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


PB & Bananas with Elvis? No, Mexican with Jennifer Aniston!

October 4, 2011

It is probably one of the most common icebreaker questions, if you could pick one person (dead or alive), who would you like to have lunch with?  Of course this is a super hard question.  I have heard people say musicians, actors, philosophers and sometimes a family member who has passed away.

So what would happen if Ronald Heifetz and Lester Brown had lunch?  What would they say?  Would they sit in a booth or a table?  Maybe the bar?  What would they order?  I envision it starting out with politeness.  Each one of them sharing what they do for a living and talking about their families.  I think that they would have a lot in common.  They would share a bottle of local, organic red wine and toast to all the leaders in the sustainability industry.

I’m sure that Ronald would talk about the Five Challenges in Leading Adaptive Change because he probably would see Lester as a great leader.   Lester would ask how Ronald did his research and came up with his findings.  I think Lester would ask Ronald how to help leaders get out of their own way?  How do we  get people to ask questions?  How do we get people to be naive?  I’m sure he is frustrated with how things are done and wants to know how to change it.  But that is the ultimate question, how to change people’s minds?  Of course that won’t be solved over one lunch!

At the end of the lunch, I think that Ronald would leave Lester with this thought…”Innocence will enable you to maintain hope when a situation seems hopeless, at least to some people.  And your capacity to maintain faith will be self-fulfilling in the sense that it will give other people courage to hope that life can be better” (Heifetz, 2002).

Amanda Gourgue, CMP, LEED AP, MBA Candidate 2013


Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M.  (2002).  Leading with an open heart.  Leader to Leader.

MBA develops partnerships with local businesses.

June 27, 2008

Antioch’s Green Education

by Jan Sevene
The triple bottom line: profit, society and sustainability

Tessa Young, with team cohort, presents her findings at Stonewall Farm.

To live up to the idea on which it was founded—building and learning community—to enc-ourage a student-body growth in a fast growing competition for “Green” MBAs and address the educational needs of students facing a world crying out for long-term systemic changes that incorporate profit, society and sustainability, Antioch University New England has launched its “Green” MBA program.

“Business as usual is not sustainable for our planet. The phrase used a lot in this field now is triple bottom line [TBL]—the foundation for all Antioch courses. Businesses need to look at economic, social and environmental issues. So, it’s balancing all of those, and make a profit and minimize the environmental impact,” said the program’s director, Pauline S. Chandler.

The 45-credit MBA, under its official title of Business Organization and Environmental Sustainability, began in the summer of 2007. The program, in general, is geared to a broad-spectrum of students, among them those with agricultural ties. With a growing awareness of food and local agriculture, farmers struggle to make prudent choices when moving to organic meat and produce, or transitioning to producing various crops. Chandler cited energy demands and biodiesel fuel as an example. Farmers wrestle with turning fields over to crops of soybean for fuel. Food or fuel? We need both. The MBA program is designed to cultivate critical thinkers who can make these necessary sustainable choices.

How it works

According to Chandler, most MBAs expect students to take off from their jobs and immerse themselves in their educational program. Other than a weeklong session each summer, she explained, “Antioch’s Organization and Management (O & M) Department is designed for students who are working, so people come for the weekend.”

This six-semester, two-year program begins its concentrated weeklong session with a course on group dynamics to promote understanding of how groups work in organizations. A second course draws on ecological systems to study the principles of sustainability. “Nature’s kind of got it down pat,” Chandler said. A third course speaks to the power of embracing and understanding diversity, helping students develop leadership skills while promoting their ability to make good use of the diversity within a global work force.

Weekend classes start in the fall, beginning Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m., then 6:30 to 9 at night, plus all day Saturday and Sunday. “They do that five weekends a semester. It’s intense,” Chandler said. “You immerse yourself in a class weekend, and then you go back to work. You can kind of test the theories and think about what you’ve learned and perhaps try some new ideas… making the workplace a learning lab.” Between classes, Chandler monitors supplemental online coursework.

Meeting expectations

Jedediah Beach, assistant director of the nonprofit, certified Natick Organic Community Farm in Natick, Mass., says, “I’m learning solid business tools, economics, group dynamics and the opportunity to use these tools. It’s great to go to school then go back to apply these tools to my job… a good mix going on there.”

Student Tessa Young agreed. “Organic businesses, starting at the farm and traveling up the supply chain, have long been leaders in modeling sustainable practices,” said Young, a full-time employee with the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which has to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy. According to Young, although she often heard about new, innovative operational improvements that benefited the environment, the people and the traditional fiscal bottom line, she was dismayed to learn that in many cases it was still “business as usual.” According to a survey, less than half of Fortune 500 companies in North America—although professing to embrace sustainability—failed to deliver on their promises. To understand why and help create and implement solutions for those organizations falling short on practicing sustainability, Young turned to Antioch.

“After only two semesters at Antioch,” she said, “I’m confident that this particular program is ripe with the skills, knowledge and inspiration to facilitate my pursuit of meaningful, systemic change.”

Beach and Young are two of 19 students enrolled in the program—a mix of nine women and 10 men—ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s. Two are listed as organic farmers, with a few working with agricultural-type corporations. “Two do educational work at their farms… working school groups, with lots of educational activities,” said Antioch Admissions Director Jennifer Fritz. “It seems to be a very good fit for them initially because of the course work. Traditional programs don’t address environmental sustainability. Having it integrated into the program speaks directly to the farmer’s profession.”

One of a kind

What makes the program unique? A lengthy list includes the weekend program; an interdisciplinary approach (organization and management working alone and team-teaching, incorporating environmental classes); using a cohort model where students travel and learn together; the opportunity to reflect on what students learn and how to apply it; and a balance of hard-core courses and experiential learning, facilitated by a fall practicum whereby students apply what they’ve learned. This last piece, in particular, is a beneficial fit with Antioch’s ongoing connection to Stonewall Farm, a working educational farm in Keene, N.H.

In transition due to significant funding cuts, the farm currently restructured staffing and operations to reduce expenses, said Stonewall Farm’s Executive Director Kathy Harrington. To help remain on budget, Harrington concluded, “Our focus needs to be on profit centers, revenue opportunities to sustain us long term. Given the MBA’s focus is to develop revenue building projects with the earth systems in mind, it has tremendous potential benefit to Stonewall Farm.”

As part of their practicum, Antioch’s students were challenged to develop ways to increase the farm’s revenue. After meeting with dairy herdsmen, gardeners and farm staff, then brainstorming ideas, they broke into five teams, each taking on a separate project: agro-tourism potentials, commercial kitchen as an educational site, developing a local food restaurant on site, teaching and practicing sustainability and energy onsite, and a “blended model” of developing onsite resources, renewable energy, broadening membership and practicing sustainable agriculture.

After researching the commercial kitchen idea, researching restrictions on the land through the Society for Protection of N.H. Forests and investigating alternative uses for farm housing and alternative growing practices, the semester culminated in December with teams presenting their ideas to Stonewall Farm’s board and staff.

A shift in thinking

Interest in the program is showing a shift in thinking. “A professor teaching social science research is totally in-volved. Others embedded in their industry love what they do, but they want sustainability to become part of their organization. With a rising awareness of the importance of local food, future business leaders are thinking and now fostering a closer relationship with the farmers that produce that food,” Chandler said, who is confident their MBA will provide the information to help make that shift.

She sees the program encouraging future farmers from shying away from a “quick fix.” Through collaboration, she envisions students leaving with multiple ways to solve problems.

“Our hope,” Chandler concluded, “is our students will leave here not just thinking about their organization, but where their organization fits in this web of life. It used to be people had a tiny focus in their own little, tiny world, but the first law of ecology is everything is connected to everything else.”

Fritz added, “It is a high achieving group. They all say they’ve been waiting for a program like this, that they really wanted to find something they felt they could be committed to. When they found us, they knew it was a right fit.”

The author is a freelance contributor.

Sustainable Agriculture

December 20, 2007

Sustainable agriculture, local foods, and organic foods are all topics we explore in the Green MBA at Antioch University New England. 

Our challenge is to stay on top of  the latest sustainable agriculture initiatives, policies, marketing strategies and consumer demands.  In launching this blog we invite people to post interesting articles and begin conversations about the many issues surrounding sustainable agriculture.

We want to know who are the change agents?  What are the trends?  How do consumers make choices about local foods?  What are the connections between local food movement and climate change?  How can we enhance regional local and organic food markets? How do consumers decide what organic foods to purchase?

We encourage bloggers to post articles, share ideas, reflect on new findings, and be a part of this evolving field.

Seattle residents commit to eat food grown within 100 miles

November 1, 2007

Seattle residents commit to eat food grown within 100 miles:

Organic farmers face ruin as rich nations agonise over food miles

November 1, 2007

Resources on Industrial Agriculture and Humane Sustainable Food Systems

November 1, 2007

Tons of ideas in this resource list with great links.