Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Voluntarism and unselfish leadership

Voluntarism and unselfish leadership

Greta Thunberg’s personal choices have bolstered her credibility as she calls on people around the world to pressure their governments to act in the face of a global climate crisis. The eighteen-year-old Swedish activist who launched a school strike movement in 2018 aimed at forcing action on climate change swore off air travel in 2015, embraced veganism, and has avoided buying clothes, preferring to swap or shop secondhand.

For Krister Andersson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Thunberg is a prime example of how "unselfish leadership" can make a profound difference, especially on climate change, where there are no strong institutions to manage the crisis. "Because of her actions and lifestyle choices, Thunberg has been able to rally people," Andersson says. "Once institutions are in place, it's institutions that act. But in the lead-up to the creation of institutions, unselfish leadership can make all the difference."

A new paper by Andersson and co-authors Kimberlee Chang and Adriana Molina-Garzón, both doctoral candidates at the University of Colorado Boulder, examines the origins of local institutions that are indispensable to the sustainable management of shared natural resources (Krister P. Andersson, Kimberlee Chang, and Adriana Molina-Garzón, "Voluntary Leadership and the Emergence of Institutions for Self-Governance,” PNAS, vol. 117, no. 44, 2020, pp. 27292-27299). Nearly a decade ago, Andersson was at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an independent research institute in Austria with an interdisciplinary approach to global problems. There, with support from the National Science Foundation, he struck up a transnational collaboration focuse on the emergence of local institutions for self-governance. An advisee of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics, Andersson was trained in the tradition of Ostrom's groundbreaking work on the ways that local communities form collective institutions for the stewardship of shared resources without state intervention or market mechanisms to guide them.

"This new field of research showed how local institutions really matter and can turn things around in a dramatic way, where the tragedy of the commons is no longer inevitable," Andersson says. "But what isn't addressed is where do these local institutions come from? Why do they sometimes emerge, and why do they often not emerge at all?"           

Andersson, Chang, and Molina-Garzón designed a laboratory-in-the-field experiment, recruiting a hundred and twenty-eight local forest users from eight villages in Bolivia and Uganda to test a series of propositions about how leadership causes or drives the emergence of new governance institutions. "In our fieldwork and in our work with NGOs, we noticed that leaders were decisive for communities to gain access to resource rights," Chang says. The importance of leadership seemed clear, but Chang and her co-authors wanted to develop a theoretical foundation for their ideas, exploring forest governance in particular.

The authors had participants play a game involving trees — a common pool resource in their communities — and observed them making decisions about how many trees to harvest. These individual decisions determined monetary payoffs and how many trees were left in the forest for the group. In each round of the simulation, participants were given time for discussion during which they considered rules to govern their decisions. The authors found that individuals who demonstrated unselfish behavior facilitated group consensus and shared understandings about how to create new rules and enforce them. These unselfish individuals transformed group dynamics to encourage collective action and agreement on a set of rules that limited individual freedoms.

The literature on leadership in environmental governance remains under-theorized, Andersson says. He and his co-authors borrowed from other literatures to develop their ideas but noticed a tendency to conflate leaders with leadership, with many scholars emphasizing personal traits such as charisma or altruism.

"In our study, we found that leadership actions are more important than the individual qualities of leaders," Andersson says. "And leadership actions can come from just about anyone in the group who has shown self-sacrifice." While the authors measure leadership in terms of actions, not inherent qualities, their statistical analysis controls for personal characteristics such as age, gender, education, and wealth.

"Their evidence suggests that unselfish, voluntary leadership actions can help reduce many of the uncertainties that plague social dilemmas and facilitate the creation of local governance responses to such dilemmas," Michael Cox, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, says. "Their finding that unselfish leadership is most influential at initiating self-governance institutions when uncertainties are high has profound implications for both the theory and practice of common-pool resource governance."

Daniela Blei (@tothelastpage) is an historian, writer, and editor of scholarly books. Her writing can be seen at