Brown-Heifetz Discussion

October 4, 2011

In his book Plan B 4.0 eco-economist Lester Brown details an immense set of problems facing our civilization.  He compares our current situation to the collapse of the Sumerian and Mayan civilizations due to food supply failure, and asks if we are facing the same future.

He describes a network of crises including global climate change, loss of usable cropland, dwindling water tables, growing global and urban populations, dependency of world agriculture on fossil fuels, and limitations in further advances in agricultural technology as we approach the upper boundary of our planet’s biological productivity.

Brown notes that:

Business as usual is not longer a viable option. Food security will deteriorate further unless leading countries collectively mobilize to stabilize population, stabilize climate, stabilize aquifers, conserve soils, protect cropland, and restrict the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. (Brown, 2009, p. 9)

Brown further notes that a result of world food insecurity, the geopolitical situation is growing dangerous in new and unanticipated ways.  Food scarcity is a major contributor to the emergence of failed states, and we are increasingly seeing a practice of more developed countries leasing or purchasing agricultural land (and the land’s associated water rights) from other, usually less developed, countries.

Brown notes that our global economy is functioning in many ways as a Ponzi Scheme.  He quotes Paul Hawken: “At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product” (P. Hawken, in Brown, 2009, p. 15).

Brown’s solution to this global, systemic, and complex crisis is what he calls “Plan B – A Plan to Save Civilization”.  He describes the resolution of the crisis as “an integrated system with four interdependent goals” (Brown, 2009, p. 25).  That is to say that it is a high-level blueprint for an adaptive solution to a complex systems issue.  He lists the four component goals as and 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, holding global population to a limit of 8 billion or less, ending global poverty, and restoring the Earth’s soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands, and fisheries. (Brown, 2009, pp. 23 – 24).  He stresses that this is an urgent and ambitious plan, and one that is absolutely necessary if our global civilization is to survive this crisis.  He stresses that we must approach this with “wartime speed” (Brown, 2009 p. 27).

In his article Leading with an Open Heart, Ronald  Heifetz describes complex problems such as the global crises described by Brown as Adaptive Challenges, which must be met with Adaptive Change. Heifetz defines Adaptive Change as being qualitatively different than a linear technical solution in that it requires people to change.  He stresses that such change is often painful and that leading people through such an experience is never easy, and often dangerous. (Heifetz, 2002, p. 28).

Heifetz notes that a leader working with an adaptive challenge will have to put ego aside and tell the people he or she is leading something like this:

We can’t go keep going on this way, but the new direction is yet undetermined, and how effective any plan will be in enabling us to thrive – or even survive – in the new environment is also unknown.  We’re going to have to go through disagreements and conflicts as we sort through what’s precious and what’s expendable; loss as we abandon comfortable pieces of the past, old routines, and even lose relationships with people; feelings of incompetence as we strive to innovate and learn new ways; doubt and uncertainty as we make inevitable wrong turns along the way (Heifetz, 2002, p 29).

How can we lead others in meeting adaptive challenges?  Heifetz reminds us that not having a specific linear fix for a problem, or even a good sense of what the problem is can be frightening.  We are tempted to pretend we know what we are doing.  This can lead to what Heifetz terms “Collusion”, or the blind leading the blind. We need to develop an open heart and avoid the usual idea that a leader must be thick skinned.  We must approach complex problems from a position of what the Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind”.  We must approach such problems with innocence and naivete.  We need an open curiosity; and we must avoid cynicism. And above all, we must approach the challenge with compassion (Heifetz, 2002, pp. 29 – 33).

Heifetz summarizes this as “Five Challenges in Leading Adaptive Change” (Heifetz, 2002, p 30). Briefly, he describes these as

  • “Get off the dance floor and onto the balcony”  — Maintain a contemplative state even in the midst of action
  • “Think politically” — Build and maintain support networks and allies
  • “Orchestrate conflict” — Remember that conflict is often where new ideas come from.
  • “Give the work back” – People must be accountable for the adaptive change. It must be theirs, not the leaders’.  Adaptive change cannot be imposed from above.
  • “Hold steady” – Sometimes leaders must refrain from immediate action to allow the conflicting views to generate new ideas and solutions.

If Brown and Heifetz were to meet and discuss their points of view, what would they tell one another?  Clearly they share a vision of complex challenges and adaptive solutions.  Even if he does not use the same descriptive terminology, Brown’s Plan B is an interlocking set of adaptive changes which address a problem of almost limitless complexity. These are precisely the types of problems that Heifetz is working with. Where the two authors differ is in what portion of the problem they are addressing.  Brown is describing a problem from what sometimes is called the 10,000 foot level, while Heifetz is considering how leadership can be best employed to help implement such changes at the ground level. And this might lead to some considerable misunderstanding.

I could envision Brown stressing the absolute urgency of the problem facing the world, and finding Heifetz’s contemplative approach to be far too slow and open-ended.  For his part, Heifetz might point out that the changes called out in Plan B will require changes in the way that we all live our lives, and that these sorts of changes must be generated from the bottom up, not from the top down.  Even allowing for a kind of global benign despotism, it would be difficult for Heifetz to picture Plan B being successfully imposed from above.

Heifetz might point out that Brown is not allowing for the fears and changes that people will have to go through to arrive at the solutions called out in Plan B, and Brown might reply that that we simply don’t have the time to indulge in a more democratic process.  I would hope that after further discussion they might arrive at a point where this impasse is resolved.  The fact is that people will be have to be considered in a solution for the global crisis, and the fact is that the global crisis is very near the tipping point right now.  Let’s see if we can get these two talking.


Brown, Lester. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty. (Fall 2002) Leading with an Open Heart. Leader to Leader. pp. 28-33.

Peter MBA Candidate 2013


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Climate Change is a scientific study, a social phenomena, a political issue and an opportunity for dialogue across diverse stakeholder groups. 

Al Gore, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, commented that, “the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: “What were you thinking; why didn’t you act? Or they will ask instead: “How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?”Whether you agree or disagree with Al Gore, there is tremendous need and opportunity for citizens to discuss the science, issues, opportunities, and threats of climate change.  We want to gather information, articles, personal reflections, and professional insights to create a broader and deeper understanding of Climate Change. Please join us in a constructive dialogue about Climate Change.