Published: Oct. 15, 2020 By

Voluntary leaders show a way out of the policy paradox surrounding issues like climate change, new CU Boulder study finds

When it comes to dealing with environmental problems, early actions from leaders really do matter, according to new research from a team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

The study, out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the role that voluntary leaders (or those who become leaders because they want to help) play in local communities, and found that when they step forward and act unselfishly, they are more likely to mobilize support for environmental management from other members in their communities.

Krister Andersson

At the top of the page: Communities in Uganda playing a game which mimics the tragedy-of-the-commons scenario. Photo by Michal Pajak. Above: Krister Andersson

These findings, the researchers argue, not only answer the question of why local communities are so successful in governing their resources, but also demonstrates how unselfish leadership can help address a policy paradox that plagues institutions across the globe: how do you confront a creeping issue before it becomes a crisis?

“Our societies often fail to prioritize environmental protection, and we often do not take action until we find ourselves in the middle of an environmental crisis with fewer affordable policy options that can actually fix the problem,” said Krister Andersson, a professor of political science at CU Boulder and the lead author on the paper. 

“We see a similar pattern for how we respond to other threats, like COVID, or things that we as a society haven’t really developed rule systems or policies for, you need to be able to mobilize broad societal support for what the response should be.”

“The question, then, is what can leaders do to mobilize citizens to support effective measures?” Andersson continued. “We argue in the paper that at those early stages of trying to come up with effective responses to creeping problems … that unselfish leadership actions can make a difference for actually galvanizing and mobilizing people around specific policy responses.” 

Most researchers who study natural resource management agree that local communities are critical to the governance of shared resources, whether they be forests, ground water or fisheries. There’s less consensus, though, on why some local communities create very effective rule systems while many others do not. 

Environmental policy scholars often say local leadership can help community members, or resource users, self-organize, but researchers don’t know much about how particular leadership actions and strategies help users develop effective self-government. 

So, the researchers decided, why not look at these local leaders?

In particular, they looked at the role that voluntary leadership actions—the actions of those who take up the mantle of leadership even if they may not have been elected or put in a position of power—plays in these communities.

To observe leadership in action, the researchers created a game that mimics the tragedy-of-the-commons scenario. During the game, the researchers documented the participants’ behavior, including how much each participant harvested from the shared resource, who took the initiative to propose rules and strategies for the rest of the group, how much participants communicated with one another, and whether they ended up agreeing on any common rules. 

Analyzing these data, the team examined voluntary leadership actions in shared resource situations where there are no imposed rules but there is pressure to earn income. The researchers didn’t appoint a leader but let the users make their own decisions and keep tabs on each other.

The field assistants watched to see if anyone in the groups volunteered to be a leader and, if they did, whether that made a difference for agreeing on a common set of rules.

Perhaps unselfish leadership actions by informal leaders can provide a way out by mobilizing citizens to push for early action, before the problem has turned into a crisis.​"

What they found is that, yes, it absolutely did, particularly when they led by example, making unselfish decisions on behalf of the community. In particular, this positive leadership effect was strongest when the shared resource was in a subtle decline, not when the resource was disappearing quickly or in real crisis. 

“We saw that when leaders behaved unselfishly as a response to the small, gradual decline in resources—when they make unselfish, harvesting decisions and propose a course of action for the group—then what we see in the next few rounds is much stronger agreement in the group around self-regulation, that many more group members are on board to self-regulate,” said Andersson, who is also the director of the Center for the Governance of Natural Resources at the Institute of Behavioral Science.

Although these findings pertain to shared natural resources, the results also have implications for many slow, creeping crises, such as climate change, where formal leaders, whether they be in governments or companies, may not be motivated to act and pass policies until it’s too late, the researchers say.

“By the time the crisis or a catastrophe hits and politicians are motivated to do something, we’re basically just responding, putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms. We’re not really dealing with the cause of those catastrophes,” said Andersson.

“This research provides a possible exit sign out of the policy paradox. Perhaps unselfish leadership actions by informal leaders can provide a way out by mobilizing citizens to push for early action, before the problem has turned into a crisis.”

The other authors on the paper are Kimberlee Chang and Adriana Molina-Garzón, both CU Boulder graduate students.