Meet Eric Martin, CELI Board Secretary & Managing Director at Adaptive Change Advisors


Eric Martin is the Managing Director and Founder at Adaptive Change Advisors (ACA) and serves as a Board member of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI). ACA’s mission is to “democratize leadership”, putting tools and techniques for driving change into the hands of leaders who drive outcomes on the most critical challenges of our times, such as advancing clean energy. It was immediately clear during our interview that Eric not only teaches leadership principles, he truly embodies them. As someone with expertise in inspiring leaders to break out of their comfort zone and begin creating the change we need to solve the most complex challenges, I am excited to see the impact Eric will have on the CELI community!

Tell us a little about your background and career path.

I grew up in the city of Detroit, Michigan at ‘the height of its decline’. The problem, of course, was our dependence on cars - fossil fuel powered vehicles. Even as things deteriorated, an unrequited hope emerged and sustained for years as nothing more than never-say-die Detroit pride. The hope morphed into a deep curiosity about how people, including myself, could witness decay and yet do nothing other look the other away. I was inspired to become an engineer thinking we could solve the problems technically. I soon discovered, however, that it’s hard, if not impossible, to solve non-technical problems with technical solutions. Ultimately the hope  manifest in a calling to help people understand the need for a more radical, hard-hitting kind of leadership. So began my journey towards founding Adaptive Change Advisors.

How did you become involved with CELI?

I met Liz back when she was an appointee in the Obama Administration. I was leading a workshop in the Office of Presidential Personnel and Liz stood out as one of those people you meet and want to stay in touch with. I was thrilled to learn that she had become Executive Director of CELI, and even more thrilled to join her here.

Now in its 6th year, I believe CELI can become the premier leadership experience for young clean energy professionals in the world. I don’t know of another organization that focuses on both the leadership and technical side to the extent that CELI does. I am particularly interested in Liz’s inclusive, “big umbrella” leadership approach, meaning she realizes the need to work with non-conventional people and organizations to successfully transition to a clean energy economy.

Using the leadership concept of “authority VS leadership”, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for Clean Energy Leaders to step beyond their comfort zone and change the status quo?

To start, it’s helpful to understand the difference between leadership and authority. Most people intuitively know the difference when they lament the lack of leadership from the people in leadership. But if you say instead that the people in authority are not leading, the madness suddenly makes more sense. Every organization requires authority but leadership is rare. The thing is, we’re going to need leaders, not just people with important sounding jobs, to stay below the two degree tipping point.

Effective leadership when it comes to climate change is tough in part because  we won’t always have full information or authority to implement solutions. It can even be unclear if the solutions are really solutions, or if they too contain the very problem we’re trying to solve. I think of it like playing chess against multiple opponents without being able to see all the pieces on the board..

I think clean energy leaders of today face an important opportunity to reach across boundaries. Things like working with Public Utility Commissions in red states, or intervening during an executive team meeting to call attention to the lack of diversity and equity in how the company operates internally and in the marketplace. Leadership is a moment to moment choice each one of us makes in the face of the status quo. I have a friend who is a former Army Tanker Captain who grew up in coal country. Now he works in clean energy and, because of that, has disappointed a lot of people he grew up with. Yet he knows that the people with the problem are the problem, and the solution if we’re going to sustain progress. Yes, leadership is risky. That’s why we don’t see much of it. If people are comfortable and things are going well, nobody says ‘we need more leadership around here!’ This is our opportunity however, to take the risks and begin to lead both as individuals and a community.

In your 2017 article, Democratizing Leadership for Clean Water you state:

“The central challenge of leadership, particularly on environmental issues, lies in driving progress without having the authority or resource to dictate how people should or should not behave.”

I find this particularly relevant to young people in the CELI community and beyond who have the most to gain from climate action and the least authority to do so. What advice you have for those without formal authority seeking to inspire others to adapt at the pace needed to decarbonize the energy industry?

Three very practical things come to mind:

  1. Build deep alliances.

It is critical to understand each stakeholder’s position, what they need, and, most importantly, what that stand to lose if progress is made. It’s a counter-intuitive idea. People tend to brush off the casualties of change, but as leaders we need to understand our impact. I think CELI alumni are really poised for that. It’s about deep, human-connection.

  1. Share your story.

People don’t respond to ideas, people respond to people. Sharing your authentic story can be a really powerful way to build alliances and motivate people. Every good story starts with a challenge so don’t be afraid to share your struggles along with the victories.

  1. Prepare to make your own change.

Oftentimes our struggle is against ourselves because we are as complicit in the status quo as anyone else.   

What are you most looking forward to as a CELI Board Member?

I’ve never seen a community as vibrant as CELI. I’m still learning about the community but there’s an energy here, a real belief and conviction that we can do this. My sense is that the fellowship curriculum is very technical right now. I agree this is important and prepares people to enter the workforce well-equipped. But doing your job well has nothing to do with exercising leadership. I think there is an opportunity to create space for transformation and to help prepare CELIons to support each other in their true leadership work.

Just for fun - What is your favorite clean energy technology/resource/innovation and why?
That’s an easy one. It’s kind of old school at this point but I’m a big fan of the solar lanterns that have been used in rural African communities. My favorite company is d.light, an organization that was founded by a guy who was in the peace corps. In a tragic accident, his friend had been burnt by a kerosene lantern, something that could have been avoided with fuel free resources. Today, the solar lanterns make an incredible impact on people’s livelihood, health, education and, of course, carbon footprint. It’s my favorite example of social impact through clean energy innovation.

Hannah Bouscher