Leadership and the environment

Nov 30, 2010

How can effective leadership result in positive environmental changes? Three Kettering professors weigh in with their thoughts in the new book "Leadership and Environmental Sustainability."

Although environmental issues are covered in the media more now than at any point in history, a gap still exists between discussing the environment in abstract terms and leadership spurring actions that will institute meaningful change.

Three Kettering University Liberal Studies faculty members recently contributed chapters to a book discussing exactly that: how effective leadership can lead to positive environmental change. Leadership and Environmental Sustainability, published in 2010 by Benjamin W. Redekop, associate professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia and former Kettering professor, features research by Kettering faculty Dr. Michael Callahan, professor of History in the Department of Liberal Studies as well as the Thompson Chair of Leadership Studies, Dr. Denise Stodola, associate professor of Communication in the Department of Liberal Studies, and Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa, professor of History in the Department of Liberal Studies.

Callahan’s contribution involves a look back at how The League of Nations, an organization sometimes criticized as unsuccessful or inept by historians, was actually well ahead of its time when it came to environmental issues. The leadership of the League of Nations was comprised of, as Callahan writes, a “mix of scientists, technical experts, activists, diplomats and politicians working with nongovernmental organizations, private foundations, business groups, national governments and the permanent staff and officials in Geneva.”

This mix of backgrounds allowed the League of Nations to be a global leader on issues like coordinating worldwide health cooperation and combating disease, the importance of safe drinking water, clean air, green space in urban planning, protection of wildlife and prevention of air pollution. The League also was an early leader in understanding the dangers of lead paint. The contribution to Redekop’s book was in line with research and teaching that Callahan is currently doing at Kettering.

“I have long had teaching and research interests in modern leaders, the successes and failures of leadership, and the problems of the contemporary world,” Callahan said. “I am currently working on a study of the League of Nations and international terrorism in the 1930s. Ben’s collection is on environmental sustainability. In the senior seminar, we research, discuss, and debate these and other issues that are relevant to students who seek to be leaders in a complex and rapidly changing global society.”

Gebissa’s contribution to the book examines the potential for “bottom-up” leadership to initiate successful environmental change, using farmers in Ethiopia as a case study. Gebissa noted the failures of top-down strategies to solve the problems of a growing population, degradation of the land and dwindling natural resources.

Where government efforts were proving unsuccessful, innovations by the farmers themselves were having success, including methods like producing more high value and less labor intensive cash crops, diversifying what was being grown and maintaining self-sufficiency in family food supplies. Gebissa wrote, “Political leaders and policy-makers, rather than dismissing farmers as conservative opponents of progress, should incorporate such ‘leadership from below’ in their own leadership and decision-making.”
Gebissa’s contribution matched up well with topics he is teaching at Kettering.

“It is based on one of my research interests,” Gebissa said. “It is a piece that actually brings two of the courses that I teach together because it deals with leadership (LS 489: Senior Seminar on Leadership and Ethics) and sustainability (SSCI 314: Technology and Sustainable Development).”

Stodola’s chapter deals with transmitting environmental messages to the general public, focusing on methods used by Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, whose book and research helped inform the public about the dangers of pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s, and former Vice-President Al Gore, whose documentary An Inconvenient Truth and work regarding global warming helped him win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Stodola notes that both informed the public about environmental dangers, but also had to strike a careful balance to accurately impart the gravity of their particular subjects without causing such a panic that their audiences would feel that all hope is lost. The goal of both was to ultimately spur people to action.

“Both authors construct a complex matrix of affective impulses that serve to generate concern, hope, motivation, and inspiration in their audiences, all of which are necessary for us as audience members if we, like Carson and Gore, are to effectively address the serious and growing environmental challenges we face,” Stodola wrote.

Her contribution to Redekop’s book has proven to be useful in her classes at Kettering.
“I use it as a discussion piece from my COMM 311 course,” said Stodola, adding that she hopes to do more research in the environmental leadership subject area.

All three professors were honored to have the opportunity to collaborate on the project.
“It points to the potential that exists for the different disciplines in Liberal Studies to approach the same basic subject from a variety of perspectives,” Stodola said.

“I think it’s great,” Callahan said. “Not only do we collaborate closely in teaching the senior seminar, we are now collaborating in making Kettering University known as a center for leadership studies for undergraduates in engineering, science and business.”
“It is nice to collaborate with colleagues,” Gebissa said. “The book deals with a topic that would appeal to academics and policy-makers. It’s good for Kettering that three colleagues contributed to an important book.”

For more information about the book: http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Environmental-Sustainability-Routledge-Business/dp/041580650X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2

Written by: Patrick Hayes