This essay featured in the January 2022 edition of The B Team's monthly newsletter. Subscribe to receive leadership insights, advocacy opportunities and conversations between business and civil society leaders exploring a better way of doing business for people and planet.
Like many of you, I recently saw “Don’t Look Up,” the Netflix dark comedy about a fictitious comet imperiling Earth and everything on it. I watched it over the holidays together with my children, chuckling at times at the film’s uncanny candor about our crisis of leadership.
The humor wasn’t lost on my children, to be sure. But they just didn’t find it funny. The film’s absurdist representation of political leadership and lack of fidelity to science doesn’t feel so absurd to them. It’s chillingly familiar and frightening.
It felt good to laugh during the film, but the tragedy is clear. Today’s leaders are not taking the necessary measures to tackle the very real climate emergency, and media platforms—cable news and social media in particular—are exacerbating the problem; their business models seem built on deepening our anxieties rather than shining a light on constructive dialogue and collective action. The gap between our expectations of leadership and the stark reality of the world at this moment is widening.
How do we lead our way out of crisis amid intensifying division in our public discourse? How do we advance an agenda of sustainability, inclusion and accountability when the foundations of democracy are under siege around the world? How can we focus on long-term collective wellbeing when our individual capacity to manage stress, anxiety and loss is seriously weakened?
B Team leader Paul Polman hit the nail on the head last week in the Financial Times: “This is a moment that calls for more leadership, not less.”
"We can’t just sit back and watch what’s happening to the planet,” wrote “Don’t Look Up” writer and director Adam McKay and climate scientist Ayana Johnson in The Guardian recently. “We are not an audience. Like it or not, we are in this story.”
Paul is right. Adam and Ayana are right. My children are right. Is each of us taking responsibility for our role in building the future? Are we asking ourselves, “What am *I* doing?” The metaphor of a world-destroying comet is a bit controversial, sure. It’s also searingly apt.
However each of us chooses to lead at this moment, I don't believe the way forward on any global challenge is black or white. Yet it’s often presented this way. Our own leaders are being pulled onto these beaches of polarized conflict like never before. Deep divides on nearly every issue—Covid and climate, embracing ESG and stakeholder capitalism—threaten progress across the board. The wide range of responses to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s Annual Letter to CEOs, from celebration to blistering criticism, is a prime example.
Too often we shy away from the responsibility of accounting for the nuances and complexities of the challenges we face. It is so difficult to step into a space where we can bridge our differences. But we must. And the truth is: in spite of the polarization that shapes headlines, people are less divided than it seems. In the United States, a poll ahead of the 2020 US presidential election revealed that seven in ten people are worried about climate change and support government action.
Our problems are not going away. We have to find the courage, first, to acknowledge them. We have to own our brokenness. We need to listen and learn, find and focus on common ground. We must be smarter about bringing people along.
Rather than pointing fingers, we must commit, every day, to building on-ramps to our work—the hard work of resetting our economy and building a fair and just society.
“Either/or” thinking needs to be replaced by the beauty of balance. Because the reality is we move forward together, or we risk everything.