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What It Takes to Be a Sustainability Leader

lawrence, gary, aecomLast month, the world lost one of the most influential actors in Cold War, Middle Eastern and US/China relations. The EastWest Institute lost a fantastic leader. A family lost a cherished loved one. And, selfishly, I lost a mentor and a man that I admired for his breadth of understanding, willingness to learn and commitment to the future. John Mroz trod a humble path in his extraordinary commitment to making progress without ever taking credit for himself. As I reflect the example he set, I urge the world’s leadership to follow in his footsteps if we are to have any chance of achieving sustainability without substantial systems collapse.

Most of John’s work involved seeking peaceful solutions to complex problems. He was a trusted go-between for governments and societal actors in trying to achieve collective positive outcomes. While brilliant in many ways, his true genius was in knowing just the right time and place to nudge processes so they didn’t stall.

Recently, he and the EastWest Institute expanded their investigations to include understanding the societal characteristics that generate insecurity. Their work, in collaboration with others, on understanding and managing the nexus between water, food, energy and security has made great progress towards defining this issue in human terms. By demonstrating that the fate of society and the economy is intricately linked to the success of these natural systems, it becomes possible to seek solutions that optimize conditions for human development rather than create a barrier to progress.

John was certain about only one thing — there is no certainty when we are talking about the future. The lack of humility — the need to be right — evinced by too many of us responsible for creating and developing our built environment makes it impossible to engage in the dialogue necessary to balance and manage the variables associated with today’s complex problems. Our biases vex us continuously and cause us to oppose others without really understanding their point of view. John showed us that with patience and humility we can find an acceptable balance between technical feasibility, economic viability and the political authority necessary to act.

Most of you will not know or even have heard of John Mroz, yet he was a great man. My biggest concern for sustainability, climate impacts and the political theater of denial is that he was also a necessary man. The skills that he possessed — knowing, nudging, including and enabling — are for the most part entirely missing from the process of solving sustainability problems. Without these skills, we will continue to discuss and try to solve the attributes of today’s complex problems without ever treating the root cause. The consequences of this failure are unlikely to be pleasant.

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