Climate Change Adaptation Leadership: An Art, a Craft or a Technique?

Contribution by Brad May – In her research on leadership in organizations, Patricia Pitcher speaks of the drama of leadership, its dreams realities and illusions [1].  In the unfolding of this drama, she identified three actor archetypes essential for success in any organization or team – the Artist, the Craftsman and the Technocrat.  At the annual general conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) the topic of leadership for climate change adaptation was the focus of a panel discussion chaired by Carina Keskitalo and Sander Meijerink. There are a host of actors that have been identified as important in environmental and climate  governance including charismatic leaders, policy entrepreneurs, change agents, scale-crossing brokers, boundary workers, opinion leaders, and super-agents.  Is there a way to meld this into a coherent research agenda for climate change adaptation leadership?  Can such an agenda capture the variety of skills and roles assumed by the actors described above? Participants at the ECPR conference were challenged to consider the following:

Adaptation to the consequences of climate change – and not only mitigation of emissions –

will be necessary as a result of impacts on among other things sea level, water systems and through extreme events. Mitigation and adaptation alike are important multi-level governance issues, that may be dealt with on local to international levels, and often require interaction among levels and different types of actors.

 The panel on “Climate Governance: A Leadership Perspective”, challenged participants with two key questions:

1.     What are the specificities of leadership for climate change adaptation as compared to other leadership challenges: Do we need new leadership theories for tackling adaptation issues or can we basically apply existing leadership concepts?

2.     Do we need different leadership styles and strategies within different institutional contexts (countries)?

Case studies from Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada explored the range of multi-level approaches, from the national to the sub-national, and the community levels.  A key focus of all the presentation was the usefulness of Uhl-Bien and colleague’s Complexity Leadership Theory [2] as a way to make sense of leadership for climate change adaptation.  At the same time, there was recognition by panelists that climate change adaptation leadership should be considered as a distinct area of research.  In a paper examining leadership for climate change adaptation, an integrative perspective has been proposed that uses ideas of Policy Leadership, Connectivity Leadership, Complexity Leadership, and Sustainability Leadership to stress that: “Each function requires the execution of specific leadership tasks which can be performed by different types of leaders, such as positional leaders, ideational leaders, sponsors, boundary workers, policy entrepreneurs or champions.” [3] Johann Dupuis presented the results of his work on adaptation policy innovation, as reflected in natural resources and disaster risk management.  In the case of Switzerland, he observed that most adaptation policy change is driven by administrators, with weak stakeholder involvement and the perceived political view that adaptation is not, in and of itself, a policy challenge. Sabina Stiller and Sander Meijerink looked at climate change adaptation networks in Northern Hesse, Germany, through the lens of Complexity Leadership Theory and their recent model on climate change adaptation leadership.  Specifically legislated climate adaptation officers (CAOs) became “agents with a mission.” The challenges faced by such actors in this particular context were validated, and can serve as an exemplar for jurisdictions planning a similar approach.  Lessons learned with respect to dissemination of information on the imperative for climate change adaptation, the connective nature of CAOs, and the important next step – enabling adaptation action, are all relevant to other contexts. Catrien Termeer presented the results of her and her colleague’s work on the Dutch Delta Program.  The Delta Program is aimed at addressing institutional challenges for water governance at the sub-regional level, to promote adaptation for water safety, freshwater, spatial development and planning.  Using the lens of Complexity Leadership Theory, their work emphasized the importance of change alliances, as a counterbalance to more traditional administrative leadership. Finally, Brad May of ECGG made a presentation based on his work in the Niagara Region and the challenges of sustaining leadership for participatory community climate change adaptation over the long term.  Through a research focus on the progression of individuals from informants to actors, agents and leaders, and their positions of power, he identified the importance of super-agents, with key information in the science knowledge space, as well as essential mediation skills, who are able to bridge science with the local and policy knowledge spaces. All of the presentations reflected on this idea that more traditional views of adaptation policy being driven by a technocratic, more administrative type of leadership is too simplistic.   Policy entrepreneurs, agents with a mission, change alliances, and super-agency all illustrate that, to be effective, policy and strategy must be “crafted” [4]

Programs are contradictory, redundant, out of date, and not because we’ve lacked Artists and Technocrats, but because we’ve lacked Craftsmen.  One of the leitmotifs of craftsmanship is gradual adaptation.  Things don’t get out of date, because their utility is constantly reassessed.  If the tool gets dull, sharpen it.  The craft attitude is to cut off the branch to save the tree.  Regular pruning.  Of course, to prune a tree, you have to know what you’re doing. If you cut too many branches, the tree won’t grow strong and straight.  It will die. [5]

Current research on innovation and broader sustainability seems to support this. “In large, continuously innovating firms, the strategic apex sets strategic direction, but innovation occurs at the front lines, on the shop floor, or in small designated teams.” [6]

This contribution will also be published on the web-site of the Environmental Change & Governance Group of the University of Waterloo.

[1]Pitcher, P. 1995. Artists, Craftsmen and Technocrats: The Dreams, Realities and Illusions of Leadership. Stoddart, Toronto.
[2] Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., and McKelvey, B (2007). Complexity Leadership Theory; Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly,18, 298-318.
[3] Meijerink, S., S. Stiller (2013). What kind of leadership do we need for climate change adaptation? A Framework for analyzing leadership objectives, functions and tasks in climate change adaptation. Environment and Planning C, 31, 240-256.
[4] Mintzberg, H. (1987). Crafting strategy. Harvard Business Review. July-August. Reprinted 2001.
[5] OP cit., Pitcher (1995: 194)
[6] Westley F., P. Olsson, C. Folke, T. Homer-Dixon, H. Vredenburg, D. Loorbach, J. Thompson, M. Nilsson, E. Lambin, J. Sendzimir, B. Banerjee, V. Galaz, S. van der Leeuw, (2011). Tipping Toward Sustainability: Emerging Pathways of Transformation.  AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 40(7):762-780.

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