4 traits that define the next generation of climate leaders

climate change march young activists
Flickr Joe Brusky
A "whole-system" viewpoint is at the center of young leaders' efforts to combat climate change.

Friday, December 18, 2009, is a day I will never forget. It was cold, grey and foggy, as if the weather were mirroring what was happening in the city.

It was the final day of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and as the hours ticked by it became clear that we were witnessing a historic collapse of a global deal. The negotiations had completely disintegrated; heads of state quickly were fleeing the scene leaving people all over the world in shock and disbelief.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, I had been project director of the Copenhagen Climate Council, which gave me the chance to work with some of the world’s most energetic and dynamic individuals, from CEOs such as Sir Richard Branson and Jim Rogers, to scientists such as Steve Chu and Tim Flannery. In our time together we focused on raising awareness of the business case for a strong global deal by fostering dialogue with politicians and business leaders primarily in China, India and the U.S.

During that time, one thing became very clear. Although the science made a clear case for urgent action on climate change, it was difficult to get people around the table to discuss a practical approach.

Many were concerned about how their business would fare in a low-carbon world and talked in terms of restraint, sacrifice and doomsday scenarios. There was no real excitement about the enormous business opportunities this complete transformation of our societies could bring. Fear and uncertainty dominated many discussions.

The new leaders

That day in December, as I watched our global leaders fall staggeringly short of what was urgently needed, I knew that something had to change. Since then, my work has been focused on responding to that fear and uncertainty by communicating the business models, the solutions and the vision for a compelling, sustainable future we all want to be a part of.

I am honored to say that it is work which has granted me an invitation to join the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders community this year. It’s an incredible privilege to join this group of thinkers and doers, and I go as a representative of the people I work with who are passionate about making a difference.

It has also made me pause to reflect on what it means to be a young global leader today. Slowly, I can see that the corridors of power peppered with isolated corner offices, drab suits and corporate lingo are on their way out; nowadays, leaders come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. They are among us, not above us.

We are witnessing a new era of leadership, and we have much to celebrate. I strongly believe all future leaders must set out the role they choose to play in creating our sustainable future.

Regardless of your profession or sector, you must consider your role in maneuvering our societies in a better direction. Whether you’re a kindergarten teacher, an invest banker, an engineer or a politician — everyone plays a role in making this world more sustainable.

So what traits and characteristics do I believe we need to nourish and focus on in order to become a generation of leaders that makes a positive difference in this world?

1. Empathy

There are complex and overlapping reasons the climate negotiations in 2009 failed, but I think it can all be boiled down to empathy — or, rather, the lack of it.

Empathy requires that we listen before we act, so that we may create a common understanding about the challenges ahead of us. Empathy asks that we experience the world from the vantage-point of others, so that we develop inclusive solutions and not exclusive ones. Empathy helps us care for the people around us whether they are partners, employees or competitors. Ultimately, empathy helps us tackle problems for which the answer is not black and white.

Empathetic leaders are authentic, honest and visionary, that truly care about what they do.

2. Bottom-up leadership

What if I told you that we already have the solution to climate change? Well, the truth is, we do.

Every year I am filled with hope when I see the range of empowering innovations from all over the world as my team at Sustainia brings together the Sustainia100 — a guide to the best available and scaleable sustainable solutions. More often than not, they come from people on the front line of the world’s most intractable problems — the farmers, the students, the entrepreneurs, the parents, the activist — people who are tired of waiting for answers and are taking the solutions into their own hands.

People such as Bilikiss, who was sick of the chronic problem with trash in her home city of Lagos, and started Wecyclers; people such as Gayatri, who realized how dirt floors made families in Rwanda very ill, and helped start EarthEnable; people such as Eduardo, who saw how poorly our rooftops were maximizing solar potential, and created Mapdwell.

The leadership pyramid has been inverted, and it is time to follow the inspiring lead of those at the bottom who are shaping our future for the better.

The principle applies to organizations of all sizes — great leaders, spanning from start-ups to multinationals, involve their employees; they don’t just instruct them.

3. Commitment to bold action (regardless of who gets credit)

Collaborative leadership sits at the heart of limit-busting problem-solving. It requires us to be brave — to step outside our comfort zone and walk towards unknown places — and it requires us to accept that we won’t always get the credit or come up with the great idea.

A few years back I visited the Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. They had made a replica copy of the Oval Office as it was during his presidency, and a tiny plaque sitting on his desk caught my eye. It read, "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit."

I brought a copy of that plaque home, and the quote has stayed with me ever since. Nothing is impossible if we’re willing to truly collaborate and share ideas. That’s the mindset we need to nurture among my generation of leaders.

4. Disruptive of dysfunctional systems

When we talk about"‘climbing the ladder," we’re working on an outdated notion that there is only one way to the top. In the past 20 years, the idea of a single career track has shifted and today’s workers move much quicker between roles and sectors and are, to a far greater extent, driven by a sense of passion.

Research shows that millennials all over the world increasingly choose where to work based on people and purpose, not products and profit, and as a result they are growing along something that looks more like a career tree than a career path.

This lends itself superbly to a "whole-system" view, which give future leaders the insights needed to disrupt traditional models. System disruption is how we tackle systemic challenges — the kind of challenges that risk bringing down entire ecosystems, from agriculture to the oceans.

We must support and nurture system disruption from the way we teach in schools, to the way we promote innovation at work. We must foster a culture that is true to Einstein’s saying, that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again whilst expecting a different result. We must foster a culture where failure is part of the process, and where we dare to listen to unconventional ideas.

We are now in the era of Sustainable Leadership, where leaders collaborate and facilitate rather than dictate and decide. There is a world filled with young global leaders that truly care, that lead from the bottom up, that believe in collaboration as a path to problem-solving, and that are bold enough to disrupt existing systems and structures. I can’t wait to start working with them all.