As COP26 unfolds, we need to demand more of our leaders

Demonstrators participate in a protest, as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) takes place, in London, Britain, November 6, 2021.

We need compassionate leaders who will protect our planet. Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls.

Julie Battilana
Professor of Organizational Behavior and Social Innovation, Harvard University, Founder of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative
Tiziana Casciaro
Professor of Organizational Behavior, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • COP26 aims to tackle the critical issue of climate change, one part of a set of multidimensional crises including a health crisis, and a crisis of social and economic inequities.
  • We need competent, altruistic leaders to address these challenges but all too often power brings out the worst in people.
  • Empathy and humility must be cultivated in leaders if we are to effectively address the issues humanity faces.

As world leaders meet in Glasgow at the UN's COP26 climate summit to tackle one of the most urgent crises of our time, will they have the courage to implement the bold changes that are needed to save human life on our planet, or will they yet again do too little, too late? This question that is on everyone’s minds speaks to the kind of leaders we need today.

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From saving the planet to dealing with the pandemic, reducing economic inequalities, enhancing democracy, and fighting racism, sexism, as well as other forms of discrimination, leaders certainly have their hands full. In the face of this multidimensional crisis, we need them to have the courage to change our social and economic systems to help create a society that will be greener, fairer, and more democratic. This is a daunting task that requires competent leaders who can build the necessary power to push for radical changes, while being driven not by their self-interest and their desire for fame, but by the relentless pursuit of the common good.

This is a difficult balance to strike: while power is essential to taking charge and leading change in organizations and in society, we have learned from history, from our own experiences, and from research in social psychology that power changes our psyches. In laboratory manipulations, those who are made to feel powerful are more likely to demonstrate excessive pride and self-confidence and they are less interested in and adept at discerning others’ emotional states. In a nutshell, they become more hubristic and self-centered. If a fleeting sense of power induced in a laboratory is enough to change people, imagine the implications of holding important positions for years, as most of those who will represent us at the COP26 gathering have.


This is worrisome, but it is not inevitable that leaders become intoxicated by their power and end up abusing it. In our recent book, "Power, For All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business", we identify the antidotes that leaders have at their disposal to counter the poisonous effects of power. They need to practice humility as an antidote to hubris and empathy as an antidote to self-focus. Embracing power while avoiding its pitfalls rests on two realizations: an awareness of interdependence, which allows us to counteract self-centeredness with empathy; and an awareness of impermanence, which allows us to counteract hubris with humility. In turn, empathy and humility are conducive to learning and the pursuit of altruistic goals, two key ingredients for using power for a collective purpose rather than mere self-interest.

Empathy and humility are conducive to learning and the pursuit of altruistic goals, two key ingredients for using power for a collective purpose rather than mere self-interest.

Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro.

This is precisely the kind of humble and empathetic approach that we should expect and demand from all our leaders, especially at a time like now when what is at stake is making the courageous decisions that will not only benefit them in the short term, but will ensure the well-being and flourishing of all in harmony with our planet. This is the standard that we need to hold our leaders accountable to. When choosing them, we should of course account for their competence, but we also need to look for individuals whose behaviour shows that they cultivate humility and empathy and prioritize altruistic goals over purely selfish ones.


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These should be the criteria we judge our leaders against. We need to look for cues that they aren’t so unwise and needy as to crave power for power’s sake to enhance their own status and fame. The evidence suggests, however, that much too often we ignore these criteria and do not demand this kind altruistic approach from power holders. Instead, we tend to dissociate power from altruism, and we rely on other, flashier signs of confidence, strength, and wealth, to pick our leaders.

We can, and must, do better. As Martin Luther King eloquently put it, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” If we are to implement the difficult, but necessary, changes that are needed to address the environmental crisis that threatens all of us, rich and poor, young and old, we need compassionate leaders who will put the power we grant them to use to serve all of us and protect our planet.

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