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Leading through storms

Cat Jenkins, reviewing Prof Jonathan Gosling’s contribution to the book Deep Adaptation: navigating the realities of climate chaos: Chapter 9 Leadership and Management in a context of Deep Adaptation.

Invited to review Jonathan Gosling’s contribution to this recent book, edited by Professors Jem Bendell and Rupert Read, I was intrigued – not least because of my own experience when considering leadership in the face of collapse. I’d first thought about this when signing up for Prof Bendell’s ‘Sustainable Leadership’ course, back in 2019.  “Leadership…hmmm. I like to think of myself as a bit of a leader; educated, confident, articulate. This is the one for me”.  What a lot I learned – about myself, and about what leadership can mean in a changing context – emergent, humble, flexible and more. I’ve learned more still, and gained valuable insight, from reviewing this work – and so, I suspect, will many others.

Professor Gosling first considers traditional ideas of ‘leadership’ – including the shortcomings that these styles may, and indeed historically have been shown to, exhibit in times of societal collapse. In doing so, he highlights an important, though perhaps uncomfortable, truth: “though we may speak of leaders as bringers of change, mostly they are called on to ensure continuity”. This prompts the question of whether societies select the leaders who make them feel most ‘comfortable’, rather than the ones they might actually need.

Prof Gosling points out that moribund leadership may be recognized as wanting when truly disruptive shocks affect a society. A ‘leaders’ toolkit may not be diverse or adaptable enough – and at times such as these, new models and methods of shaping and leading a community may come to the fore. As he points out:

“[t]his is not surprising because they operate through established institutions and make choices according to the values that are admired in that culture, and generally to preserve existing power relations. It’s rare for an elite to undermine its own privilege, and usually the virtues that are admired in leaders do not include ‘willing to give up on our way of life’.

In analysing the varied manifestations of leadership, Prof Gosling touches on the role of diversity and plurality in leadership frameworks. He recognizes three distinct forms:  

A leadership of denial – either intentional or unconscious;

A leadership of salvation – a desire to ‘rescue’; and

A leadership of adaptation – described as diverse and ‘sometimes hardly recognisable as leadership’.

Given the context in which he is writing, the cynical might intuitively expect Gosling to dismiss the leadership styles of denial and salvation, in favour of adaptation, out of hand: but that would be a lazy analysis, and in fact he identifies that there are points in time when each of these former styles – and their differing energies – may in fact play a constructive role. Context for this comes from the  role leadership can play in emotional regulation (both collective and individual) in helping others teer a course between denial and despair. This is likely to play out, ultimately, in better decision-making, and so in better chances of surviving and thriving.

Along the way, Gosling considers what it takes to embody forms of leadership which encompass kindness, inclusivity and legitimacy – taking as a reference point, the ‘4Rs’ framework developed by Prof Jem Bendell in the paper which, inter alia, inspired the growth of this Deep Adaptation Forum from which I’m writing to you. A factor which permeates the chapter is the need for leaders blessed with humility – the humility to listen and learn from others, to recognize their own limitations, and indeed to relinquish their role when the time is right.

Professor Gosling writes with a delicate balance of precision and tenderness, referencing a range of academic sources – but at the same time being unafraid to use language which is emotive and compassionate in tone. It’s engaging stuff.

This is an important work for students of the subject of leadership. But it will also be valuable both to those who believe they might have a leadership role (of one sort or another) to play in times of  calm and chaos; and doubtless also to those who don’t, but who are anxious to recognize the characteristics of those whom they can trust to lead them through storms.

Jonathan Gosling is Emeritus Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter, having been Chair and Director of the Centre for Leadership Studies there for 12 years. Prior to that he directed the Strategic Leaders Unit at Lancaster Universtiy Management School. He is a visiting Professor at Renmin University of China (School of Philosophy ). 

The book Deep Adaptation: Navigating the realities of Climate Change is available here: You can see a video of its launch event on Professor Bendell’s Youtube Channel here:

adapting, collapse, deep adaptation, diversity, emergent leaders, leadership, plurality, societal collapse

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