Why Spiritual Leadership is Key to Solve Climate Change

by Laura Storm

I have never really considered myself a spiritual being or given it much thought. To be honest I’ve always thought spirituality had a weird vibe to it – or even an annoying form of arrogance: An exclusive club for the enlightened few that we ‘normal people’ could never fully understand. But this past year something has happened in the world – and with me personally – that has fully changed my perception. Allow me to explain:

During the past century, the human race has all too successfully destroyed much of the planet we inhabit. We produce and consume, pollute and exploit in ways we know are highly unsustainable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us for years that “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” are now happening due to climate change caused by human behavior. The consequences of this are far too complex and overwhelming to most people. According to neuroscientists, our brains tend to simply avoid or reject such daunting challenges, as we cannot fully comprehend or analyze our way out. We’re wired to deal with what’s in front of us – what we can actually see and feel.

To address this challenge, I helped launch Sustainia five years ago with a clear mission of making sustainability more attractive to ordinary people as well as decision makers. Rather than joining in the chorus of the doom and gloom scenarios, Sustainia makes sustainability tangible and solution-oriented.

The project that changed my view on spirituality
Through my role as CEO for Sustainia I got involved in an exciting project trying to reintegrate spirituality and world religious leaders into the discussions leading up to the important political Climate Change Summit in Paris last year – the COP21. The project, Green Faith in Action, had an overall mission of making the pilgrim cities beacons of not only their particular faith, but also of sustainability. Each year, over 330 million pilgrims travel to pilgrim cities leaving behind a trail of waste that is rapidly destroying these precious holy cities. Imagine if these pilgrim travelers not only had a life-changing religious experience but also a spiritual journey that connected them with the planet they inhabit and the importance of not leaving polluting footsteps on their journey.

And what an eye-opener this process became…

The first phase of the Green Faith in Action was a series of sessions bringing together top leaders from business, politics, religions and NGOs led by the Regions20 that has spent the past 5 years helping regions implement low-carbon solutions. A Monastery in Switzerland set the scene for our first meeting. At this session we sat down in silence, held each other’s hands, shared our inner dreams and generally allowed time to connect with the person behind the title. To me, it was uncomfortable at first. I felt annoyed and impatient. In my usual high-tempo, action-oriented business mode, I desperately wanted to convert the meeting into a classic business meeting with action points and delegation of tasks and responsibilities. Instead something far more powerful happened. We were allowed time to step back and reflect on the higher purpose of our work and through a reconnection with our own purpose we created an energized and passionate momentum. No traditional business meeting could ever have accomplished this.

Our group went on to help the French President – the host of the COP21 – facilitate ‘The Summit of Conscience’ gathering religious and political leaders, climate negotiators, artists and CEOs. It wasn’t a traditional high-level summit but a day dedicated to allow these leaders to step out of the traditional structures and procedures that normally dominate high-level gatherings. Instead of hiding behind prepared speeches of (somewhat) superficial government declarations, all leaders were asked to address why they cared about the planet and what they would do to ensure their grandchildren would have a place to live and thrive.

This Summit became a very emotional day and is said to have played a huge part in ensuring a successful political outcome at the COP21 in Paris. It took away the placing of blame and fighting over targets and instead allowed space for connecting with what was really at stake at the COP21; The wellbeing of our planet and thereby the wellbeing of life on earth.

An accident forced me to be still and reconnect with myself
I never went to the COP21 as I sustained a severe concussion and whiplash that demanded rest and silence. For months on end I could only cope with complete silence and darkness. At first, this utter stillness was terrifying. But my body needed it so desperately that I had no choice but to give in, retreat and rest. And in that stillness grew a greater attention and awareness of an inner dimension that was entirely new to me. I became addicted to the silence, not only because my brain coped poorly with sounds, light, and movement, but also due to the calming clarity that arose from that silence. The power and the strength.

And why is this relevant? In these months of living a very still and secluded life, my mind kept going back to these somehow brutally honest and warm meetings, in which leaders from all walks of life actually connected with each other at a deeper level – despite different backgrounds and religious beliefs. This realization combined with my own personal journey of reestablishing a deeper inner connection in order to heal has changed my perception of what spirituality really is all about. To me, it is no longer an exclusive club for a few self-proclaimed ‘enlightened beings’, but a term that symbolizes the importance of being in sync with yourself and your values.

We do see a slow shift towards leadership that values the importance of an inner connection as well as a commitment to a higher purpose. The concept of Conscious Capitalism coined by Wallmart CEO John Mackey and Ray Sisodia, the adoption of mindfulness and meditation among top-executives and the impressive #sleeprevolution by Arianna Huffington are all examples of a shift in mindset and leadership.

This shift is critical if we are to solve the greatest challenge of mankind: Climate Change. Leaders have to stop hiding behind a narrow-minded focus on quarterly returns and the delusion that this “environmental thing” is not of relevance to their shareholders. No man or company is an Island – our survival is dependent on the wellbeing of our planet.

The events of this past year has forever changed me and I cannot wait to venturing back into the world doing what I love – helping sustainable solutions and ideas scale – with a greater respect and understanding of spiritual leadership practice. I truly believe that if CEOs prioritized time to connect with themselves and the planet they inhabit we would see a radical shift in mindset and business practice. A business practice focused on creating value and profits from products and services that were in sync with our own boundaries as well as the boundaries of this planet we call home.

Laura Storm is the CEO of Sustainia and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Sustainia is behind the annual Sustainia100 portfolio highlighting the best sustainable solutions covering 10 different sectors and the annual Global Opportunity Report in collaboration with DNV-GL and the UN Global Compact. This Spirituality and Transformative Leadership series was set up as a response to the need to bring ‘higher order’ principles into leadership today and to spark an ongoing discussion as to the role that spirituality, as distinct from religion, has in today’s world. It is a curated series that invites both Young Global Leaders and others with an interest in leadership to contribute to a discussion on the role that spirituality plays in leadership today. For more information about the origins of this project please click here and for a link to all the blog posts in the series please click here

Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur. www.carolinewatson.org

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