Rice experts share insights at CERAWeek, address energy industry’s future leaders

Downtown Houston had not yet fully come to life Monday, March 11, as the first presentations and workshops of CERAWeek, the annual international gathering of the energy industry, were set to begin.

Rice energy expert Ken Medlock, far left, moderated a CERAWeek panel with, from left, Wiess School of Natural Sciences Dean Peter Rossky, Brown School of Engineering Dean Reginald DesRoches, Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke and School of Social Sciences Dean Antonio Merlo. Photos by Tommy LaVergne

In a third-floor meeting room of the George R. Brown Convention Center that was the site of Innovation Agora @ CERAWeek, two of Rice’s leading experts in their fields, energy economist Ken Medlock and leadership scholar Tom Kolditz, wasted no time in providing the participants of CERAWeek’s Future Energy Leaders program with a candid talk on where the industry is headed, its challenges and the leadership needed to succeed.

The event was just one of several appearances for Rice faculty, including a number of deans who participated in a special “What’s New at Rice” panel March 12. Organized by the consulting firm IHS Markit, the influential conference drew more than 35 leading government officials among 4,500 delegates from over 70 countries.

For the third year in a row, Rice was an academic partner of CERAWeek, which was held at the Hilton Americas-Houston and the convention center. Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative led the university’s involvement in the conference, themed “New World of Rivalries.” The gathering focused on the many questions facing the energy industry – from geopolitics and trade to costs, price volatility, environmental policy, disruptive technologies, interfuel competition and the battle to attract the workforce needed for the future.

‘Leadership is mostly learned’

Kolditz, a retired brigadier general and the executive director of Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders, framed for the more than 100 attendees representing the world’s largest energy companies where the country and the world stands on developing younger talent. The Doerr Institute is the United States’ first professional and comprehensive leadership development program, which is offered for free to all Rice students.

“Probably 80 percent of what happens in the leadership industry is ‘leadertainment,'” Kolditz said. “It just doesn’t matter.” What does matter, he said, is a leadership and character crisis in government and business.

“Approval ratings for Congress are hovering around 15 percent,” Kolditz said. “Who gets rated at 15 percent and keeps their jobs? Could any of you? I don’t think so. Even in business, we see pharmaceutical companies that are offering products that don’t work, or drugs that do work and are priced out at 3,000 to 5,000 percent of cost. We find transportation companies where the CEOs are abusive to their employees and their drivers to the point where they have to be removed. It’s easy to find a crisis in leadership now if you just look.”

Kolditz said universities play a critical role in addressing the leadership crisis and that most, unlike Rice, have yet to put any brainpower, infrastructure and programming into doing so.

“Every year we manufacture millions and millions of unprepared leaders, and those unprepared leaders come from colleges and universities where there is virtually no leader-development strategy of any significance,” he said.

Kolditz has found that successful leaders possess an inherent motivation for the task, embrace continuous learning, share risk with their followers, adopt a lifestyle in common with their followers, are highly competent and inspire trust and loyalty in others.

“Leadership is mostly learned,” and it’s best learned using evidence-based techniques developed by industrial-organizational psychologists and with the help of professional coaches, said Kolditz.

“When you look at developmental psychology, young people learn things a lot faster than older people,” he said. “It’s difficult if they’re 55 or 60 years old, like senior executives and superintendents and other kinds of senior leaders, but it’s really much easier for college-age people. That’s why college happens when it happens for most people.”

Kolditz said measuring outcomes of leadership development programming is a final critical principle.

“We measure (outcomes) ruthlessly and objectively,” he said. “All I want to know is, are we measurably increasing people’s capacity to lead?”

The perils of Western-centric viewpoints

Climate change, and how it requires effective leadership to be addressed globally, was highlighted by Medlock, the senior director of the Center for Energy Studies (CES) at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. CES is the No. 1 energy- and resource-based think tank, according to the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.

Medlock recently returned from meetings in South Korea as a guest of the foreign affairs ministry and from giving testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about the electricity sector in a changing climate. He warned of Western-centric viewpoints in addressing fossil fuel use and emissions worldwide.

“If you dictate, you will make people eventually look the other way,” he said, discussing the differing energy realities and priorities of developing nations and developed nations.

CES on average hosts 23 international administrator-level delegations a year, said Medlock, who reiterated points he had made in a noteworthy exchange with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the previous week.

“In every single case, when we sit down and we have conversations with the individuals in these delegations, you realize that you’re learning about the way they view the world,” he said. “And this is a really important lesson: You view the world from where you sit.”

Medlock said empathy and listening are critical skills for leaders.

“If you ignore all of the voices in the room except for your own, and you dictate, do you think anybody will follow you?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

“There is a lot of discussion in the world of energy right now about climate change and the future of the energy landscape,” Medlock said. “If you want to affect change, you have to figure out how, you have to understand the reality on the ground in different places.”

Medlock said much the developing world feels it’s being talked down to in international climate talks.

“Each one of these individual delegations (visiting the Baker Institute) has migrated in these discussions from ‘Yes, we have to do something’ to ‘yes, we’ve got to do something, but I’m not going to do what you guys tell me to do,'” he said.

Medlock said the U.S. and other Western countries have to lead by example, not just dictate.

“One of the things that’s often lost in the construct of sustainability is the notion that not only do things have to be environmentally sustainable, they also have to be economically sustainable or they do not last,” he said. “And that’s the piece of the discussion that is often missing. The growth of renewables (in the U.S. and the developed world) is very robust, that is undeniable.

“If we try to put those same policies in place in a sub-Saharan Africa country or a developing Asian country, do you think they will work?” he asked. “The fiscal wherewithal in the developed world is different than it is in the developing world. This is why when I say lead by example, you really have to make tangible effects or impacts on cost production. That is happening, but you also have to demonstrate business models that are profitable, that are sustainable.”

Medlock stressed a political axiom: “Politics are local.”

“If you do something top-down that disenfranchises a particular local constituency, do you think the policy will last?” he said. “No.”

For more information about the Future Energy Leaders program, go to https://ceraweek.com/program/future-energy-leaders.html.

Other Rice presenters at CERAWeek included Antonio Merlo, dean of Rice’s School of Social Sciences; Fred Higgs, director of Rice’s Center for Engineering Leadership; Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship; Reginald DesRoches, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering; Peter Rossky, dean of Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences; Rachel Meidl, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute; Leonardo Duenas-Osorio, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Francisco Monaldi, fellow in Latin American energy policy at the Baker Institute; and Moshe Vardi, director of Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology and professor of computer science.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.