Parallel to being the CEO and founder of Altitude Meetings, I am also the chairwoman at Barnfonden – a part of Childfund Alliance. Barnfonden is working to secure the future for children in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the climate effects are severe. Here, the working day in the fields starts at 4 in the morning, and ends already at 10, due to the heat. After that, being outdoors can pose a deadly risk. Some children are even pulled out of school and forced into marriage or harmful labour in order to let the other family members survive. It’s an unimaginable situation.
But as you know, the effects of climate change are starting to show closer to us as well. The flooding in Italy is the worst in centuries – and it happens after the driest and warmest April ever measured in Italy and Spain. Asia has just had the region’s highest temperatures, and Canada is experiencing wildfires as we speak. Last New Year, some villages in the Alps had temperatures reaching up to plus 20 degrees. The snow was nowhere to be seen. Everything we have taken for granted could soon be just a memory. The IPCC-reports keep repeating that we have to act now, if the consequences aren’t to be disastrous. But somehow, we still seem to have difficulty grasping the situation.
And if this wasn’t enough, there is a terrible war going on in Europe. And all over the world, millions of people are forced to flee their homes. Not only from war and conflicts, but due to the climate changes. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the news about the war filled both our media and our discussions with friends, families and coworkers. More than a year later, we often choose to talk about other things. Now, it is all about us – how inflation and energy prices are hurting us and our way of living. Even though it is increasingly hard for many people, you could argue that this is a small price to pay when people are dying, millions are fleeing and families are scattered.
Democracy is in deep decline. Today, only 13 percent of the world’s population live in liberal democracies. Human rights are under attack and polarization increases fast. We suddenly have to face a world where facts and science are ignored. Where we don’t listen to each other. Where we don’t respect each other.
We know that both the democracy crisis and the climate crisis demands action and we often say that ”people need to act”. But who are these people? It is, of course, you and me. It is everyone.
We started Altitude Meetings eight years ago with the ambition to form a truly value-driven company. Today we are 15 colleagues working together towards our common goal: to be part of the solutions to our times’ most pressing challenges: the climate changes and the declining democracy-trend in the world.
Through different kinds of well-designed meetings, we want to create knowledge, insights, new business models, new collaboration partners, new innovations, new business and of course new solutions.
We don’t do things to ”be good” – we do it to build a whole society. Because – without a whole society, no one will succeed economically. And if the planet becomes unlivable due to climate changes or if society implodes due to inequality and polarization, then none of us will survive – in any way. It’s as simple as that.
Being value-driven, and using our meetings-creates-solutions-strategy, has made our company both prosper and survive challenges, like the pandemic. It’s not a coincidence and I have some learnings that I would like to share with you.
I believe that value driven organizations are better fitted to solve crises and unexpected events than organizations that only focus on growth and profit. If you work within a value driven organization that has a clear goal, you will not be shortsighted and change direction just because there is a bump in the road. Instead you will meet challenges by rethinking solutions and finding new ways to work towards your goal. You will come up with new collaborations, and new possibilities, because you know what your goal is.
The opposite happens if you’re not sure where you are heading – or why – or if you haven’t made your core values clear. Then the bump in the road will create uncertainty and make you change direction.
We see this in everyday politics. Sweden has, as many other countries, signed the Paris-agreement. The goal is to halve the emissions until 2030. But during the pandemic 70 percent of all financial support to Swedish industries and companies went to stakeholders that in one way or another enhanced the climate crises. Yes, of course it’s counter productive. And yes, it is the result you will get when you are not truly value driven, or when you haven’t made your goals clear.
So, value driven organizations are more robust, faster and create more value. They are also winners when it comes to attracting the most talented young people around the world. But these kinds of organizations can not exist without brave leaders.
So what is brave leadership? Brave leadership is all about taking risks and standing up for what you believe in. Even in times of insecurity, even in times of great challenges, and even in times where you are being questioned. To be a brave leader you also have to dare to be vulnerable. Vulnerable leaders understand and accept your limitations – and know that no man or woman is an island. No one can solve the huge challenges that lie ahead by themself.
I have often been called an activist. Initially I was a bit offended, and sometimes it made me sad. I really just wanted to make things better – at least from my point of view. I kept questioning things in order to find the optimal solution to whatever problem I faced. But as a result, people called me angry and sometimes seemed to find me irritating.
Now, think about the word activism. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Protesters with signs? People gluing themselves to the highway? During the last 150 years, different sorts of activism have played a huge role in forming our societies – the labor movement, the human rights movement, the suffragettes, the women’s liberation and so on. People like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Greta have had an immense impact. Historically, activism has focused on issues concerning human rights or the environment around us. And while most people don’t regard themselves as activists, they often have acted in an activist way. And I’m sure that you have done this too. You have all signed protest lists. You have made choices about what to buy based on your ideas and values. You have surely even boycotted brands.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, a lot of us acted. We demanded companies to stop producing in Russia or buying from Russia. We looked for Ukraine companies or brands to support. Many of us changed our profile pictures on social media and supported Ukraine with money or gifts for refugees – as did many companies and organizations, by making conscious choices and being transparent about the reasons behind those choices. This is, of course, activism.
But when speaking about activists, many people just see the anger. They see these upset persons that glue themselves to the highway or destroy art to get attention to their cause. I’m here today to propose a broadening of the field of activism. I would like to introduce the happy activist.
The happy activist is a person who knows that we need to act, and does something about it. Yes, you can still be angry about how things are in the world, and yes, we need to keep on protesting and questioning things, but the happy activist knows that we also have to find ways forward, to find collaboration to be able to find solutions to our challenges. The happy activist can complain about things, sure – we are all human – but spends most of her time finding new ways to reach the goal, with the help of the values that are guiding her.
As a happy activist you will, in most cases, not find the solutions yourself. But just by questioning the matter, ideas start to move in your own head and in others. And if you are truly vulnerable and open to others to come up with solutions, then it will probably lead you closer to new ways of handling the challenge you’re facing.
The idea of the happy activist is closely linked to innovation, new business models, new co-operations and new business. It is a model for business that will bring you closer to your goals, and let you find new sources of income on the way. It is also a model that makes it possible for small companies to make a difference that really matters.
The first step that anyone can take, every day, is to use your voice. When you are in meetings, when you are taking part in discussions – use your voice and stay true to your values. Also use your ears. Listen closely and try to find new ideas and solutions.
In my line of work, I often encounter customers who want to book flight tickets for their speakers. We all know this is bad and that going by train is a better alternative. As an activist for the climate, I raise my voice during these meetings and suggest that the speakers take the train. But – and here’s the important thing – to be able to fulfill that goal, which is in line with my values and my ideas, I also have to come up with a solution. And the solution – that will make taking the train worthwhile for someone who is used to flying – might be a personally designed program to take part in during the train ride. Now, I have used my voice, but I have also used my ears and come up with a solution that makes it possible for me to get closer to my goals. And for my customer.
One of my most dear goals is to reduce meat consumption. I always inform my customers that I am not taking a stand against their meat consumption in general, but that we know that if everyone in the world stops eating meat ONCE a day, it will make a fundamental change to the climate. So why not skip the meat at our place? We have great alternatives.
If you pair your questioning with solutions, you will find yourself being able to change most people’s minds (if the solutions are good enough). I question panels and boards on a daily basis. Why are there only men/certain age/certain background in this panel/board? Where are the youth’s opinions on the matter? The minorities? If you are discussing problems that concern certain people – why are they not in the meeting? What would happen if they were? You probably would get closer to that potential customer or client and thus offer better services or products (and there’s the solution that will change people’s minds). So: use your voice and pair your beliefs with solutions.
Acting as a happy activist can also be about creating own initiatives. At Altitude Meetings we have, among other things, created initiatives like Näringslivsupprop, Nätverket HANI, Human Rights Festival, Push Summit, Klimat för dummies, The Bridge Talks, The Bridge Interviews and several summits as direct responses to needs that we have identified.
To act and create is not that hard if you use your whole organization. If you gather everyone, using brave leadership and being vulnerable, you will create an organization that dares to question things that need to be questioned – but you will also find yourself with a team that comes up with crazy ideas and a team that is ready to innovate and cooperate to reach further. And that’s when you really make a difference.
The goal should be to create an organization where colleagues feel safe and can express their thoughts, ideas, and solutions – without being ridiculed or criticized. You should embrace and encourage everyone’s ideas. If you succeed with this, you will find that this culture will spread outside the organization as well. Those who dare speak their minds in the office, will do so outside the office as well. They will most probably get the courage to stand up for their beliefs.
I spoke about vulnerability before. We live in times of turbulence and insecurity. Sometimes it feels like nothing you have known or done before is working anymore. We are dealing with war, climate crises, and insecurity about AI development, as well as new business models and a value driven youth generation that will shape tomorrow’s work places. I think we need to understand that NO ONE has all the answers – and no one will be able to solve the challenges by themself. We need each other.
Now, here’s the thing: by realizing that you are vulnerable and that you need others – a whole world of opportunities opens up. It also creates a more agile and curious organization – always on the quest to find new partners, alliances and collaborations, both within and outside your organization. This insight changes you. You never know who has the answer to a solution. It could be someone within the public sphere or within the private sphere. It could be someone from academia, or the NGO:s, or from the culture sector. It could be someone old or someone young. It could be someone with a different background and experiences. To treat everyone equally and with the same respect, will make it possible for you to access and combine ideas – and that’s what will eventually lead to the solutions that will save the world.
If you want someone to act, you can ask them to visualize the future of their kids and grandchildren. The tricky thing is that we – as humans – tend to postpone things, because we don’t like change. If solving the future means changing your life and everything you know, you will wait and hope that someone else will do the work. We are afraid that the change might lead to something worse. But it’s easy to see that this is often not true. If we are less polarized, we get a happier society. If we drive less cars, the air will become better for us to breathe. If we eat less meat and replace it with better food, we will be healthier. So why wait?
As a business leader, my advice to you is this:
Be clear with your goals and keep track of your core values – these are your ethical guidelines. Stay true to them.
Be brave and dare to be vulnerable. The alternative is to be a coward and to walk around in armor to protect yourself.
Create inclusive and transparent collaborations- both internally and externally.
Listen – and listen closely. You never know when your own competence or other people’s knowledge will be needed.
And start now!
Don’t be an Exxon, knowing and understanding what happens around you, without acting. It’s not only disrespectful towards our future children and grandchildren, it is also a missed opportunity to make business or to create new research and innovations. And it is a missed chance to make our everyday life better. Because this is not only about the future – it is about today.
I mentioned earlier that everything we have taken for granted could soon be just a memory. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s be the people who made a change. Let’s be the people who understand that if we don’t act, there won’t be any change at all.
Yasemin Arhan Modéer