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Book Review: The Positive Deviant - Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World

Driving to Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, our ancient Land-Rover first stuttered, then ground to a debilitated stop, somewhere outside Mporokoso. A long way from any town and with over 200 kilometres to our intended destination, this was a predicament. We identified the problem as an irreparably broken fuel pump. Our solution, which took some time to conceive, was to rig up a gravity-fed system by means of hanging a 5 litre plastic container of petrol inside the cabin, linked to the carburettor with a length of plastic piping. It was unpleasant, it stank, it used our precious fuel at an alarming rate and it was probably fairly hazardous, but it got us to the Lake. In other words, it was sufficient, it was a good enough solution.  These words form the key idea that Sara Parkin employs to underpin her call to action throughout this excellent manual for sustainability leadership, The Positive Deviant.

A veritable library of sustainable development strategies has been spawned in almost a quarter of a century since the 1992 Rio conference, yet the global challenges have multiplied. We now understand the severity of the climate crisis and the need to live within environmental limits. We can also anticipate the benefits to be gained in a low-carbon economy, the health benefits of a sustainable diet, the potential for job creation in retro-fitting our existing housing. Yet these ideas remain stubbornly aspirational. Sara Parkin quotes Kofi Annan’s aphorism – the crisis is in implementation. We know what to do but we’re not doing it. Parkin’s pragmatic advice is to cut through the paralysis of analysis using the power of positive deviance.

The concept of positive deviance is not new. Developed in the 1990s by American academics, it takes its inspiration from the example of people who succeed against the odds, people who have access to the same resources as others but use them to attain much more successful outcomes, people who are deviant in a positive direction. The aim of the methodology is to identify the good practice and promote it across a community, to make changes for the better, rather than wait for all the underlying causes to be identified. That’s a good enough approach.

Parkin sets out her stall by identifying key elements of the parlous state in which we now find ourselves, the clear result of unsustainable development. Giving climate change its due political and economic prominence, she identifies the continuing prevarication of policy-makers and urges swift and relentless action, based on what is most scientifically effective. But our profligate use of fossil fuels is not the only symptom of this global malaise; Parkin recognises the depletion of biological and mineral resources, our generation of waste and the widespread existence of poverty and injustice as equally deserving of concern. She reminds us that we are part of Nature, that we must live within its ‘laws’, not apart from it. The economist Herman Daly sums it up well, “The natural world is the envelope that contains, sustains and provisions the economy, not the other way round.”  And on that topic, there is a useful canter through the incompatibility of conventional economics and sustainability, in which Sara Parkin invokes the need to determine the nation’s Gross Domestic Happiness, rather than rely so heavily on the flawed measure that is GDP.

Next, she turns her attention to leadership, unerringly pointing to its importance. “Without it, sustainability will never make it – in government, business or anywhere.”  In an examination of leadership theories, there are some thoughtful reflections: on followership, charisma, power and the role of women – and on the importance of embedding a good enough level of sustainability literacy in leadership courses and, importantly, within the training offered in the business schools. In delineating the business benefits of sustainable development, Parkin points out the underlying importance of the individual to its successful corporate adoption, suggesting that there is no evidence that an organisation’s public commitment to sustainability has survived a change of leadership. But she brooks no doubt about the business case for sustainability, citing it as “too important to be left to Corporate Responsibility departments.”

Sara Parkin is a founding director of Forum for the Future, an inspirational organisation that works with business and public sector partners to promote sustainable development. One important strand of its work is the delivery of education and training, not least through its highly-regarded Masters programme in leadership for sustainable development. The Positive Deviant draws extensively on Parkin’s experience of designing these programmes to help readers build their own brand of sustainability leadership.

It recommends four ‘habits of thought’ - the four Rs - to inform every decision, every action. Will the work enhance the resilience of people and the planet? Does it demonstrate a reverence for the natural world? Is it reflecting earlier experience to good effect? Is it creating and protecting important relationships? This last element is of such significance in embedding sustainability that it deserves more prominence and, indeed, Parkin returns to the idea of growing social capital several more times in this section. The green movement has sometimes done itself a disservice by placing environmental considerations above those of people; it is axiomatic that we must preserve the world’s renewable natural resources but they must be employed in the service of our fellow global citizens. Sustainability-literate leaders must be motivated by human concerns.

To foster that desired sustainability-literacy, Parkin returns to her theme of sufficiency. Knowing enough of the science and economics, confident enough in your values, understanding enough about human behaviour – these are the themes that will equip you for positive deviance. That said, the book provides an introduction to a very useful range of sustainability tools. The Natural Step and the Five Capitals tools will be familiar to some readers and the book provides an overview of other techniques that will be encountered in this field – life cycle analysis, carbon accounting and sustainability performance measures, for example.

Finally, Parkin lays out the scale of the global challenges for sustainability as a means of helping aspirant leaders to handle the all-too-frequent challenges of the naysayers, then ends with an appendix of people she cites as fully qualified Positive Deviants, from Wangari Maathai to the Prince of Wales. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but, like the others listed in the book, they satisfy Sara Parkin’s metaphor of positive deviants as wild salmon – swimming powerfully against the flood.

The UK government declared itself to be “the greenest government ever”, claiming that sustainable development has been “mainstreamed across the whole of Government”, but you will be hard pressed to find any sustainability practitioners who share that view. It is the flood of desire for economic growth that dominates political motivations these days, squeezing the last breath out of the thwarted ambition to make sustainable development the central organising principle for government.

So, Positive Deviants, present and future, will have their work cut out over the next few years; this guide to sustainability-literate leadership should find a place on their bookshelves.  

Jim Kitchen