Climate Change: Addressing the Challenge with Appreciative Inquiry, Ubuntu, and Ukhama

1 Sep 2020 9:22 AM | Sarah Elkington (Administrator)

There was a time when people doubted the science of climate change. Few still doubt the veracity and volume of the data that supports the reality that our world is under threat because of vast systemic instability due to a rapidly changing climate.

As science and daily catastrophes continually drive home the precarious moment in history in which we find ourselves, the rising panic and anger are understandable.

The question that continues to reverberate around the world is: “Can something be done, and if so, what, and by whom?” Put simply, “who will lead us out of this emerging cataclysmic crisis?” I believe there are several mechanisms that leaders can look to as useful tools to address the Wicked problem of climate change (Grint, 2005). Exceptional leadership using design thinking is one mechanism. We have written a book that shows leaders how to use design thinking to lead well. Leadership by design is one powerful mechanism to effect organizational change to support a healthy planet (Elkington, van der Steege, Glick Smith, Moss Breen, 2017).

This article, though, focusses on Appreciative Inquiry as another mechanism for positive change in the face of climate change and draws on previous work my colleagues and I developed and published (Elkington, 2015; Elkington & Booysen, 2015; Elkington, Pearse, Moss, Van der Steege, & Martin, 2017;  Elkington & Upward, 2016). I also draw on a soon to be published article (Elkington, 2019) that discusses Ubuntu, and Ukhama, as ancient wisdom that provides a systemic and humane framework through which to engage the world (ecosophy) and each other.

This article suggests that the use of Appreciative Inquiry (Hirunwat, 2011; Meyer, 2015) is a valuable change method. The article also indicates that the lens of Ubuntu and Ukhama as a worldview, provide cornerstone support for leaders to effect necessary change to address the global climate crisis.

Ubuntu, Ukhama, and Ecosophy as a Different Worldview for Leaders Trapped in Integrated World Capitalism

Ubuntu is a Southern African word that means: “I am a person by virtue of other persons.” Ubuntu implies that when you win, I win, and when you hurt, I hurt.

Within the ancient wisdom of African thinking, there is a communal understanding that we are interconnected.  My actions impact your life and livelihood, just as your actions impact my life and livelihood. Ukhama is a concept that takes Ubuntu one step further and suggests that not only are we interconnected as people but we are also connected in the sense that “human interrelationship within society is a microcosm of the relationality within the universe” (Le Grange, 2012). It therefore corresponds that when we mistreat each other we hurt ourselves. When we harm our planet, we hurt one another, and by hurting others, we ultimately hurt ourselves.  How might we change this harmful practice? I suggest one possible method or approach for leaders to effect this type of change exists in the form of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperider & Whitney, 2010) as outlined in the next section. 

Appreciative Inquiry as a Change Mechanism for Leaders in the Face of Climate Change

              Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was first developed by David Cooperider (Cooperider & Whitney, 2005). AI suggests that change initiatives might be framed with a positive lens using the “4D Cycle” (Cooperider & Whitney, 2005). We briefly outline in the next section how this 4D cycle, illustrated in Diagram 1 below, might be deployed by leaders to address the current climate change crisis.

Diagram 1: The AI Process for Leading Positive Change

The Appreciative Inquiry approach to change inspires hope in the face of the very challenging and demanding reality of the ubiquity and permeation of climate change into every dimension of our lives. As one person stated on a recent CBC radio show discussing climate change: “Give me three things that I can do today to make a difference to climate change. Three things that are realistic that I can do at the moment that will make a difference.”

The gnawing fear that climate change presents to all of us is that our world has been designed to support Integrated World Capitalism (Le Grange, 2012). As such, everything we do contributes to the demise of our planet, and thus to the demise of each other! Appreciative Inquiry provides a mechanism for widespread systemic change in organizations in a way that empowers leaders and people, in a sense, “to do three things each day that makes a difference!”

Applying Appreciative Inquiry from an Ubuntu/Ukhama Ecosophic Worldview

            You are a leader in your organization. You want to make a difference, and you want to address the climate change challenge now before you. Here is how you might embark on that journey:


  1. Frame the Generative Question: This is the hardest aspect of the process because you need to work together with a skilled group of people within your organization to frame and refine the generative question. For instance, instead of: “How do we stop manufacturing products that are harmful to the environment?” we frame the generative question as “What manufacturing processes can we implement that support a healthy environment?”
  2. Discovery: In this phase, the leadership works with everyone in the organization to share their stories of best practices either through interviews or group sharing sessions. Here the request becomes: “Please share your stories about some of the great products we have manufactured in the shortest time with the least environmental footprint?” 
  3. Design: In line with our values as an organization, let’s create the processes and roles that will support our vision as articulated in the “Discovery” phase.
  4. Destiny: We commit to live the purpose and principals articulated in our “Discovery” phase. We develop mechanisms to help us monitor our progress and realign our teams and processes when we get off track. 

Conclusion: We Can Address The Challenge Before Us With a Systems Worldview and a Positive and Generative Approach and When We Use the Right Tools to Mobilize People

              We need to take the time to change our mindset and then our organizations. We need to change our organizations first by changing our worldview, and then by using a mechanism of hope, Appreciative Inquiry. Let me know your thoughts and how you feel we might address this Wicked problem?

 Rob Elkington Ph.D. 


Cooperrider, D. & Whitney, D. D., 2005. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco, CA. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Elkington. R., van der Steege. M., Glick-Smith, J., Moss-Breen, J., (2018). Exceptional Leadership by Design: Designing Organizational Contexts for Great Leadership. Emerald Publications, Bingley: United Kingdom.

Elkington, R. (2015). Creative Leadership Requires Creative Leadership Development in a “Vu Jádè” World! Journal of Leadership Studies, 9(3), 69–71.

Elkington, Rob, & Booysen, L. (2015). Innovative Leadership as Enabling Function Within Organizations: A Complex Adaptive System Approach. Journal of Leadership Studies, 9(3), 78–80.

Elkington, Rob, Pearse, N. J., Moss, J., Van der Steege, M., & Martin, S. (2017). Global leaders’ perceptions of elements required for effective leadership development in the twenty-first century. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 38(8), 1038–1056.

Elkington, Rob, & Upward, A. (2016). Leadership as Enabling Function for Flourishing by Design. Journal of Global Responsibility, 7, 1–21.

Grint, K. (2005). Problems, problems, problems: The social construction of ‘leadership.’ Human Relations, 58(11), 1467–1494.

Hirunwat, P. (2011). Appreciative inquiry based organization development intervention process on satisfaction and engagement of senior patients and sustainability of Sukavet Institution: A case study of nursing home. Revista de Cercetare Si Interventie Sociala, 33(1), 56–71.

Le Grange, L. (2012). Ubuntu, Ukama and the Healing of Nature, Self and Society. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(SUPPL.2), 56–67.

Meyer, M. (2015). Positive business: Doing good and doing well. Business Ethics, 24(S2), S175–S197.


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