SCARFING to Sustainable Leadership

SCARFING to Sustainable Leadership


Estimated read time: 8 minutes


We need to be mindful about our brains… especially when we are looking to change the way we and others do things.The neuroscientists, and one in particular, have ‘discovered’ that there are core elements which either attract us to new ways of doing things or turn us away from them.

David Rock’s SCARF model (Rock: 2008)* helps us to understand this and it is being used in a number of community owned enterprises to enable leaders to take on new thinking about both sustainability and leadership.


Most of the motivation driving our social behaviour, and therefore our leadership approach, revolves around minimizing threat and maximizing reward. Rock’s SCARF model frames these threat-reward themes around five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – which have been shown to be applicable in a broad cross-section of settings.




According to Rock, “Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.” These domains stimulate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry in the brain. If we want changed behaviour we need to activate the ‘reward’ mode rather than the ‘threat’ mode.


In the context of Sustainable Leadership, that is, resilient leadership of a sustainable enterprise, this means that the following thoughts and actions may be applied to each of the five domains. There are many more.




If we see that our status is linked to large cars for our senior executives, large air-conditioned buildings, glossy literature and other unsustainable ‘stuff’ then the idea of going green will drive the threat element and we will move away from the notion of sustainability.
However, if we can be mindful that being ‘green’ really is the ‘new black’ then the status button will push our actions into a more sustainable mode.

We have no wish to be seen as outcasts – we will want to belong, to not have to explain our unsustainable actions to friends and people we see as important-others, including our stakeholders.




The mental energy required to handle uncertainty is significant. If we are put in a position to make decisions (say, around changing long-standing unsustainable behavior) we will likely put off that decision if we think we’ll need that energy for something we see as more certain in the future.


In other words, if there is not a clear and present and urgent need to make a decision we will conserve our mental energy. It is not difficult to see why those of us addicted to unsustainable practice are likely to procrastinate on decisions around our sustainability. The mixed media messages about such issues can create enough uncertainty to stop our brains from giving it attention. The same process may apply if we are wanting to move our framework for decision making in the organisation. Can we be certain our new model will be better?




The world goes around a whole lot better when we have a high level of control over our own lives. The extent to which we feel this autonomy reduces our levels of uncertainty and increases our feelings of resilience. Which draws us to make significant decisions and act on them. For example, the moves toward using renewable resources in the manufacture of goods will give us the choice to continue to consume stuff yet do so in a relatively more sustainable way. If this is so it will trigger our reward button and incline us to change our procurement practices.




When we perceive ourselves as different to others, the information travels along our brain’s neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings, different from the neural pathways triggered by people who are perceived as similar to us. When we are in the presence of people who are already doing a lot of sustainable things the language they use, their confidence about their perspectives and other trappings can sometimes lead us to feel uncomfortable. In much the same way as ‘greenies’ have sometimes felt like the odd ones out in a room full of ‘suits’ , and vice versa.
We need to create spaces where we can interact in an atmosphere which says ‘friend’ rather than ‘foe’ and contributes to a sense of trust and empathy which in turn leads us to being more likely to take on challenging changes of behaviour. This is as true for building leadership teams across levels as it is for changing behaviour about sustainability. When we begin to talk to each other and make a strong connection our brains disarm the threat response and enable the reward response and we begin to see others as ‘just like us.’




If we are part of an event or process where we feel unfairly treated we are likely to feel hostility and a lack of trust.
This can be as simple as being involved in a meeting where the airspace is hogged by a select few and where the opinions of many, including our own, are disregarded. We need to feel our opinions are valued and that we have equal opportunity to present them and have them reflected upon and questioned without being judged. This has significant implications for the way in which we conduct ourselves at gatherings.


The SCARF model is being used by Howard Nielsen of NACC in work with a number of medium sized community owned enterprises.



Rock, David: “SCARF: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others”, in NeuroLeadership Journal issue 1 2008.

Avatar About Howard Nielsen

Howard Nielsen from NAC Consulting was a pioneer in sustainable business development starting in the early 1990’s. He was an innovative user of The Natural Step and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability processes and has developed complementary tools that have had the benefit of being tried and refined.

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