Leading with a Ten Year Clock

Do you remember where you were ten years ago? I was running Boston.com and beginning to float this crazy idea I had for a start-up. Obama was 5 months into his presidency. Captain Sully had landed the plane in the Hudson. The Great Recession was eighteen months old. It just doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?

Now think ahead to May 18, 2029, ten years from today. It’s 3,653 days from now. That’s the amount of time that we have, according to the latest IPCC report, to cut carbon emissions by 50% or we will blow past a 1.5 degree celsius temperature rise. It’s significantly worse at 2 degrees. Much of downtown Boston, and the rest of the eastern seaboard, will be underwater regularly. 99% of coral reefs are dead. Hundreds of thousands of species are extinct. 80M climate refugees are struggling for a place to live and work. The report says we need to “transform the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent”.

So how do you lead—a company, a family, a community group, a team—with the reality of that ticking clock? It feels like such a daunting problem that blocking it out, given all the day to day challenges, is often the path of least resistance.

But given the work we do, I can’t block it out for long. Fortunately, I get to work with amazing business leaders that are fighting hard to achieve that reduction goal and much, more more. I’ve observed some patterns among these leaders that provide optimism, hope and more importantly, a roadmap for how to lead.

Tackle your personal 50%

Inspiring leaders walk the walk in their personal life. Get them talking and you’ll hear about their electric vehicle, that they’ve just tried an Impossible Burger, and the latest energy gadget that’s nudging their household with data. Leaders tend to be early adopters and solutions exist today to have this kind of dramatic impact. So where does your 50% come from? Switch to renewable energy from your utility or look into solar. Install energy efficient lighting and low flow faucets, showers and toilets. Cut out 50% or more of red meat and dairy. Double the efficiency of your vehicle and appliances when you next have a choice. These steps catalyze the level of change we need. Most importantly, they inspire others to do the same.

Talk about reducing carbon as the smart thing to do, not just the right thing to do

One of the most successful leaders I work with used to be the company’s CFO. She understands how boards work, how to speak to investors, how to manage risk, and how to make complex business cases. She frames carbon reduction work in this context and I think that’s one of her superpowers. She can tell you exactly how much their energy, waste and water reduction efforts save the company and what the return was, relative to other investments. She frames investing in carbon reduction in the context of managing risk, just like other risks the company manages.

I remember, almost ten years ago, an exercise at the New York Times where we reviewed various disaster scenarios to develop business continuity plans. I developed a healthy fear of pandemics after that, but everyone should do this same exercise for climate risks. Resilience efforts then fall into the normal, smart process of managing those risks.

Reinvent A Thing. Then Reinvent Something Else

I recently participated in a workshop that challenged us to reinvent the lunchbox to be super sustainable. Every table settled on a different approach, but get 50 leaders reinventing and pretty soon we are back to Cornish pasties for lunch, using the Kardashians to trend set vintage lunch boxes, changing backpack design to hold lunch, and making boxes out of edible materials. The point was that we can, today, with what we have, redesign how we live and work for dramatic impact.

So when you look around you, what’s something in your own life that you can reinvent? Maybe it’s simple to start, like what your marketing team uses for tchotkes or what you give out at birthday parties. What the company cafeteria serves or what you serve at a party. Eventually, you’ll get to the core of your products and services and how they are built and delivered. Pick something, get everyone involved, and go back to what problem the thing was trying to solve in the first place. Now go redesign it to cut the impact in half…or more. It’s fun, it’s impactful and it’s the leadership that is needed if, ten years fro now, we want to be reminiscing about the last episode of The Game of Thrones instead of living it.

Quote of the Week: “To change the world around us, we need to change ourselves first.”

Santosh Joshi

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