

Barbara Kux from Siemens, yesterday pointed out that new technology isn't required, we just need to roll out what we have faster. There would be no cheap solar PV without policy support from countries like Germany and China.

  • REDUCE: Reduce emissions now

All talk of innovation and technology cannot deflect from the fundamental need to reduce emissions and wider footprints. Leadership will vary according to sector and geography but at least 3% annum is the benchmark, for now in developed countries, and by 2020 for developing nations.

  • ALIGN: Align carbon and sustainability with your other drivers

Whether you are making the case for change to your board, shareholders, constituents or political opponents, aligning sustainability with the other issues that matter to you is central to leadership. 

We looked at business and government leaders and asked ourselves, and them, why they were doing what they were doing. We heard of Suzlon developing wind power initially as the only reliable energy source for manufacturing facilities in India. We heard Jeff Immelt and others saying that green is green  - cutting carbon makes money. We saw China developing world leading clean tech policy to create better jobs and competitive advantage. We saw Scotland looking to reinvent its economy on renewable energy building on strong wind, hydro and marine resources, and strong engineering capacity. We realized that this is a good thing!

While nuanced for each person and organization, we believe that four core drivers - sustainability, financial gain, competitive advantage and social development - account for the majority of Clean Revolution leadership today. And all are equally valid.

  • OPEN-SOURCE: Open source your leadership

The challenge is too large, too diverse and too rapidly evolving for any leader to go it alone. Communicating about what you're doing, engaging with your peers and those on the other side of the business government and civil society divides, and opening up your strategies to external ideas are all essential to leadership. 

We've recently seen Nike opening up their supply chain strategy to online hackathons, and Unilever launching an online platform to seek expert input on their sustainability strategy.

Thanks to the leadership of Premier Charest of Quebec Government and his co-chairs, our network of world state and regional governments has met regularly since 2005 to learn from each other, benchmark their leadership, and reach consensus on the agenda for change going forwards. They will meet again here in Rio today and tomorrow.

The Climate Group, the UN Global Compact and many others provide an essential forum for these exchanges.

Communication by leaders, speaking out, is particularly important because we believe that leadership is viral. 

This is a core element of the Campaign we are launching here today - a process to support leaders in making the case for change through a network of ambassadors and an open online evidence base for the Clean Revolution - facts, figures, case studies, interviews and other resources.

Going forward we will continue to develop the framework and metrics for leadership, looking at individual leadership, businesses and governments, and considering different sectors, geographies and cultures. We hope that this will help to benchmark leadership going forwards and set the agenda for the transformational changes required.

We welcome your input and feedback on this, the report and the campaign.

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