Ego Climate: Human Dysfunction Is Holding Up Sustainability

04/08/2013 06:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013
  • Shayne Hughes President, Lead Culture Change Partner at Learning as Leadership

I recently attended the Wall Street Journal's ECO:nomics conference on the environment and business, and I left unexpectedly inspired.

The amount of innovation and creativity in the marketplace is astounding:

  • We can grow 170 kinds of leafy greens "aeroponically" in 16 days, in a 3'x4' box you can store anywhere;
  • New breakthroughs in energy storage are making solar and wind evermore viable energy options;
  • Photovoltaic solar is becoming so powerful and inexpensive that one speaker declared that "distributed generation" (on your roof) will soon render our aging electric grid obsolete;
  • Solutions for carbon capture, landfill as biofuel, solar powered public trash compactors, and so on.
The world is so dynamic that innovation is catching us by surprise. Five years ago, experts were obsessed with peak oil; now we have more natural gas than we know what to do with. It is clear that we have -- or are on the verge of developing -- all the technology necessary to respond to climate change.

And that's where the pessimism kicks in.

The biggest barrier to a safe, sustainable and economically vibrant future appears to be human dysfunction. The most salient example I saw this week is how complex issues are framed and argued as either/or extremities. We must choose between:

  • Liberty and jobs -- or the environment;
  • Free market solutions -- or government over-regulation;
  • Fracking is absolutely safe -- or so dangerous it should be outlawed immediately;
  • Government spending is good -- or bad.

These types of all-or-nothing gridlocks, where each side vigorously advocates its point of view, but dismisses with distrust the other's perspective, are classic "Us vs. Them" symptoms. Many of us see these dynamics in our organizations (e.g., HR vs. Operations, Sales vs. Engineering, everyone vs. IT) but the consequences on a global scale are -- well, global.

We're not lacking ideas or charismatic personalities -- we're lacking leadership: Oil and gas CEOs who genuinely own the whole problem -- energy, profit and environmental safety; environmentalists who worry about the economic impact of the dramatic measures they propose; politicians who prioritize energy, environment and economy over self-interest and special interest; an electorate (yes, that's us) who demand functionality first, issue position second. The public climate of ego-driven leadership behaviors is allowing our climate change to go unchecked.

A consequence of all this dysfunction is that we restrict the people who can actually guide us to a sustainable, energy-abundant planet: the researchers in government laboratories, the innovators in clean-tech start-ups and the leaders of large incumbent energy companies.

When one group can't count on long-term stability (e.g., the subsidies for wind are extended year to year, often with lapses), it's all the more difficult to build commercial momentum in the marketplace. When another group has a set of advantages (e.g., oil and gas subsidies are permanent) they can more easily succeed without bringing their best effort.

All the banter about government regulation vs. free market, where we yell past each other, is a smokescreen that doesn't allow us to talk about how the market is limited as much through unfairness, with its myriad special rules, as through regulation.

I want a free market, where the playing field is stable, and everyone has the same rules. Then our innovators can meet there, and earn their rewards the old-fashioned way -- by inventing the future, profitably, responsibly, and with all their mind-boggling creativity.

Many people lament this lack of level playing field, which will only emerge when our leaders put their self-worth, self-interest, and entrenched worldviews aside, and act with an ego-free, global mindset.

Because on our planet, like in our organizations, ego climates are both polluted and low-performing.