The unknown game: sustainability leadership development in the 2020s.

Imagine a game. It is played by a team. They are really good and they usually win. When they do make a mistake or lose, they are exceptional at analysing what went wrong, of coming up with a remedial strategy, of training and practising to make sure the mistakes don’t happen again. If they cannot do this alone, with their existing people, they hire someone to help them.

The team is open to new ideas, it is rewarding to be part of, it has a clear purpose, it is honed, efficient and effective. This is a high-performance team in every respect. At the top of its game.

Occasionally someone arrives from the game’s governing body with a new rule. This external information is brought into the team and they work with it. They explore what it means, and how to integrate it into their game. Sometimes this is hard and leads to errors. Sometimes the rule gets accidentally broken. Hard lessons are learned. Eventually, the rule is incorporated and it becomes part of the game. The game has evolved.

Sometimes there’s a losing streak. No one can work out why. The team responds by blaming each other, or the coach, or the management. There are resignations, someone gets fired. New people join the team. The game continues and performance improves.

Whether it is an average team, a winning team or a losing team - it tends to function in the same way. It observes the rules of the game, adjusting for new ones and unexpected losses, and correcting mistakes openly and effectively. Maintaining a dynamic order that is on-the-whole functional.

One day, one of the team members notices something. 

The pitch is changing. It is shrinking. Imperceptible to the others, this odd change is ignored, the one bringing the news is mistaken, it is an optical illusion, the pitch has been the same for a hundred years - how could it possibly be changing now? Unthinkable.

Then a second team member sees the edges of the pitch moving in. Then a third. Still, no one listens and the tension mounts. There is disagreement, and dysfunction, some-people leave, and others go off sick because they feel distressed from being ignored. Fresh team members who are not interested in examining the pitch’s dimensions are recruited. They huddle - face inwards and strategise. They train. They bring in expert help. They win and win again. They are performing perfectly. There is nothing to worry about.

But the pitch is still shrinking and now everyone can see it. But they are still functioning perfectly. They stick to their game plan. They are winning despite the shrinking pitch - why change anything?

One day the pitch disappears altogether. The game is over. Excellence, performance, success, efficiency, and esprit du corp are all irrelevant.

The only option is a new game.

This is going to be the story of organisational development in the decade that has just started. The game is going to change. Completely. This is not doom-mongering, it’s an ecological and biological fact - whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not.

As things stand, the vast majority of organisations are focussing their entire sustainability efforts on their current game. They know sustainability is inevitable. They embrace new ideas, technologies and systems. They develop new products and services. When they get stuck, they hire consultants and contractors. When things go wrong, people resign or get fired. New people come. Targets get met. Consumers get what they want. Share prices go up. Dividends get paid. The game goes on. But the pitch is still shrinking.

The shift that needs to be made is to move from trying to integrate sustainability into the game, to understanding that it changes the game altogether.

Re-organising for the new game requires a completely different approach to leadership - and therefore to leadership development. Developing leaders under the current rules will not be enough. It doesn’t matter how good at the game you get now - it’s going to change in ways that no one can predict. Leadership development has to be about preparing for the unknowable.

How do you do that?


Read my manifesto for sustainability leadership development ...


Sustainability leadership development in the 2020s

1 Comment

  1. Deirdra9th September 2020

    It’s a really good analogy


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