Aug 28, 2018

Our Current Leadership Is Unsustainable

By Terry Sexton /
Our Current Leadership Is Unsustainable

Environmentally, socially and psychologically our society is unsustainable. If consumption continues to increase at current rates, by 2050 we will need 3 Earths to sustain us (United Nations, 2015). Socially, income inequality is at the highest level in 50 years in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Psychologically, according to the latest (2015) figures from the World Health Organisation, 615 million people were suffering from depression or anxiety across the world.   We are destroying our planet, allowing the rich to get richer and the poor poorer, and in doing so we are suffering more and more depression.  Our society is created by the collective decisions of leaders. If society is unsustainable our current leadership is unsustainable. We need leaders who can stop the downward spiral, reverse the damage done to society and build a sustainable future.

As a leader, we may have good leadership skills, but how we use these skills is dependent on the stage of our psychological development.  For leaders, psychological development is often categorised in terms of seven stages.  In 2015, the consultancy PwC, using Bill Torbert’s model, assessed the stage of development of leaders in the UK.  The research found that 52% of leaders had developed to Stage 4.  This is the highest stage of what is called ‘conventional’ leadership, as it was once viewed as the highest stage leaders needed to develop in order to be successful in most organisations.  However, due to the increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) in our society, it is now recognised that many leaders who have only developed to this psychological stage are now ‘in over their heads’.  Nonetheless, it has been, and still is, the predominant type of leadership in our society and, therefore, is at the root cause of our unsustainability.

At stage 4, the psychological development of our ego, our self-esteem, is highly attached to our identity.  At this stage we feel the most authentic. We feel our sense of identity is important and needs protecting.  The more our ego becomes attached to our identity the more we feel vulnerable and the more we need to find ways to keep ourselves safe.  Leaders who have developed only to stage 4 protect themselves by delivering results, competing (winning) and having power over people.  It is these defences which are making stage 4 leadership, and our society, unsustainable:


Delivering Results

Most organisations view ‘results’ as increases in ‘productivity’.  This is the ratio of output to inputs used in a production process.  Increases in productivity are most effectively realised when more products are produced by fewer people.  Hence, investments in automation are generally viewed as good for productivity.  However, this creates unemployment in manufacturing, which governments try to avoid by growing the economy through stimulating consumption.  People are then re-employed to produce more products. The problem with stage 4 leadership is that by constantly increasing productivity our society has become awash with products.  For us to continually buy products they need to have built in obsolescence. We have become a throwaway society.   Infinite economic growth in a finite planet is not environmentally sustainable. 



Stage 4 leaders defend their egos by competing with each other to deliver the best results and to gain social dominance. Their success in delivering results increases their income which enables them to purchase and consume products which, in turn, enhance their social standing.  Competition among leaders not only increases inequality, it also increases the acceptance of consumerism which is creating environmental unsustainability.  However, during economic games used in research, Swiss economist Ernst Fehr, found that around 70% of the population are naturally more collaborative than competitive.  When these collaborators work together in economic games they seek win-win solutions.  Then, when a competitive person joins the game and adopts a win-lose approach, gradually everyone in the game becomes competitive. The predominant leadership in our society has developed in response to the 30% of the population who are competitive by nature not the 70% who are collaborative. In our society the most competitive leaders are those most likely to win and, as a consequence, rise to positions where they have the most power and influence.  Unfortunately, it is the psychopaths in our society who are the most competitive.  This is why, as found by the psychologist Kevin Dutton, the professions in our society which have the most influence (CEOs, lawyers, journalists, police officers) have the highest proportion of psychopaths.


Power over People

As adults, when a leader exerts ‘power over’ us we experience transference from an earlier time in our lives.  Essentially, we adopt the ‘child position’ and give the leader the role of the parent or teacher rather than interacting on an adult to adult basis.  This is why many workplaces, in terms of their structure and culture, resemble our school life.  This is a model of power in our society that we are all familiar with and know how to operate and survive within.  The problem is, when a leader has power over us we sacrifice our own will and succumb to theirs. In doing so, we lose our own sense of meaning and purpose in life.  We then feel empty inside and fill this emptiness with a variety of addictions, for example, alcohol, drugs, sex, online gaming, consumerism, eating junk food, sport, passively watching television, etc.  As none of these fill the void long term, we are increasingly becoming psychologically unwell as a society.  We allow leaders to have power over us in the workplace because we need to keep our jobs to survive, pay our debts and consume in a way that maintains our social standing.


If we are to create a more environmentally, economically and psychologically more sustainable society we need ‘New Leadership’. For this, we need more leaders who have developed to the ‘post-conventional’ stages of psychological growth (to at least stage 6).  Post-conventional leaders have let go of the need to protect their ego. In doing so, rather than using their leadership to deliver the results that protect them, they are able to use their leadership to serve others.  They collaborate rather than compete and they use their leadership to have ‘power with’ people rather than ‘power over’ people. 


Terry Sexton is one of the founding directors of Create Seven, a not-for-profit co-operative developing and enabling leaders to co-create a more sustainable society.


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