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The power of leading by example with high-impact low-carbon behaviour: emulation, trust, credibility, justice

Westlake, Steve 2022. The power of leading by example with high-impact low-carbon behaviour: emulation, trust, credibility, justice. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Leadership is said to be essential for addressing the climate crisis. Nations make claims of “leading by example” when they set climate targets and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But leading by example is rarely discussed or researched at an individual level, despite established knowledge about leader influence and the need for society-wide behaviour change. This thesis enters the gap. It presents mixed methods research exploring the effects of leaders who adopt visible high-impact low-carbon behaviour: flying less, eating less meat, improving home energy efficiency, living car-free, or choosing to have fewer children. The leaders in question are high-profile figures who advocate for climate action, specifically politicians, celebrities, and business leaders. Four focus groups reveal a complex process of meaning-making when the public observes low-carbon action from leaders. Interviews (n=19) with UK Members of Parliament (MPs) show their caution about acting as environmental role models. A representative survey experiment (n=1,267) finds significant effects of leading by example, with members of the public expressing more willingness to adopt high-impact low-carbon behaviour if they observe a leader doing so. And a survey of people who stopped flying for a year (n=344) reveals how the behaviour of leaders had influenced them. The evidence suggests leaders who lead by example enjoy much greater approval and are considered more credible leaders. They are perceived as more trustworthy, ethical, likeable; and as caring more about climate change, believing it’s more serious, and being more knowledgeable about it. Leading by example is shown to be a collective act, not an individual one, because of its influence on peoples’ attitudes and behaviours in relation to climate change. There are many layers of complexity. The conditions under which leading by example inspires others to act are contingent on the specifics of the situation and the relationship between leaders and the public. The exploratory investigations in this thesis lay the ground for a broad spectrum of further research on the nature of climate leadership and the power of walking the talk.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Psychology
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 26 May 2023
Last Modified: 26 May 2023 09:05

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