To avoid climate hell, we’ll need many more fearless leaders
Business schools have been enablers of the status quo, can they now lead the change that is needed to avert climate collapse?
BY Jon Foster-Pedley
“Countries across the world face a stark choice: cooperate or perish,” says UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Speaking at the start of the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (or COP27) summit in Egypt on Monday, Guterres outlined how countries must either work together now to cut emissions or condemn future generations to climate hell.
The annual summit offers world leaders and their delegates the opportunity to meet to discuss the critical issue of how to tackle climate change and emissions. With the emphasis here on discussion – not action – clearly. Because while there have undoubtedly been gains in the thirty years since COP was first established, the commitments made by participating countries have, for the most part, not translated into the action needed to shift the course of global climate change.
Even as more and more people and organisations are concluding that the costs of profit-focused capitalism are too high, that the rising tide is not lifting – but drowning, too many – and that poverty and exclusion can only end badly, the ship seems to be determinedly heading for the rocks.
This calls for a new response from all of us. In short, everyone needs to be an activist now.
If you are a passenger on a ship that is headed for the rocks because the captain refuses to alter course, do you have the right – obligation even – to take control and save the ship? Would you do so even if that meant you may go to prison?
This questions applies to universities, and business schools in particular. Those of us working in this sphere are perhaps uniquely placed to lead the movement to conceive and build a new system of economics, instead of shoring up the asphyxiating monoliths and merely delaying the inevitable.
At face value, the goals of a business school and those of an activist are directly at odds with each other. While an activist is someone who works to bring about political or social change, business schools are often, by their very nature, conservative, producing generations of leaders who served a capitalist system in which, as American economist, Milton Friedman noted, the responsibility of business is only “to engage in activities designed to increase its profits”.
But when profits are measured through the benefits accrued from cutting down forests, polluting rivers, and emitting CO2 in high quantities, and when those same polluters spend billions on discrediting climate science consensus, you know that something has gone awry.
It is past time now to reimagine the role of business, to transform the ways business leaders organise their activities and reposition corporations from producing profits, to producing profitable solutions to the problems of the world.
As institutions of learning we are able to do something concrete and do it quickly. We can change what we teach, what research we undertake, who we work with and how we shape and equip our graduates to lead in the world. And with business schools across Africa collectively graduating upward of 10,000 potential change makers each year, the impact could be substantial, especially if we scale climate leadership through collaboration as the newly launched Business Schools for Climate Leadership – Africa seeks to do.
In shaping activist business leaders, we will need to make sure that they understand the stakes, that they have made reality their friend, and that they have the confidence and moral compass to demand to be held accountable by their staff and their communities, as well as by their shareholders.
These leaders will insist that every decision that is taken is checked against the doughnut model, or a better derivative, to ensure that it breaches neither the inner nor the outer ring. And they’d need to be prepared to understand that sometimes, doing the right thing might be by doing the wrong thing. We have to teach them that too. As Martin Luther King reminds us: “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.
These are the kind of leaders we need to be producing, because they are the ones who may save our world and make it fit for all of us to live in – even if we can’t see that right now.
Of course, organisations must thrive and must make profit, but that profit serves the purpose not vice versa. We need to produce leaders who are pulling the big levers, not obsessed by quarterly KPIs. Leaders fearless enough to face our own shadows – maybe we feel like impostors in this world of change – embrace it. Fearless enough to step up.
Fearless enough to know that you only borrow a leadership position, not own it, and that one day it will go, and you’ll just be you again.
Fearless enough to be ordinary and have little, fearless enough to fight for a purpose. Fearless enough to be fair even if it means facing up to friends and colleagues.
Maybe we will fail. But we may have pushed the boundary back far enough for those who follow us to pick up the battle lines further forward and that is important. The success of activism is likely to be over the long term.
A new collaborative spirit is emerging among business schools, drawn together to form an alliance to build awareness and climate action. We know that we also face a choice at this critical juncture: to maintain our holding pattern or to step into the space of activism; to build people who build the businesses that matter in the real world we face, not in a derelict dogma.
Let’s not make our children pay for our inertia, let’s get creative – and fearless!
Jon Foster-Pedley is the chair of the Association of African Business Schools and dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. The Business Schools for Climate Leadership – Africa (BS4CL-Africa) was launched at the AUC School of Business in Cairo on Monday, in parallel to the COP27. An initiative of AABS and the UN Principles for Responsible Management (PRME) Africa and in collaboration with the BS4CL European initiative, it seeks to build a collaborative framework for climate action to transform business education curricula to match the needs and adapt to the realities of the African continent.