The Collective Leadership Approach to Negotiating Climate Action

By — on / Teaching Negotiation

Christiana Figueres

Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres received the Program on Negotiation’s 2022 Great Negotiator Award.

On April 14, 2022, the Program on Negotiation (PON) presented its Great Negotiator Award to Christiana Figueres, formerly the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. As part of the award ceremony events, Figueres sat down with PON professors Jim Sebenius and Hannah Riley Bowles for a public interview where she discussed how her unique approach to collective leadership and momentum-building lead to the Paris Agreement being unanimously adopted by the 196 participating nations. Check out the video of the public interview below:

In being a “student of mindfulness,” as Harvard University President Larry Bacow describes in his opening, Christiana Figueres was able to trade “us versus them” for “we,” and bring diverse stakeholders together to face climate crisis. In the interview, Figueres discussed how she personally had to undergo a transformation to let go of her identity as a Costa Rican diplomat so she could approach the negotiations from a global perspective and meet each participating nation from their position. The negotiation process itself was not just the two-week conference in Paris, but was a years-long series of actions taken by Figueres and others to help enhance the probability of a successful outcome at the negotiating table. These actions included things like discussions with private industry groups, repeated talks with the Saudi government, and Operation Groundswell, in which a small team of strategic influencers worked with partners behind the scenes to build support for an ambitious outcome.

Figueres identified that a collective leadership approach was key to getting the Parties to an agreement. She said “it is about understanding that, yes, in the United Nations, one country, one voice, always. But it is much better if you have many voices together…. It is important truly to understand that collective leadership doesn’t mean individual irresponsibility,” she continued, “collective leadership means we all lead, we all co-lead, we all contribute, we all work.” By bringing different coalitions of countries and non-state actors together to lead the way, a more expansive agreement became possible.

Students of negotiation have a lot to learn from this approach to global agreement through collective leadership and momentum building. Figueres provides key insights into the meticulous and conscientious process building momentum for a global agreement can be. While a case study and teaching video for our 2022 Great Negotiator are still in production, please check out the other Great Negotiator Case Studies from the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC).


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