It is easy to identify leadership when we see it, but much harder to define it.

What is leadership?

It is easy to identify leadership when we see it, but much harder to define it. When people talk about leadership they are often thinking about a leader’s behaviour and personality: for example, whether or not they seem like a ‘real leader’, the skills they have or need to acquire. But it is also possible to see leadership as a constantly shifting, socially constructed process, which emerges through a complex series of conscious and unconscious negotiations within and between individuals in a group. Someone may be seen as a ‘born leader’ because their social identity is shared with other members of a group and because they represent, for now, something of what a group needs. As those needs shift, the perception of the leader shifts with them. The psychological aspects of human responses to the climate breakdown are likely to form part of the (often unspoken) needs of the group, from which leadership emerges and with which it interacts.

How leadership relates to climate psychology

Climate psychology focuses in particular on understanding how processes such as denial and splitting help people defend against difficult truths. Having our difficult feelings contained – that is, held, heard, re-articulated back to us so that we can understand them – helps people to face reality better. The climate-related feelings that need containment may be particularly strong, involving catastrophism and a sense of being overwhelmed. The ‘human relations’ discourse of leadership assumes that it is the leader’s role to provide containment of these difficult feelings. In this mindset, the leader is seen as a kind of therapist, containing anxieties and enabling thinking and thence sustainable action.

But the leadership being called for by other groups in society may be very different from this, and as climate psychologists we need to be aware of the different framings of climate change that underpin such calls. In the last twenty years there has been an expectation that climate change needs technocratic, controlling leadership, derived from what Simon Western refers to as the ‘scientific management’ discourse, ‘rolling out’ building retrofits, renewable energy schemes and free public transport. Those who frame climate change as an emergency may claim that democracy cannot deliver the huge changes required and call for a dictator or messiah: Western refers to this as the ‘transformational leadership’ discourse. A fourth discourse of leadership may connect to the framing of climate change as a wicked problem. Western calls this fourth discourse ‘eco-leadership’: it involves connectivity, distributed leadership, flexibility and strong ethics, and is relevant within adaptive networked organisations.

Examples of how leadership feels

Reflecting the extremes of climate change, the powerful emotional experiences in their organisations, and the ways in which leaders function to absorb the feelings of their colleagues, environmental leaders may themselves experience a sense of opposing and sometimes impossible demands. 

One senior leader in a campaigning organisation may be used to bringing their positive, optimistic mindset to their leadership work, to enable a group to develop agency; but they may be increasingly aware that it is no longer possible to prevent catastrophic climate change. Insisting on optimism in these circumstances could feel dishonest, while acknowledging failure could make them feel as if they are placing an unbearable burden on their team. 

Another leader might notice that there is constant talk in their organisation of the huge importance of the work being done, and at the same time a tendency in practice to focus heavily on small questions of organisational process. They are expected to manage both, and depending on their personality they may either try to do this or come down on one side of the polarity or the other.

These extreme polarities may in fact be too much for any one leader to bear, suggesting that sharing the leadership work is essential. The protest movements since 2007 have influenced today’s emphasis on distributed leadership, which is argued to reduce the risk of burnout for individual leaders, to make best use of collective capability, and to experiment with the formation of a more just and equitable society. This approach may require members to take back some of the difficult feelings that people generally project on to leaders. The short-term impact of shared leadership, then - paradoxically perhaps – is likely to be a spread of anxiety around the organisation. If members can be supported to notice and understand what is happening, they may be able to find new ways of working with the dynamics between leadership and difficult feelings.


Huffington, C., Armstrong, D., Halton, W., Hoyle, L. and Pooley, J. (2004). Working below the surface: the emotional life of contemporary organisations. London: Karnac.

Western, S. (2008). Leadership: a critical text. London: Sage.

Extinction Rebellion (2019). XR UK Self-Organising System Constitution v1 [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 Sept 2019]

Climate Psychology Alliance

© Climate Psychology Alliance 2021. Site by Arctic Bee