This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.


A plaque on the wall at Wal-Mart headquarters carries a quote attributed to Sam Walton. It says:

Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.
We don’t want continuous improvement,
we want radical change.

That plaque should be mounted on the door of every caucus room and voting place in America on Tuesday, because it gives the key to electing the next president of the United States.

supermanIf the most popular word of the 2008 presidential campaign is “change,” then let’s take a moment to think about what “change” means. For the sake of discussion, let’s categorize change into two types: transactional and transformational.

Transactional change might be a new tax credit, a new regulation, a new policy that alters the way we transact business. When the candidates get into specific proposals about energy and climate policy, for example, they generally are describing transactional change. In that department, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have issued detailed energy and climate platforms. They far outclass John McCain and Mitt Romney, who have not.

Transformational change is something altogether different. As Wikipedia explains:

James MacGregor Burns (1978) first introduced the concepts of transformational and transactional leadership in his treatment of political leadership … According to Burns, the difference between transformational and transactional leadership is what leaders and followers offer one another. “Transforming leadership … occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused. Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose. Various names are used for such leadership, some of them derisory: elevating, mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, uplifting, preaching, exhorting, evangelizing.

The relationship can be moralistic, of course. But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.” Transformational leaders offer a purpose that transcends short-term goals and focuses on higher order intrinsic needs. This results in followers identifying with the needs of the leader. The four dimensions of transformational leadership are idealized influence (or charisma), inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individual consideration.

Transactional and transformational change both are important in regard to climate and energy policy, and both are urgently needed. Climate and energy are the conjoined twins of crisis, the two most important national security issues of our time. As Bill Clinton has said, “There has never been a nation destroyed by terrorism alone and it’s not about to start now. But I think this climate change has the capacity to change the way all of us live on earth.”

At the transactional level, we need new technologies, new policies to spawn and deploy them, and fundamental changes in the type of energy we use and where we get it. But we also need to transform our understanding and behaviors in regard to the “higher order” issues of how we think about the human place in the biosphere, our responsibility to and interdependence with the atmospheric commons and with other species, and our obligation to one another, including not only future Americans but also the billions of people living today in other parts of the world who are stuck hopelessly at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Part of the transformation we Americans must undergo is to understand intrinsically that despite our prosperity and geographic isolation, our security is connected to the well-being of all other people in all other places. Raphael Salas, the late Filipino diplomat who headed the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, once predicted that the most powerful force in future world affairs would be not the nuclear bomb, but the “aspiration bomb” — the unfulfilled aspirations of billions of the world’s people. That seems to have become the case as nations like China and India attempt to fulfill the aspirations of their people by racing down the same carbon-intensive path the developed world traveled. The aspiration bomb is producing a climate bomb.

The urgent need for both types of change means we must look for the candidates who can not only transact the nation’s business but transform it, a person with sufficient charisma, intellect, and moral compass to motivate, inspire, and unify us so that we break through to new policies and priorities, and to a new level of ethics, a new behavior, a new definition of progress and prosperity, and a new vision for the national and global economies. We need someone who will get us excited about this journey and infused with the necessary energy and urgency.

The alternative is more suffering. Even here in the United States, where we have more ability to cope, we see suffering today consistent with the predicted consequences of peak oil and global warming, from the people who can no longer afford gasoline to the victims of Katrina to the wealthy families in southern California whose homes have burned to the ground.

Some suffering is unavoidable because we have been unwilling for so long to admit the liabilities of fossil fuels and climate change. The question now is much more suffering we will bring upon ourselves. We would to well to select leaders from this point forward who guide us to that sweet spot between hopelessness and happy talk — that place at which we fully grasp the gravity of our challenges but still believe we can solve them.

There is a great deal of conversation in the presidential campaign right now about who is qualified to lead America from his or her first day in the White House. That is an important question. But what kind of leadership do we need on that first day and what are its qualifications? What’s needed is not a long resume and insider knowledge about how things work in Washington. Experience in financial management or national security are not enough, either. With 9,000 appointments at his or her disposal, a president can assemble all the expertise needed to transact the government’s business.

This time, we must look for the candidates with the genius for transformative leadership. That talent is not necessarily born of experience. Who, we should ask as we caucus and vote, has the right stuff for this very important moment in history?

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.