Stories, Leadership, and Change

These are the wise words of Beth Comstock, the first female vice chair of GE and the author of Imagine it Forward. I read her book about a year ago and it still sits with me, especially now in this time of lingering uncertainty and change. A “bias for action” is the bit I really appreciate in the above statement. Throughout her career, Comstock stood up, spoke up, and instigated change. With a Bachelor of Science under her belt, she worked her way up the ranks of corporate America; and for a good part of it as a divorced single mother. Respect!

As I contemplate the next step in my career, I have observed COVID-19 as a necessary nudge to re-consider how to work, live, and contribute to better society. The coronavirus has caused me to rethink my priorities and what I look for in a potential employer. It has also brought into light the importance of stories and the role of storytellers, like me.

COVID-19 has also been — and continues to be — a test of leadership. It has required collaboration and an urgent response to an antigen that has exposed serious systemic risks and flaws in most nations. Responsible leaders have listened and taken necessary and difficult actions to ‘flatten the curve’ based on scientific models and the guidance of experts.

Now, to the Real Crisis…

In time, the coronavirus crisis will be considered a single event — a manageable pandemic — whereas climate change is a different beast altogether. While COVID-19 is a tangible threat to which we assume we can find a cure, the climate crisis unfolds in different places at different times and in different forms. And while the origin of the coronavirus pandemic is thought to be known, climate change cannot point a finger of blame at a single country for its causes.

The climate crisis is a global affliction, and humans are the antigens.

We are also the only species which can do anything about it. The climate crisis is our doing and we must take responsible steps to mitigate its impacts. It is an effort that will require collaboration like that taken to combat COVID-19, but over a longer period of time and on a larger scale. It will take similar sacrifices and life-changing innovation. It will also require strong leadership and the ability to harness powerful stories.

Compared to COVID-19, climate change is a global threat of a completely different scale and timeline, and waiting for more evidence or attacking scientific consensus won’t get us anywhere. We need a similarly urgent, empathic, and collaborative response to this meta crisis. What is more, rather than taking a few months of effort to ‘solve’, climate change will take decades of hard work to alter systems and mindsets in order to alter the trajectory of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Stories of Hope

To be sure, when it comes to addressing climate change, the most important changes will be initiated by the actions of public companies. As much as individuals may press for change, businesses will be the mega catalysts in concert with government at all levels. We are already starting to hear these corporate voices and observe leaders willing to evolve the social and environmental priorities of the companies they lead. Examples are emerging around the world:

  • Amazon’s Climate Pledge, an initiative that commits the world’s largest company, and other companies that sign on, to be net zero carbon by 2040, 10 years before the Paris Agreement.
  • The recently released documentary Closing the Loop, featuring sustainability expert Wayne Visser, includes encouraging stories of organizations in Europe, South America, and Africa moving toward a circular economy.
  • RE100, a global initiative to accelerate the shift to clean energy and zero carbon grids, includes more than 240 of the “world’s most influential companies”.

Driven by a groundswell of consciousness manifested through activities such as The Peoples Climate Movement, the Climate Reality Project, and employees articulating the sort of changes they expect from their employers, companies are waking up to the necessities of taking a more balanced perspective on financial profits and sensible growth.

The public needs hope; examples of innovation and ingenuity, and tales of progress that tap into a deeper appreciation of connectivity and interdependence. Fortunately, in the face of deeply troubling numbers about the future of the planet, we are starting to witness more hope in the narratives being conveyed by the private sector. As businesses apply a new lens to their roles and responsibilities, they are telling important stories about their values and value in society. Collecting, packaging, and harnessing of these narratives present exciting opportunities for communicators (like me) to have an impact and add value.

Which brings me back to Beth Comstock, who writes:

Strategy is a well-told story

Stories are beacons of hope. They have the power to persuade and penetrate the psyches of every human. Shared by transformational leaders, stories can be tools for tremendous change. They can ignite movements, compel voters, and re-orient societies.

Apart from occasional skirmishes with dark forces of distraction and deceit, the main role for leaders of public companies will be to tell stories of inspiration. Consider why Tesla has overtaken Toyota as the world’s most valuable auto company or why Microsoft announced earlier this year that it would be carbon negative within the next 10 years.

These are companies with leaders who articulate strategies based on globally beneficial visions. Their stories of positive change stand out above the din of destruction and denial. Offering a sense of agency and control for the public to affect change — with their investments, spending, and behaviours — such stories are centred on opportunities and options for progress and social advancement.

In the film referenced above, John Elkington, the ‘godfather of sustainability’, poignantly asks: “Can we project the sort of vision of a future that people will aspire to and want to be part of?”

Quite simply, we need to know that we stand a chance.

In this time of growing uncertainties and increasing risks, we have the potential for tremendous creativity and innovation. It is a chance to re-new and re-invent so that we come out of the spirit-crushing realities of COVID-19 with a collective optimism. There will be many more crises ahead, but through a process that Comstock refers to as “sensemaking”, individuals and organization have the opportunity to process and understand these challenges by collecting and synthesizing data into new stories and mental frameworks that can make sense of unknowns and ambiguities.

Changes in how we work and live are necessary and inevitable. They will be difficult, but doable. If we ‘turn a corner’ in our energy production and consumption, economies will benefit and we should expect a profound shift in how societies function.

But in order to turn a corner, one must first slow down, before once again speeding up.

Slowing Down to Speed Up

This is that time. Engaging thoughtfully and respectfully with those who fear change. Listening with the intention of understanding what others may be missing, afraid of losing, or unsure of. As communicators, we play an important role in this process as we work with leaders to convince others to believe in a future where barriers to change do not seem insurmountable.

Asking probing questions is the starting point to initiating change. We cannot shy away from interrogating opinions, establishing facts, and challenging lies. Curiosity sometimes results in confrontation, but to me, that is better than avoiding conversation for fear of offending anyone.

Climate change may be daunting but from great challenges come great stories. These stories are waiting to be told. Stories of companies embracing change. Leaders leading with more holistic perspectives. Governments acting with long-term plans.

We need to be bold in finding and sharing these stories. And as networks replace hierarchies, and bureaucracies give way to more decentralization, there is a natural ‘trickle up’ of truth and reconciling past mistakes.

I want to be part of changing the future for the better. So if you are part of an organization looking to improve its communication capabilities, let me know if I can assist with articulating your journey ahead.

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Andrew Fletcher Cole

Andrew Fletcher Cole

Canadian Capetonian living in Toronto trying to be a good father and husband as I navigate through life on this mysterious planet. mrcole.net