Leaders As Host: A New Approach to Leadership in the Age of Climate Disruption

Leaders As Host: A New Approach to Leadership in the Age of Climate Disruption

The challenges emerging with the acceleration of climate disruption make it increasingly clear that traditional approaches to leadership are not going to work. Given the complex and interrelated nature of the problems facing us, in the words of Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley, we must abandon the old notion of “leader-as-hero.” Instead of relying on orders issued from the top, we need to move towards a more collaborative and distributive model in which “leaders-as-host” build on a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions. As Frieze and Wheatley put it, “hosting others is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.”[i]

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social, and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three American College and University President Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) signatories (which also happen to be among the top employers in the county): Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. In addition, the city of Ithaca, the towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Danby, and the county have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the county calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

TCCPI has leveraged these climate action commitments to help mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort, expand the production of renewable energy, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than 40 organizations, institutions, and businesses in the county organized into five sectors: business, education, local government, nonprofit, and youth. Each of these sectors has a representative serving on the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition’s projects and sets the agenda for the monthly meetings of the whole group.

The most immediate way in which TCCPI has attempted to be a “leader-as-host” is to provide an ongoing forum where local leaders can come together regularly, share their progress and challenges, and brainstorm collectively about ideas and solutions. In some cases, it is hard to imagine how the outcomes resulting from these meetings would have emerged without the years of building trust and thinking collaboratively. For example, the Tompkins County Planning Department and EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) had never worked together in the nearly two decades since EVI was founded. Yet, at a TCCPI meeting in June 2010, the group came up with the notion of the planning department and EVI joining hands to submit a proposal to the EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight community efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The grant proposal, submitted the next month, outlined a strategy for disseminating to the larger community the important lessons learned at EVI about shrinking one’s carbon footprint and developing ways that the county could incorporate these key principles into its planning for future development. EPA awarded a $375,000 grant and work began in February 2011. Two model developments, one at EVI and a pocket neighborhood downtown, are already underway and the county has proposed a third development near the regional medical center. All of them are designed to highlight innovative approaches to “creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents’ quality of life while using fewer resources.”

Another project growing out of TCCPI discussions is the installation of photovoltaic arrays at numerous sites in the county, including several county government buildings, businesses, and higher education institutions. In the area of energy efficiency, TCCPI has worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, which is made up of students from Cornell and Ithaca College who carry out informational energy audits for homeowners, share information with them about state and federal incentives, and encourage concrete steps to improve the energy performance of their residences. TCCPI has also worked closely with CCETC in rolling out a countywide campaign, “Get Your Greenback Tompkins,” to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings.

In these latter two instances, TCCPI shared its own financial resources to help launch the projects. In other cases, it has lent its social capital to help projects obtain the necessary financial capital. Two original members of the TCCPI steering committee serve on the founding board of Black Oak Wind Farm, an 11.9 megawatt project just outside Ithaca slated to be in production by the summer of 2014. The first community wind project in the region, Black Oak raised its seed capital of $1.2 million from more than 80 local investors. The TCCPI network provided a crucial resource in reaching out to many of these people and persuading them to invest in the wind farm and purchase power from it.

TCCPI’s latest initiative marks perhaps its most important effort yet to be a “leader-as-host.” The coalition is currently working with downtown Ithaca property owners to form a 2030 District, a public/private partnership in which property owners and managers come together with local government, business, and community leaders to provide a model for urban sustainability through collaboration, leveraged financing, and shared resources. Across the country, 2030 Districts are being established to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions targets called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning. Currently, all of the existing 2030 Districts are in major cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Ithaca’s 2030 District will become one of the first in a smaller urban community, and it will focus new attention on the power of campus-community collaboration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in college towns throughout the U.S. TCCPI has assumed the responsibility of lead facilitator and will manage the overall process of developing and operating the Ithaca 2030 District.

Similar efforts in Grand Rapids, Mich. and Oberlin, Ohio have inspired the work of TCCPI. In Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University (GVSU), Aquinas College, and Grand Rapids Community College – all three of which are ACUPCC signatories – have teamed up with local government and business leaders to establish the Grand Rapids Community Sustainability Partnership (GRCSP) and launch a green renaissance. Established in 2005, GRCSP has grown into a coalition of more than 200 businesses, institutions, and organizations throughout western Michigan that are committed “to work together to restore environmental integrity, improve economic prosperity, and promote social equity in the community.” By collaborating, sharing experiences, and mobilizing local resources, the partnership has helped transform the Grand Rapids area, turning it into a living laboratory for building sustainable communities.[ii]

The evidence in support of this coalition’s success is not hard to find. The United Nations University designated the city and Community Sustainability Partnership as the first U.S. Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) in Education for Sustainable Development in 2007. Grand Rapids leads the nation in the number of LEED-certified buildings per capita, in part because all new city- owned buildings are built to LEED standards. What about energy use? In 2005, Mayor George Heartwell committed the city to deriving 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2008; it met that goal a year early.

Not one to sit on its laurels, Grand Rapids increased the target to 100 percent by 2020. In the meantime, the municipal government has reduced its energy use by more than 10 percent, traffic lights have energy-saving LED bulbs, and city buses are hybrids. Climate resiliency, energy audits and energy efficiency improvements in residential neighborhoods, and single stream recycling have all gained significant headway in recent years. Underpinning all of this work has been a deep-seated belief in “the importance of partnerships to achieve successful sustainability related outcomes.” [iii]

In recognition of the city’s achievements, Grand Rapids received the Siemens award for America’s most sustainable mid-sized city in 2010 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and in January 2013 BillMoyers.com named Grand Rapids as one of the top 12 cities in the United States “Leading the Way in Sustainability.” Earlier this month, Mayor Heartwell was selected to serve as a member of President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.[iv]

The Grand Rapids experience demonstrates how the collective work of higher education institutions, local government, and business leaders focused on sustainability and climate action can generate an important competitive advantage for a community, even in the Rust Belt. In the 21st-century knowledge economy, as Andrea Putman and I wrote in 2009, “quality of life is a major driver of economic development, and sustainability is a crucial component of quality of life.”[v]

Another Midwestern community – Oberlin, Ohio – has also promoted the importance of multisector collaboration in addressing sustainability and climate challenges. Founded in 2009, the Oberlin Project brings together the City of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and a number of other private and institutional partners to strengthen the community’s “resilience, prosperity, and sustainability.” The architect of the project is David Orr, an internationally recognized professor of environmental studies and politics at the college.

The project started off as a more modest effort to redevelop a 13-acre downtown site for a “green arts district.” But outlining a vision of what he called “full-spectrum sustainability,” Orr saw an opportunity to create a model of how a community could respond to climate destabilization and the need to adapt to the new world that it would bring about. It was a chance to avoid the common pitfall of problem solving as a series of one-off responses unconnected to each other and develop a more holistic approach designed to take advantage of the potential synergies among the parts.[vi]

The green arts district would still serve as a key catalyst for the economic revitalization of the city, but the Oberlin Project now encompassed a more sweeping effort to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, build a stronger local food and farming system, and strengthen the educational infrastructure through partnerships among Oberlin College, the city’s K-12 public school system, the local vocational school, and the county’s community college. In the words of one observer, the Oberlin Project became a plan “for fundamentally reshaping the American economy and its society.”[vii]

As in the other two examples, public commitments to climate action have played an important role in the development of the Oberlin Project. Oberlin College was an early ACUPCC signatory (2006) and in 2010 the city became a member of the Clinton Climate Initiative. The college and city have worked together closely in the development of their respective climate action plans, and the city is on target to reduce its emissions by 50% of 2007 levels by 2015, with 90% of its electricity coming from renewable sources. As part of this process, it carried out a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Energy-funded study on transitioning to energy efficiency and renewable energy. In addition, community members have been organized into ten teams working on issues such as energy, education, policy, civic engagement, and economic development.[viii]

So, then, what’s the bottom line? Collective efforts involving “leaders-as-hosts” in New York, Michigan, and Ohio not only promote collaboration among key local institutions and organizations but also encourage engagement with the community at large in a democratic process. They seek to draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address intractable problems. Such coalitions provide a framework for multisector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all. They demonstrate that job creation, energy security, more resilient communities, and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

Dr. Peter W. Bardaglio is a senior advisor with Second Nature. He is also the executive director of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative.


[i] Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley, “From Hero to Host: A Story of Citizenship in Columbus, Ohio.” The Berkana Institute.  http://www.walkoutwalkon.net/wpcontent/uploads/2011/04/WheatleyFrieze_HeroToHost.pdf.

[ii] “Community Sustainability Partnership.” www.grpartners.org .

[iv] Charlsie Dewey, “Grand Rapids Lands on National List of Sustainable Cities,” Grand Rapids Business Journal, January 8, 2013; David Czurak, “Mayor Advises Federal Task Force on Climate,” Grand Rapids Business Journal, November 4, 2013. http://www.grbj.com/articles/78242-mayor-advises-federal-task-force-on-climate.

[vi] David Orr, “What Do We Stand for Now?” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011. http://oberlin.edu/alummag/fall2011/features/project.html.

[vii] Scott Carlson, “Oberlin, Ohio: Laboratory for a New Way of Life,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 6, 2011. http://chronicle.com/article/A-College-Town-Imagines-a-New/129650.

[viii] Orr, “What Do We Stand for Now?”