How sustainability leadership is redefining individual liberty: a new context for executive coaching.


Geoffrey Ahern

Published in ‘the good coach’, March 14th 2018

Championing both individual liberty − as we do in coaching − and the sustainability vision are in conflict in the world today. There are signs that they could move ahead together, but that this would require a radical redefinition of what it means to be free!

Individual liberty, the signature of the Western way of life, is presupposed when we

  • make the coaching contract,
  • promise confidentiality,
  • follow the individual client’s agenda and
  • promise a safe space within which to engage fully.

 The employee is coached within the particular company’s right to conduct business as it chooses.

 In contrast, sustainability’s frame of reference is that of whole entities, not the freedom of individuals. The whole planet is in consideration when it comes to climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus and nitrogen flows, deforestation and other human breaches of environmental boundaries. Whole populations are considered: e.g. giraffes as a whole, not this or that one. Many ecologists apply this thinking to humans also.

Sustainability’s whole entity approach coincides with the totalitarian thinking, often neo-Confucian, of much of economically emerging Asia. Enabled digitally, sustainability within totalitarianism – in which there is no independent justice − is creating influential new ways of being: e.g. renewable energy education for Chinese young people. A global sustainability epoch, essential though it is for our planetary future, could enforce an authoritarian social vision which goes too far through curbing individual liberty unnecessarily.

Meanwhile the liberty of the individual is being fundamentally rethought, both in ceding and adding to freedoms, so that it becomes compatible with sustainability. Skilfully handled, this situation seems to me to be an opportunity for coaching, or for some near-relation, in new market conditions.

This article/blog examines the context of these developments. It suggests that what is happening now is a dance between three critical factors (the main headings to follow):

  • Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, pragmatically resisting sustainability
  • The whole entity sustainability leadership vision becoming more energised
  • Redefinitions of liberty outlining ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

My own view is that the future will not be worth living in unless it’s both sustainable at the planetary level and supportive of individual liberty as redefined.

I write this after many years of being professionally engaged with sustainability and executive coaching. Having An ‘Anthropocene’ Mindset: Fits Between Coaching And Planet, People & Prosperity (Sustainability) This is the concluding (sixth) article/blog and draws together the previous ones.

Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, is pragmatically resisting sustainability

We do much as coaches to free clients from self-sabotage; but at the level of the contract with the company, to what extent does our intervention have the outcome of unwinding the resistance to sustainability, as contrasted with enabling companies to make profits without regard to sustainability (‘business-as-usual’)? Like everyone else, we can place our contribution somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of single-minded sustainability leadership and unrelenting resistance to it.

Resistance is embedded in the commercial juggernaut of short-term profits with institutional pressures for immediate dividends and executive pay packages to match. Thus there are:

Professions of alignment. It’s a public relations necessity to appear to be on the side of bequeathing a better planet to the baby in the pram:

  • In 2015 the delivery of the international Paris climate agreement and the new 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was transformational
  • Last year 225 global institutional investors controlling assets worth $26.3tn started pressurising 100 of the world’s more carbon intensive companies to do more about climate change[1]

Jargon-ridden ambiguities and compromises. Companies – and we coaches who are paid by them – face finding a way between foolhardiness and cowardice when it comes to the ethics of sustainability. The prudent middle ground usually doesn’t go far enough but it’s still worth having. It manifests in the ambiguities of sustainability compromise jargon. The jargon functions as an unofficial strategic ambiguity which allows both pro sustainability forces and the resistance to be presented as fully aligned.

The resistance is often obvious:

  • Nestlé uses the sustainability formula of ‘creating shared value’ but has been attacked for unethical promotion of its baby milk
  • Fake sustainability also combines with genuineness within other widely used formulas or systems like ‘CSR’ or corporate social responsibility and ‘GRI’ (the Global Reporting Initiative), which experts say is largely window-dressing
  • ‘Stakeholders’ is a useful concept but they are not owed a high duty of care
  • ‘Resilience’ and the word ‘sustainability’ itself are frequently used to support short-term, unsustainable profits

Dark and grey areas. The resistance involves denial, disavowal, coordinated untruthfulness, the dark side. Unique Ladders Of Sustainability – Coaching Company Leaders In The Anthropocene There’s denial in institutionalised consumerism and ideologically committed think-tanks. It may be ‘disavowal’,[2] i.e. entrenched denial. Or it may be deliberately disingenuous:

  • Some of the same ‘scientists’ who persisted in implying that tobacco isn’t harmful (the campaign basis was ‘doubt is our product’) went on to spread doubt about the very different subject of global warming. Oil producer ExxonMobil has been accused of spending USD2.9m on misinformation about climate change[3]

There’s also a dark – or grey – side to multi-corporate collaboration: e.g. in not paying a living wage (this could be achieved by companies agreeing together to make a living wage pre-competitive).

The whole entity sustainability leadership vision is becoming more energised

As the resistance of business-as-usual builds up, sustainability’s contrasting whole entity leadership vision is more likely to become more energised. I aim in this section to identify major aspects of its energising.

Sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole. Superficially, sustainability can come across as touchy-feely only, a sentimental legitimacy of the moment spurred on by particular concerns like the plastics contaminating the ocean food chain (recently displayed by David Attenborough in Blue Planet II).

But sustainability is much more systemic and inter-connected than this. A click or so brings onto the screen an overwhelming scientific consensus that, as specified in the introduction, there are several grave and urgent threats to the Earth: e.g. the visual Nine Planetary Boundaries model; the IPCC report summary Moving on from the science the highly influential Oxfam eradication of poverty model focuses on whole entity social solutions.

It is characteristic of the planetary system that the sustainability task is about risk management not certainties. It’s a holistic picture with climate change ‘tipping points’, emergence and inevitable unpredictability.

From China to Europe, and maybe also in the Americas, environmental and social market failures are making the case for recasting profit-making so that it is underpinned by whole planet purposes. This resonates especially with younger consumers and employees and links back to last century’s history of ecology as a social movement. It has had more affinity with whole entity visions than with liberty at the level of the individual.

History also teaches us to be wary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarising within whole entity visions. The elitist eugenics thinking of a century ago illustrates how ecology can be applied to prioritise some populations at the expense of others. Thankfully, since the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s, ‘ecology’ in the West (so far and with many exceptions) has tended to be much more insistently associated than before with the values of non-discriminatory universalism. “How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

A further caveat: practising holistic sustainability vision measurably doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals become more ethical, thus rip offs can still be rife, rather like having spiritual sin alongside monastic rituals.

So far we have looked at the commercial resistance to sustainability and I have started describing the whole entity sustainability vision. These two, as I shall suggest later, are in a dance with redefinitions of individual liberty.

Humans shaping Earth (the ‘Anthropocene’). Moving on from sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole, its energising deepens through the recent recognition that post-industrial humans have been unwittingly shaping the Earth. Geologists have accordingly given our epoch a new name, the ‘Anthropocene’: i.e. the new human-caused epoch. This scientific discovery is shocking: in Antiquity it would have been sacrilegious to suggest that Gaia the Earth Goddess could be affected by mere human behaviour.

A few path-finding multinationals have chosen to take their share of responsibility for the Anthropocene by deliberately breaking through the inherited mental taboo about perceiving Gaia’s fragility. For example:

  • Marks and Spencers has its sustainability Plan A: ‘there’s no Plan B’
  • Unilever motivates consumers through making sustainability easy, desirable, rewarding, a habit and ‘my world’ (e.g. giving the children a better future).

A ‘good’ (as it is called) Anthropocene will coordinate commercial success, human betterment and planetary health through low pollution technology in a circular economy which is inspired by nature: i.e.‘biomimicry’. A bad Anthropocene will see business-as-usual avoiding climate change until, too late, geo-engineering projects − lucrative for contractors − redistribute the problem: e.g. producing unwanted droughts in undeveloped countries.

Making the Anthropocene sustainable requires a collective approach: thinking globally while acting locally and, as portrayed in deep ecology (e.g. Arne Naess), protecting all the life-forms of the planet. Some (e.g. Thomas Berry) go on to propose biocracy.

Individual liberty may struggle.

The more business-as-usual resists, the more urgent and energised sustainability is likely to become, with the individual potentially squeezed out.

Explicitness, dynamism and the precautionary principle. The explicitness and dynamism of the precautionary principle energises the whole entity sustainability leadership vision further still.

The precautionary principle (that is, the version chosen here) asks if a proposed innovation would be better, or less bad, than not having it. It is supported by ethicists’ revival of regard for principle-based motivation and behaviour. [Integrating Coaching Ethics for the Anthropocene: ‘Gutfeel’ and 'On Principle' Coaching Approaches to Sustainability]

The precautionary principle above is dynamic because it does not aim to restore some arbitrarily imagined golden or past age, but instead attempts to pass on equivalent value. An example is the inability of organic farming to feed Africa (there’s not enough land), and the resulting need for innovation in food productivity.

The enchantment of the sustainability leadership vision. Enchantment can add a thrilling extra dimension to the already energised whole entity sustainability leadership vision.

Nature, the planet and the galaxy are displayed on screen as awe-inspiring. It often takes daring-do to get close enough to convey their fascination, wonder and dread, whether this is actual as in hero(ine)s swimming with sharks, or through virtual or special effects as in sci-fi (e.g. Doctor Who).

In contemporary folklore, how we construct our planetary future is widely felt to be enchanted in:

  • Environmental dooms and utopias with short time-scales which have piggy-backed onto the traditional thought-forms of heaven, hell, physical resurrection and final judgment (heaven or hell), i.e. the myth of apocalypse: these have been energised by three and more millennia of Western − including Marxist and pre-Christian − history
  • Urban back-to-nature yearnings rooted in the newly sublime landscape visions created by the Romantics in response to smoke-stacks, factories and industrialisation
  • Development of consciousness progress myths which culminate in a planetary or ecological stage: these have antecedents in spiritual religion and gnosis

Narratives without enchantment about our future on the planet can come across as pointless narcissism. They include geological fatalism − ‘humanity is done for but I’m alright’ − and the technological fix − ‘science-led innovation alone will get us off the hook’. [Building Companies’ Sustainability Stories: A Role for Coaching]

Conceiving the sustainability leadership vision (or task) in itself[4] as enchanted[5] acknowledges that its energies emerge from within all world cultures. An alternative possible descriptor, ‘charismatic’, is strongly associated with a single culture (Christianity); also it has recently been much applied to ego-led business-as-usual leadership.[6] Both ‘enchantment’ and ‘charisma’ bring in the qualities of fascination, dread, wonder and awe[7] and thus add thrill to purpose.[8]

Redefinitions of liberty outline ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

The longer companies resist sustainability, the stronger the coming planetary crisis, the more energised the whole entity sustainability leadership vision, and the more brutal its likely mass replacement appeal. The past tells us that utopias become dictatorships.

As I started at the beginning of this piece, coaching has a special interest because its process assumes the liberty of the individual. I believe that the ultimate sanction of independently applied law underpins the safety we guarantee clients as executive coaches. Even so I’ve had pressure put on me to disclose confidential client information. That I wasn’t dismissed, despite my refusal to comply with this pressure (put on me for commercial purposes) by the most powerful person in the consultancy involved, I put down to how the attempted confidentiality breach would have played out in a lawcourt.

How in the future can we avoid having myriads of situations like this, but with the liberty of the individual breached? Assuming that the health of populations as a whole is the supreme law, liberty should not be in conflict with sustainability. Losing some current liberties which contradict sustainability could legitimate not getting sucked into totalitarian control. Meanwhile new liberties could be gained. How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

Possible sustainability-related closures of liberty include:

  • A recasting towards sustainability duties and a crime of ecocide
  • Convergence towards global non-discriminatory universalism to avoid the population proposed for ecological advantage being unduly nationally, racially, religiously or geographically defined or otherwise exclusive (this opens up liberty for the disadvantaged through reducing it for others)
  • Sufficient surveillance with safeguards to counter terrorism given the increasingly asymmetrical lone wolf capability afforded by technological development

Alignment with sustainability may mean radical change towards a more principle-based, less consumerist and more personally open (less shockable and blackmailable) society.

There are also opportunities for significant liberty gains:

Possible sustainability-related extensions to individual liberty include:

  • Relative freedom from the yoke of corruption (said to be the biggest obstacle to sustainability) through increased transparency
  • The reduction of excessive dependency and modern slavery through more representative participation in supply chains and within multi-national companies

Even more radical are proposals to protect both animals and future robots on the grounds that they are (or will be) sentient and individual, and maybe self-aware:

  • In cases of cruelty to animals, environmental ethicists criticise the fixing of ethics so that institutionalised industrial abuse cannot lose
  • Many in Silicon Valley think that future robots will be self-aware and (dangerously?) autonomous, and lawyers already discuss their rights

Many also say, myself included, that it would be liberating if businesses renounced the one-sided Frankenstein cult of technological dynamism for its own sake only, and instead integrated it into a whole-life precautionary dynamism.

The proposals to recast liberty outlined in this final section could provide a new context for us all. The further and faster companies implement sustainability, the less likely they are to energise totalitarian sustainability leadership to the detriment of appropriately redefined individual liberty.


[1] John Plender (2017), ‘Investors are demanding corporate action on climate change’, Financial Times, 16 December/17 December, p.11.

[2] Weintrobe, S. (2013), ‘Introduction’ in (S. Weintrobe ed.) Engaging with Climate Change. Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London: Routledge; Jacques, P., Dunlap, R. & Freeman, M. (2015), ‘The organisation of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’, Environmental Politics 17(3): 349-385.

[3] Abrams, M. (2009), ‘The Discover interview Robert Proctor’, Discover, 30(1):1; Bedford, D. (2010), ‘Agnotology as a teaching tool: learning climate change by studying misinformation’, Journal of Geography, 109:160; Hansen, J (2009), Storms of my grandchildren. The truth about the coming catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, London: Bloomsbury:15; Ward, B. (2006), Email to Esso UK Ltd, Policy Communication, The Royal Society, London.

[4] Applying a suggestion in Jermier, J. (1993), ‘Introduction – Charismatic leadership: Neo-Weberian perspectives’, Leadership Quarterly 4(3/4): 217-233.

[5] Roszac, T. (1973), Where the Wasteland Ends, New York: Doubleday.

[6] Other leadership theories − distributed, situational and so on – can be applied in addition if they also fit (adaptive theory seems particularly appropriate for sustainability but has shot itself in the foot through its commitment in practice to business-as-usual: see for example, the assumptions in Heifetz, R., Grashow A., Linsky M., (2009),The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Boston: Harvard Business Press).

[7] I.e. the ‘numinous’: see Otto, R. (1950), The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey, London: OUP.

[8] Kempster, S., Jackson, M. Conroy, M. (2011), ‘Leadership as purpose: Exploring the role of purpose on leadership practice’, Leadership 7(3): 317-334.

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