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The bitter better place

There is no need to apologize for being relentless in our work, or vociferously clear about the consequences of inaction.

It’s a bitter time, if one is inclined to seeing our planetary hourglass as half empty, or is just paying attention.

The bitterness can be felt on multiple fronts, from the erosion of human rights to the closing of the window for timely actions on climate change. Faced with these challenges, how can we bridge the gaps between "them" and "us," between present actions and future consequences, and between current realities and what we want to happen instead?

"Under the Hood" and "Bury My Heart at Conference Room B," Stan Slap’s fiery two books, provide useful framing in tackling these questions. The trilogy (one more to come) is about business culture but based on a foundation with broader application: values-driven leadership.

One theme especially may resonate for those of us aiming to tackle epic challenges such as climate change and water pollution. It’s the magic that happens through leadership visions that counterintuitively move us closer to "what’s better" by articulating what "worse" looks like.

As green business warriors, we’re often told that we need to stop focusing on the negative in order to enlist others. Leading with extinction or the plastic gyre is too depressing, scary, confusing or overwhelming. In the worst case, it bores.

As green business warriors, we’re often told that we need to stop focusing on the negative in order to enlist others.
But what drew me to Slap’s portraits of leaders was seeing how they tackled problems just as wicked, and certainly deeply linked, such as justice and poverty, by inviting in the bleak and the harsh. He shows how they painted a vivid picture, a future that is worse, what he calls the Bitter place, in order to get to the Better place. Because without the nightmare — an understanding of how bad it is and will get without change — there is no motivation to move towards the dream and no promise of relief.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t stint on describing the bitterness of the black experience in America. In his 1963 address during the March on Washington, he called out "manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination" and "unspeakable horrors of police brutality." Many of us recall the glorious heights he lifted us to, the exaltation of freedom ringing. But it was made sweeter by his contrast with the "vicious racists" in Alabama, "with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."

To create the changes needed to address "steepening problems" such as climate change, we need to use this kind of tension to build energy. If we can get people to switch to renewables just to save money, we’ll take that win. But our narratives need to hit home in the way our most effective leaders in history have moved mountains, by illuminating the prospect of better and worse.

With regards to climate change in particular, we see more than ever how very bad it can get. So many people have never even had to analyze forecasted scenarios or national commitments, but are already living with climate change’s catastrophic consequences. We’re challenged to hold both places at once: acceptance of the bitter reality of current trajectories, along with the surety that if we don't actually accept it but instead "continue to work" or "continue to struggle" for change, it could be so much better.

King told his listeners that their task was to "remind America of the fierce urgency of now" and not to indulge in the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism." So, too, with any massive, desperately overdue change.

Style and tone notwithstanding, there is no need to apologize for being relentless in our work, vociferously clear about the consequences of inaction or for alerting our customers and colleagues that the light at the end of the tunnel is, indeed, an oncoming train — but that there still might be enough room to get through to the other side.

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