Flying the helicopter with a football team of turtles — World Bank climate change chief on leadership

World Bank Senior Director for Climate Change John Roome has a metaphorically rich philosophy of leadership.

As the bank’s climate change chief, Roome doesn’t have the luxury to wait for change to happen on its own. His job is to get the World Bank, policymakers and the development community to see that we’re all sitting on a platform that’s on fire and in need of quick repairs. What does leadership look like under that kind of pressure?

Speaking during last week’s Global Leadership Forum at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Roome drew on his experiences at the nexus of development and climate change and laid out a recipe for effective leadership and changemaking.

His ingredients are unconventional: a helicopter, a diamond, a football team of turtles. Here are six elements of leadership Roome applies to his work at the world’s largest development finance institution.

1. Understanding a burning platform.

John Roome, senior director for climate change at the World Bank.

For Roome, effective leaders and change-makers are able to put a problem on everyone’s radar. That problem can be illustrated metaphorically as a platform that’s on fire. The platform is supporting a variety of stakeholders, its “5,000 feet above the earth,” and it’s burning.

“If we want people to change, everybody on that platform needs to understand, the platform is indeed on fire and there is a need to take the bold action to do something different,” Roome said, adding that the Paris climate agreement is one example of widespread acknowledgement of a global problem and the need for action.

Roome underscored that leaders need to recognize that not everyone has the same interests, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find common ground.

“You can’t go and talk to [a minister of finance] about [carbon dioxide] concentrations and all of these kinds of obscurities, but if it’s very clear that climate change is going to hit their budget every second year when there’s a flood that comes through, you talk to them where they are,” Roome said.

2. Painting a new platform.

Good leaders can articulate solutions and a vision for the future, according to Roome.

“You can’t drive change by fear alone,” the bank official said. “You can’t just tell them you’re sitting on something, you’re all going to die, doom and gloom. You’ve got to create a sense of where [you are] going.”

Roome said the Paris climate agreement achieved this somewhat, by envisioning “a 2 degrees [Celsius] world, hopefully a 1.5 degree world,” but said there is room to be more specific, to “flesh out what that end-game is.”

3. Action to build confidence.

Crossing a barrier, achieving something — however small — can build confidence and momentum for even greater achievements, according to Roome.

As a leader, “what you need to do is to spell out the first, two or three steps and focus on steps that build confidence,” Roome said, adding that those steps may not be the most important, but that by building confidence, they set individuals up for “the next boldest step.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Roome said.

4. Flying the helicopter.

Leaders have to lead from above, at the “10,000-foot level,” taking a strategic view and maintaining perspective, but leaders also have to lead at the “500-foot level,” engaging on the details of implementation, the bank’s climate change chief said.

“To me success is 10 percent strategy, 90 percent implementation, and if you want to provide strong leadership, you have to be able to fly that helicopter [at] 10,000 feet with a strategic vision, but … you’re not going to be credible unless you can show you’re dealing with the implementation,” Roome said. Flying at those lower levels, leaders must be careful not to “get caught in the weeds,” Roome said, before returning again to the 10,000-foot level.

“You need to fly this helicopter up and down.”

5. Managing a diamond.

Leadership can be thought of as a diamond, according to Roome, with one axis of the diamond composed of “strategy,” “structure,” and “the physical way we build the teams,” and the other axis composed of “values” and “behaviors.”

Effective leadership and team building takes both axes into account, Roome said.

6. A football team of a bunch of turtles.

Leaders have to recognize that they need a team to accomplish their goals, Roome said. This team, however, can’t be a “4 by 100 meter relay team,” but rather a “football team,” or what Americans would refer to as a soccer team.

“Everybody has a different contribution. … [There are] some members of the team that can drive implementation, there are some members of the team that can listen very well, there are some people that can build strong coalitions,” Roome said, adding that leadership is not just about finding the superstars, but about finding ways to make the team work well together.

Roome explained that according to ancient Greek philosophers, the god Atlas holds the world on his shoulder, but Atlas is standing on a turtle, and that turtle is standing on another turtle, and as the philosophers concluded, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

For Roome, an effective team is made up of turtles, all relying on one-another to get things done.

What do you think makes for effective global development leadership in the face of humanity’s most daunting challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.