In the first two decades of the 21st Century we have been confronted with three major global shocks. First came the financial crash in 2008 and the decade of austerity that followed. We are currently dealing with the impact of the international Covid pandemic and bridging these two fast moving threats is the ongoing challenge of global warming and environmental decline. Surely, it cannot be clearer that we need to make transformational changes to our ways of life and ways of doing business. Although there are encouraging signs that our national and global leaders are beginning to grasp the urgency of our predicament, we cannot rely on our political and business leaders alone to achieve this. We need new forms of collective and collaborative engagement, activism and shared leadership that draw on the energy and commitment of the very many people that make things happen in our communities. 

If we are to make the 2020s and 2030s an era of recovery and renewal that brings hope for a sustainable and abundant future, we must all become shift leaders within our own sphere of influence. This short paper explores what we mean by ‘shift’, the qualities of shift leadership and how to develop as a shift leader. 

‘…inspiring and mobilizing others to undertake collective action in pursuit of the common good’.                                    (Crosby & Bryson, 2005)

What is shift?

Stephanie Draper  (2013) has argued that many of the vital systems we rely upon are failing and that a ‘big shift’ is required to ensure a sustainable future. Over the last two decades we have witnessed significant failings and catastrophic failures in finance, public health, social care, justice, biodiversity, food, water and energy supply and of course air quality and climate change. The prevalence of these failures and the political inertia in dealing with the associated crises, suggests that a new form of leadership is needed if we are to successfully overhaul and re-imagine 21st Century society. 

‘Shift’ is simply a short-hand for the type of transformation required to resolve our most challenging and pressing problems – such as climate change, environmental degradation, care in our communities, economic and social justice. Whilst these challenges might seem enormous in scale and complexity and relate more to national politics and global economics than to our own individual actions, each one of us has an important role to play in shifting these fundamental issues towards positive and rewarding outcomes – as contributors, followers and leaders of positive change.

Current leadership is not fit for purpose

Our generation is shouldering unprecedented responsibilities for the wellbeing of future generations and the planetary eco-system.  Over the last two decades our financial leaders failed to predict the largest global financial crash of all time and our political leaders struggled to respond to the social impact of this failure over the following decade. More recently, our political leaders failed to prepare adequately for the Covid pandemic, that scientists had predicted, and are struggling to respond decisively enough to protect the wellbeing of populations around the world. Finally, although scientists have been clamouring for political, economic and industrial responses to environmental degradation for more than six decades, international leaders appear unwilling or unable to take decisive, collective action against major environmental issues such as rainforest deforestation, ocean degradation and continued prospecting, mining and burning of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) now predict that a decade of concerted international pro-environmental action is needed to halt the progress of catastrophic global warming and loss of biodiversity. It is time to accept that our political leaders cannot by themselves create the scale of change required to shift to sustainable ways of living, at the pace needed avoid the worst effects of global warming.


The scale of these transformations can seem daunting and beyond the influence of mere individual citizens. But transformational change can happen at scale and pace when people make millions of similar decisions en masse. Just look at how quickly the uptake of mobile and smart phones has changed our world over the last two decades (though not always for the better). This transformation goes beyond individual consumer choices or even who we choose to work for; and extends to the ethical causes and purposes we support. It means shifting our mindset from seeing transformation as something big and complex that happens to us, to accepting responsibility for the many smaller scale changes we make within our families, groups, clubs, neighbourhoods, teams and workplaces through human scale shift leadership. 

What are the qualities of ‘shift leadership’?

We often think of leaders as public figures, politicians or organisational executives – like Greta Thunberg, Angela Merkel, Gina Millar or Susan Wojcicki (Youtube CEO), but leaders also exist at every level of our workplaces and communities. Whist we cede power to people who lead organisations and groups whose aims we agree with – in the broadest sense, leaders are simply people that make a difference and leadership is something we share. The most dynamic organisations and communities recognise this and find ways to enable and empower people at every level, who get things done; people with passion, awareness and the will to make a real difference to the issues that concern our family, friends, colleagues, customers, students and fellow citizens. 

The literature on leadership is voluminous. But over and over again, writers and researchers refer to a handful of core qualities that define effective leadership. In my experience, the labels may vary but writers commonly refer to combinations of the following leadership qualities:

  • Vision, inspiration
  • Resolve, determination, grit, resilience
  • Ingenuity, creativity, innovation, adaptability 
  • Judgement, political astuteness, integrity, values, decision -making and learning skills
  • A service ethic, enabling, engaging and helping others step up and make a difference
  • Deep awareness of self, others and the wider econ-system.

This intimidating list of qualities make it understandable that change-makers commonly feel like ‘imposters’ as they step into new leadership roles. It’s almost impossible to live up to all these qualities, all of the time. That’s one reason why leadership is best shared. It takes many individuals to provide our communities, teams or organisations with this range of leadership qualities consistently over time. Following Peter Senge (author of The Necessary Revolution (2008) and the Fifth Discipline (1994), shift leadership can be defined as,

“The capacity of a human community to shape its future, to sustain significant change”.

This reflects a particular view of leadership – one that recognizes that leadership roles shift, depending on the change or innovation at hand and the people involved. Shift leadership is something we do together. It involves acknowledging, celebrating and amplifying success – helping local influencers mobilise others to achieve the things that matter. These ‘everyday’ shift leaders often take their skills and qualities for granted – and are just as likely to be quiet, humble and gentle as they are to be gregarious and confident. Sometimes it’s simply about being willing to step forward, take responsibility and get things done – and sometimes it’s being ready to follow and lend a hand to a cause or purpose we believe is the right thing to do.

Research also shows that the most effective shift leaders embody a number of (sometimes paradoxical) ways of being. For example, combining fierce resolve (drive, grit, faith) with humility, patience and profound listening; strong vision for a better future alongside deep empathy and willingness to engage with sometimes contradictory perspectives; political astuteness with magnanimity; and deep sensitivity to the fundamental needs of the local context combined with the patience to pick the right time or right point to move or intervene (Paterson, 2017).

What do ‘shift leaders’ do?

Whilst the list of qualities of effective shift leaders might seem daunting, it is reassuring to note that shift leadership is a collective effort. Shift leaders will undoubtedly work on themselves – developing a secure and clear sense of identity, as well as mental, emotional and physical resilience. However, the collective effort to make a positive difference draws upon the multiple skills and qualities of many individuals working towards a common cause. A fundamental act of ‘shift leadership’, therefore, is to identify the ‘common cause’ and marshal intent and collective action around it.

When workers in corporate companies are asked about the best leaders in their organisation, they commonly talk about two key behaviours. First, good leaders listen well, take a real interest in workers’ challenges and ask how they can help their subordinates do a better job. Second – and crucially – they actually do something to help. This simple but fundamental approach to ‘learning alongside’ people is shared by shift leaders, who recognise that it is more effective to tap into the interests and energies of individuals in order to amplify and direct them towards a common purpose, than it is to ‘boss people about’. I am indebted to my wonderful colleague Patrick Scott who, some years ago, described more eloquently than I have ever achieved, how ‘shift leaders’,

‘…build engagement and empower others. They do not have to be in control as long as the collective goals are being achieved. They know that the greatest skill is being able to build a coalition of the willing and persuade others that their best interest lies in committing voluntarily to the common good. They also enable and promote the leadership of others, thus distributing leadership more widely across the system, in the knowledge that this distributed capacity is required everywhere in order to pursue the variety of purposes and complex challenges at stake’. 

Shift leaders:

Catalyse common purpose, shared aims and goals.
Ask great questions that help others learn, achieve and grow.
Identify strengths and develop the capacity for shift leadership in others.
Model principled, ethical and moral practice.
Develop a wide platform of relationships and collaborators that support common aims…

In order to make a positive difference for society and the environment.

Learning to be a ‘shift leader’

There is no training course to become a ‘shift leader’, it is something best learned through experience, reflection and committed action. Although working alongside an experienced shift leader is a great way to learn, it’s helpful to see shift leadership as a ‘learning mindset’ that everyone can step into in the right circumstances. A simple, but important, first step on this learning journey is reflecting on how well we listen to people’s concerns and issues about making change happen, and really working on asking great questions that help them get to the heart of the problem and take responsibility for their own aspect of the solution. This should be an important early commitment to your self-development.

Beyond this, rather than seeking out training, College or University courses to support your development as a shift leader, you might seek out a variety of confidantes and mentors who can guide and support you at the point of need. This will help develop your self-awareness and the wide range of skills and qualities employed in effective shift leadership. For example:

  • Adopting an open, enquiring mind set and refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Establishing a compelling vision of the future that draws on as many different perspectives as possible. 
  • Great listening and great questioning that drive action.
  • Building relationships that; recognise the assets people can bring; acknowledge their needs and fears; whist encouraging constructive dissent over destructive consent.
  • Fostering connectivity between people, groups, organisations and neighbourhoods that inspires an emotional connection with innovation and transformation.
  • Trying things out to explore what works (and what doesn’t work) and embracing failure as a source of learning.
  • Accepting uncertainty and the possibility of multiple solutions.
  • Sharing knowledge and intelligence whilst spotting external drivers that create momentum.
  • Identifying and valuing experienced outsiders as a source of fresh thinking, whilst accepting that no-one in isolation has the single ‘correct’ solution.
  • Attending to your own wellbeing and sharing your own learning about the mental and emotional journey of shift leadership.

Whilst this list of skills might seem formidable, shift leadership is a profound commitment to genuinely collaborative action – best served lightly, with a joyful heart, optimistic perspective and spirit of fun. Finally, following the profound message of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the World’s greatest shift leaders; reflect on the degree to which you demonstrate the change you wish to see in the world. This doesn’t mean being perfect. But staying humble, being kind to yourself and remembering that authenticity and vulnerability are powerful tools to inspire and support others in their own learning journey through shift leadership.

For a fuller (more academic) treatment of this subject, please see my book chapter on ‘Leadership and the Low Carbon Economy’ at  


Crosby, B. C., & Bryson, J. M. (2005). A leadership framework for cross-sector collaboration. Public Management Review7(2), 177–201.

Draper, S. (2013). Creating the Big Shift: System innovation for sustainability. Forum for the Future. 

Hutchins, G. (2014). The Illusion of Separation: Exploring the Causes of Our Current Crisis. Floris Books.

Paterson, F. (2017). Leadership and the Low Carbon Economy. In F. Baranova, P., Conway, E., Lynch, N., Paterson (Ed.), The Low Carbon Economy: Understanding and Supporting a Sustainable Transition. (pp. pp167-199). Palgrave Macmillan. 

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation.

Senge, P., Smith, B., Kruschwitz, N., Laur, J., & Schley, S. (2008). The Necessary Revolution. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.