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Ten principles of planetary health (transformative) leadership (ahum)

By Kristof Decoster
on November 12, 2018

Last week, I came across the 10 principles of gender transformative leadership (in a Devex op-ed by Roopa Dhatt et al).  Although I’m not much of a leader (and haven’t really bothered to go through the leadership literature either), it got me thinking, and so below you find some humble suggestions for “ten principles of planetary health (transformative) leadership”. The blog is meant as a (half-serious) way to kickstart discussion on this issue, I trust a real planetary health scientist (/or leader) will take this up further in the future. And get it properly published in the Lancet Planetary Health (or GeoHealth or a similar journal).


Anyway, here I go:


  1. Start from the right analysis. You might want to go through the latest (dire) IPCC report, which -even if some think it’s still a rather “conservative” report – makes it abundantly clear that “business as usual” (aka ‘green growth’ etc)  won’t cut it.   Go also through similar reports on biodiversity, etc., in case you aren’t convinced yet.
  2. Understand (and try to feel in your bones & veins) that planetary health and the fight against inequality (at all levels) are intrinsically linked. Put differently, planetary health leadership is about embracing an SDG agenda “on speed”.  A dumb example perhaps: my son sometimes asks me why I still continue to drive an old Toyota Corolla (diesel) of about 20 years, being – politically – ‘green’. (Disclaimer: as he’s taking driving lessons now (with me as a coach), he’s rather hoping for a Tesla sooner than later. Don’t think so 😊 )   My (knock-out) response: “I’m first a  communist, and only then a (fake) green.” If that’s true for me, I suspect it’s true for many many more people, with less income. Put differently, you can’t really tackle planetary health if you only eradicate poverty (even if that’s a more than worthy goal too), you have to tackle inequality, at least to an extent that people think the system is (again, or for the first time, depending on your context) more or less fair.  (PS: also try to grasp the 150+ other synergies, overlaps & potential conflicts between SDG goals and targets. Good luck with that! : ))
  3. Instead of partnering with, and (mainly) reaching out to (arguably, mostly well-meaning) multilateral global institutions, philanthropic foundations, and even the few relatively benign corporate partners out there, who – let’s face it – don’t really manage to think ‘out of the (capitalist) box’, reach out to actors who really push for transformative change. That implies thinking on post-capitalism & post-growth, and a new economic system fit for the 21st century. Do listen to Jim Kim, Michael Bloomberg, Christine Lagarde, Bill Gates, … if you must, but really lend you’re your ear (and action) to the likes of Naomi Klein ( ‘The Leap’), “populist” left -wing parties; trade unions (if they rally behind a ‘Green deal’) ; the Stockholm Resilience centre, thinkers like Kate Raworth, … who understand far better what planetary health systems change really would imply. Or at least dare to ponder the question.
  4. Partner if you can, but seek conflict if you have to’. A bit of Tedros, a bit of Chantal Mouffe (I almost said ‘Trump’, on that aspect at least 🙂 ).
  5. “Walk the talk”. This is true for any sort of leadership, but for planetary leadership it rings even more true. So you can’t fly like Erik Solheim, eat meat like the author of this piece, or have a carbon footprint like Al Gore. Among others.
  6. Instead of cutting deals in Davos, show up at the People’s Health Assembly, and demonstrate together with angry crowds of the global precariat for a fair & ecologically sustainable future. Civil disobedience should be your middle name. Do not reside in Geneva, but rather in a Mumbai slum. Organize a Planetary Health Summit (PHS) over there too. Make sure you invite Modi and Macron, two planetary health champions. Bloomberg is welcome too.
  7. Explain to all people that ‘the good life’ doesn’t mean wanting ever more. Planetary health leadership requires probably more than a bit of ancient philosophy, spirituality, … in statements & action.
  8. However, when you lecture people on planetary health, always start with the filthy rich (Richard Branson et al) instead of cozying up to them at all sorts of High Level Commissions and HL Breakfasts in order to get some financial peanuts that are “left behind” – they, first of all, need to set an example, in terms of planetary healthy behaviour. Only then, you’ll have a chance to ever convince the (income) classes below. PS: after (or before) lecturing them, tax them. Across the board and across the globe. Same for corporate actors (including, certainly, Big Tech). If they refuse fair taxes, ignore them. Everywhere. Don’t give them any legitimacy. Alternatively, let them go to another universe in a self-chosen (and obviously self-paid) spacecraft.
  9. Instead of waffling about the importance of multilateralism (which most of us agree with anyway, deep down), call out the powerful and rich for their lack of real ‘moral values’ and failure to really take care of the ‘left behind’. Which would mean, among others, paying fair taxes, and not exploiting their staff. Start with Jeff Bezos. You’ll see that the precariat & the even more marginalized will begin to support you, even on the need for multilateral cooperation (rather than xenophobic right-wing bullies).
  10. Maintain a good work-life balance yourself. Instead of going for a planetary health “investment case” with all bells and whistles, show that with 20 hours (or 30 hours, if you must) of well-chosen work, you can have more (moral & discourse) impact. After all, I doubt Jesus, Buddha or Muhammed came up with an investment case back then (and look what impact they had!) Anticipate on the upcoming AI revolution by delegating systematically some of your many tasks to youth (they need decent jobs anyway), implement a division of labour in your own organization, etc. Your wife/husband and your kids will thank you.


I’m sure you can think of a few more : )

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