Trend or Bandwagon?

Posted: February 1, 2007 in Science
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As reported in the Globe and Mail (January 17th, 2007), “Instead of leaving in 2008, (British Petroleum CEO) Lord Browne found himself embroiled in what is tantamount to a boardroom putsch and is leaving the company – which he helped turn around – six months from now instead of the intended farewell in 18 months.” The reason? “A sweeping independent report into chronic safety lapses at BP’s five U.S. refineries has concluded that lives might have been saved if Lord Browne had spent as much time on safety as he did trying to be green.”

A recent poll in Canada now places global warming as the most worrisome political priority for Canadians, ahead of perennial favorite health care and even the war in Afghanistan. At the same time last year, during a federal election, the concern barely even registered on the radar screens of electors. Even President Bush has given his imprimatur to the environment during his recent State of the Union address. What is happening?

We can’t say there were any significant scientific discoveries during the last year to make everyone change their minds so suddenly. So why have populations in Canada and the U.S. become suddenly so concerned?
My contention is that opinions on the matter reached a tipping point – to use Malcolm Gladwell’s apt term – sometime during the latter part of 2006. The exceptionally late onset of winter in eastern North America no doubt had a major impact on people’s thinking, but opinions and discourse had already changed noticeably during late summer and early fall.

What does this have to do with leadership and management? Simply put, political and business leaders now have to be perceived to be on the global warming “bandwagon” for fear of being branded a skeptic or, even worse, a “global warming denier”. Corporations and governments are now spending millions on establishing their environmental bone fides while spending billions more on becoming environmentally friendly. Investors are being told they can expect to make a killing by investing in ethanol production companies (while omitting to point out that the industry is heavily subsidized by governments) and other businesses profiting from global warming (everything from light bulb makers to wind farm operators). How much of this capital allocation has to do with actual risks and realities, as opposed to alarmist scenarios?

Back in 1975 Warren Bennis wrote a book called The Unconscious Conspiracy. Bennis argued that leaders were increasingly beset in the late 60s and 70s by an unconscious conspiracy of do-gooders and other assorted intervenors who were crippling the abilities of leaders to lead. Leaders were being forced to conform to ever changing standards of leadership and management while simultaneously being flooded by masses of irrelevant information and data. In addition, routine work was crowding out the non-routine, leaving leaders with limited power to lead their organizations as they saw fit.

The global warming issue is showing us that the “unconscious conspiracy” lives on, except that now, leaders are dealing with environmental issues rather than ones of rights and workplace democracy. Moreover, it appears that environmental concerns are crowding out others which are potentially just as important to the organization as well as society as a whole, such as growth and workplace safety.

Just as it was in 1975, there are still no easy solutions to the unconscious conspiracy, especially when it comes to the question of global warming. No amount of knowledge of the scientific trend could have forewarned of the sudden turn in public and political opinion. How should leaders deal with these situations? Here are some questions to think about when dealing with social trends.

  1. Are we just dealing with a fad or taste (e.g. fashion) or with a belief based on fear and emotion (e.g. global warming)? If it’s the former, then the organization can gear itself to constantly changing tastes and the consequences of failure to do so can be contained. If it’s the latter, then chances are that the leadership will have to give serious consideration to how this widespread social trend will impact on the organization.
  2. Is the social trend likely to crowd out reasoned debate and action? If yes, then the leadership and the organization must gear itself for this. Anyone who resisted equal rights and emancipation of various groups during the 60s and 70s quickly became viewed as a dinosaur, for good reason I might add. Moreover, their stonewalling led to government intervention in the form of affirmative action legislation. The same can be said of global warming today. Organizations and leaders who are openly skeptical are automatically tarred as global warming deniers and in cahoots with the oil industry. Informed debate is almost impossible in this situation, but doing nothing or stonewalling won’t make the problem go away either. On the other hand, focusing on environmental concerns while downplaying others, as seen in the BP case, are not a solution either.
  3. What can we do now and in the future to absorb the effects of this social trend? This obviously takes lot of thought and debate. It also means coming up with a long term strategy to deal with the issue while maintaining the focus of the organization.

What is clear is that these types of rapid changes of social mood and mass beliefs demand transformational and visionary leadership. Sitting around hoping that things will go back to the good old days won’t do. On the other hand, overreacting and becoming an “environmental” CEO are just as likely to be harmful to the organization as inaction. As with most things, the key is to maintain balance and perspective, and to not become a willing participant in the “unconscious conspiracy” weighing down one’s own leadership.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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