More Leaders, Fewer Statesmen Needed
September 4, 2009
By Charles Cresson Wood
During his first term in office, Ronald Reagan was asked in an interview whether he was going to run for the Presidency again. He said that if he did what needed to be done, there would be no need for a second term. He ran for and won the race for a second term, so by implication he did not achieve what needed to be done. But whatever you think about the sincerity of Regan’s remarks, he expressed an important distinction that seems lost on many politicians, government agency managers, and corporation managers. The distinction is between a leader and a statesman (or stateswoman).
A leader does what needs to be done, and is willing to receive criticism and attack in order to achieve those objectives. A statesman, at least as it is defined here, is not interested in what needs to be done, a statesman is interested only in what people think of him, in negotiating, and in striking deals and compromises. A statesman is rudderless, and buffeted by the changing tides of opinion. This distinction is beautifully depicted in the movie In The Loop (released in 2008). In this movie, the protagonist is driven crazy because everyone around him is a statesman, while he aspires to be a leader. I recommend it for those who have not yet seen it.
As the movie implies, what needs to be done does not get done when statesmen are in charge. That is exactly the situation in the peak oil and climate change areas today. We’re facing one of the most painful and pervasive changes in the technology of modern civilization, and nothing significant is being done. For example recent evidence suggests that nearly every one of the nations that ratified the Kyoto Treaty will fail to meet its targets (and that says nothing of nations like the United States that failed to even ratify the climate change treaty).
There is no more doubt about the legitimacy and reality of both peak oil and climate change — there is plenty of independently verified scientific evidence. What is missing is leadership. The dire and pressing nature of our situation is revealed by the fact that even the most conservative and pro-oil-industry spokespeople are now publicly admitting that something must be done, and be done very quickly.
To take one of many possible examples, consider the recent statements of Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA). He said that peak oil, and the high oil prices that go along with it, threaten the recovery. He also recently said that, “we have to leave oil before oil leaves us.” In other words, the industrialized world had better wake up now, and had better move away from petroleum with great focus and determination.
Those readers who know about the energy industry, know that IEA has long been a bastion of staid and conservative official positions. In fact it was Dr. Birol, a few years ago, who was indicating that there was a significant amount of time for the world to adjust to peak oil. Why did he change his mind? Because he discovered that rate of production decline in existing worldwide oil fields is now 6.7% — considerably higher than the IEA estimate made in 2007, which predicted this figure would instead be 3.7%. Dr. Birol was willing to tell the truth about what was happening, and take the heat if people were upset about hearing it.
So we come back to the reader’s situation at his or her place of employment. I hear from a number of people that they are afraid to talk about peak oil and climate change with their managers; they are afraid that they will lose their jobs if they rock the boat. I suggest that this fear is exaggerated and ungrounded. If you want to create value for your employer, tell the truth, and take the risk of meeting with a rejection or an unreceptive response. If you urge your manager to seriously investigate this problem, it is not a cause for termination. To the contrary, it shows that you take initiative, it shows that you speak up, it shows that you’re paying attention, and it shows that you care.
So called “yes men” (and by implication “yes women”) are a dime a dozen, because they are essentially servants who simply follow orders. If you want to make yourself more easily replaceable, and therefore more likely to be laid off, don’t show leadership, keep your head down, don’t make waves, and don’t speak up about these important issues. I invite you to seriously consider the implications of broaching these topics with your organization’s management – would it really be so terrible if you were to talk about these things? And if prominent people such as Chevron Chairman & CEO David O’Reilly are now publicly admitting that peak oil is real, doesn’t that give you at least a little bit of additional confidence to press these important issues with your own management?
Charles Cresson Wood, MBA, MSE, is a sustainability management consultant based in Mendocino, California. He assists organizations with the risk assessment, strategic planning, and contingency planning associated with peak oil and climate change. His most recent book is entitled Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action (see www.kickingthegasoline.com).