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The Essential Role of Re-Fining for Leaders of the Next Way

In the small village of Come By Chance on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, a fifty-year-old petroleum refinery has recently been transformed to be on the leading edge of energy. Now operated by Braya Renewable Fuels, the refinery will initially produce 18,000 barrels a day of renewable diesel using biofuels with future plans to expand production.  

We are in the early stages of a new global industrial revolution that will include transformations of legacy energy manufacturing facilities. In my upcoming book, As Safe As Life, I suggest we simultaneously transform our use of the word refining to meet the leadership calling of the times we are in. 

From a leadership perspective, many of the negative consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels have come about from the way we relate to, and speak about energy sources. We objectify them and the places they come from as exploitable “resources” that we use our engineering prowess to drill, mine, and crack open.   

This objectification often results in a distancing from both the subtle and obvious systemic effects of our enterprises. These effects impact the webs of life on which we depend and from which we are ultimately inseparable.  We take the finery of a natural environment and categorize it as “greenfield” or “brownfield.” It becomes a “site” to “clear,” cordon off, build over.  

The way we use language is a window into the way we lead and live. 

For many years, my colleagues and I have worked with energy industry leaders inside their commitment to learn to build and operate facilities without harm coming to those who are actually doing the building and operating. This has been incredibly gratifying work and has availed us of the opportunity to work closely with courageous people bringing their own care and value for the safety of their colleagues to their work. Now it is time to expand that no-harm ethos to wider circles of life. 

To conceive of, design, finance, construct/repurpose and operate the facilities that will meet the increasing energy demands of our collective future – and do it in a way that the solutions of today don’t become the great problems of tomorrow – we must re-fine our senses and our processes. We must include an experiential intimacy with the land, the flora and fauna, the natural cycles of life, the local communities, an intimacy fueled by the natural human capacity to sense, and to be in wonder about the miraculous interplay of all of life. 

When we work with a leadership team who is taking on the daunting challenge of producing energy without producing harm, we are at work building purpose, alignment and functional ways of working together. As importantly, we are also helping them re-awaken their natural capacity to experience, appreciate and protect the “fine” realities of the physical world in which they are building and operating. This usually looks like getting outside and getting our “feet dirty” through a variety of activities and conversations. Once a team has “re-fined” their relationship to the systems of life connected to their work, it becomes a source of inspiration and principled work that is expressed in leadership decisions for the life of the asset. 

Re-fining is an act of slowing your mind down enough to see and experience the subtle realities of the world in which you work. You begin to tailor your approaches to that world in a way that honors and preserves the connections of life, the health of the already-functional systems of nature. It builds on the brilliance of engineering to give the same level of attention to the innate workings of our natural world.  

To begin putting the skill of re-fining into practice, ask yourself and your team: 

  • “What might I/we do to cultivate a level of understanding and care for the place and context of our work that would naturally drive wise decisions in the future?” 
  • “What are all the forms of life that this work could affect and how?” 
  • “What is my/our commitment regarding the impact of this work on the webs of life it will affect?” 
  • “How will we engage our partners in this work to also be guardians of the health of those systems it will impact?” 

We are in perilous and exciting times when it is our job to re-discover how our planet works, to understand its systems and its limits and begin integrating our own work without blinders to the ways life is affected by everything we do.   

We love working with project teams because of the opportunity to create an inspiring time-bound purpose that requires everyone to be stretching themselves and collaborating in new ways to do their best work. Ensuring that the fine webs of life connected to your project thrive long after the new facilities are commissioned can be a potent source of inspiration and challenge for your teams and a worthy legacy of your leadership. 

 What might re-fining look like for you and the other leaders for the next way in your organization?  

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