Originally published in Medium.com on October 1st 2019
In a recent meeting of the Business Roundtable, “the CEOs of nearly 200 companies just said shareholder value is no longer their main objective”. Given the dominant paradigms of endless growth and shareholder profit at any cost, the articulation of this sentiment from prime business circles is a shift indeed. Of course, it needs to be seen whether this is only talk or is it backed by commitment and intention. Nonetheless, it is proof that we have reached a point of stagnancy and exhaustion with our old models and structures. There is no further benefit to be gleaned from them. In fact, clinging to the old ways is now proving to be chaotic, cataclysmic, and even apocalyptic.
In a deeply complex, inter-related and interconnected world, every single thought we have, each decision and action we take has far-reaching impact — often beyond our ability to comprehend. And this is multiplied manifold when the actor is a large organization. Hence, it is time to change the underlying narratives, metaphors, and consciousness that are driving today’s organizations. This requires a complete reinvention and re-designing of the fundamental organizational principles, ethos, and purpose — the very raison d’etre of organizations must shift. New strategies, technologies, and processes superficially affixed on top of the existing paradigms and worldviews will not work. The old debilitating and destructive patterns will creep in through the backdoor, under different names and guises. The shift from maximizing shareholder profit to the well-being of all calls for an awareness-based, conscious transformation toward building life-affirming, regenerative, and thrivable organizations.
In this post, I have attempted to explore some of the key dimensions and facets of the leadership quest that this shift is asking of us…
We are at a transformational moment in human history — on the cusp of a profound transition from an Industrial Growth Society (IGS) to a Life-Sustaining Society (LSS). The breakdowns on multiple fronts are heralding the destabilization of the old order. The system is literally self-terminating. And as Arundhuti Roy says so eloquently, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Joanna Macy calls it The Great Turning. What we are collectively experiencing as decay and disintegration, disequilibrium and dissolution are the death throes of an old-world order.
In the face of this destabilization, our organizations and leadership must become amplifiers and compasses for another world — one which is built on the principles of thrivability for all and not only for a handful of the rich and powerful. Michelle Holliday describes “thrivability” thus:
In practice, thrivability is about identifying and committing to your organization’s own best means of enhancing life’s ability to thrive. And it’s about aligning with life’s core operating patterns across every aspect of the organization.
Is the idea far-fetched? I don’t think so. Is it necessary? I can think of no other purpose for the existence of an organization in today’s context. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. It will require each and every one of us to operate from and aspire to our highest selves, to reclaim our essential humanity lost to years of conditioning, and to push back against the forces doing their utmost to drag us backward. As Umair Haque says,
“Organizational leadership today means building an organization that is a model for the world it hopes to create. That models — demonstrates, displays, shows, exemplifies, for all to see — the better world that it hopes to spark.”
However, our current organizational paradigms and business models reward ruthlessness, aggression, cunning, competitiveness, authoritarianism, and an overarching “what’s in it for me” attitude. Unfortunately, these very traits strip us of our innate humanity and purpose, which are imbued with generosity, gratitude, compassion, courage, joy, love, and meaning. These qualities find little place in our organizations today — or lurk and hide in corners, afraid to reveal themselves for fear of ridicule, contempt, and condescension. This has created workplaces that are devoid of purpose, possibilities, and promise. People are literally ‘Dying for a Paycheck.’
Given this backdrop, I have used the phrase “leadership quest” deliberately. I believe leaders, and each one of us, have to “undertake a journey toward actualizing our highest future potential” in the service of a thrivable and regenerative world. And this quest will see an unfolding of pioneering and regenerative leadership principles and ethos necessary to build a life-sustaining society…. It is a quest, a journey of human evolution, a collective awakening of consciousness that is already taking place across the world in many shapes and forms.
We are at a unique stage in human history where technology and human consciousness are evolving and growing rapidly and exponentially. Their intersection — if put in the service of the well-being of all sentient beings and our Planet — can have an astounding impact. And our organizations can become platforms and holding spaces for The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Wouldn’t that be a worthy quest for all?
The inspiration for this post came while reading Jenny Andersson’s summary of the Connectle webinar on Regenerative Leadership 2 — Becoming Imaginal Cells: Co-Creative and Collaborative Leadership for the Future. As I read, a few thoughts arose that I have tried to capture here in relation to regenerative leadership, the leadership quest, and Leading in Uncertain Times.
Pathways for a Leadership Quest
Nurture imaginal cells. Underneath the chaos, disintegration, and disarray apparent across the board lies the DNA of a new order waiting to be manifested. And what is to be birthed bears no resemblance to the old. Just as the caterpillar bears no resemblance to the butterfly, and yet holds the key — the imaginal cells — for its own metamorphosis. In the same way, the key — the imaginal cells — of regenerative, anti-fragile, and thrivable organizations are hidden within this collapse and chaos.
They are to be found in the shapeshifters, the wayfinders, the edge-dwellers, and the norm-breakers within our organizations. These individuals bear the seeds of a different narrative and the visions for an emergent future which is life-sustaining. They carry the possibilities of breakthroughs amidst the breakdowns. Regenerative leadership calls for an ability to identify and nurture these imaginal cells within the organization, to support their endeavors, and protect them from the onslaught of the status quo.
These individuals will often come across as fearless and bold contrarians, and the natural tendency will be to resist and fight them, to try and eject them from the system, to sideline them. The dominant status quo can be a formidable force. And this is precisely where leadership comes in — it will be the job of leaders to nurture and protect these people, to ensure they can grow, connect, and collaborate till a tipping point is reached. Once these wayfinders form clusters, and clusters of clusters, we can be sure that we are on the brink of a transformation.
Goto the edge of the system. The explorations and experimentations typically take place at the edges of a system. The edge is an interesting place; its very fluidity fills it with possibilities. It is also where two or more ecosystems come in contact with each other and give rise to interesting phenomena, like the mangroves (where the sea meets the land). Similarly, the edges of an organization are where the seeds of its next stage of evolution can be found should the leaders care to look.
A leader’s task is to be a bridge between the edge and the center — not to diminish the burgeoning potentials of the edge but to infuse the center with its spirit, vision, and energy. As more and more edge practices find their way into the center, the old patterns embedded at the core start to loosen and dissolve. With the releasing of the old ways, new practices, mindsets, and beliefs take root, transforming the organization. As Bucky Fuller said,
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Recognize the power of intention. This is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of regenerative leadership. A leader’s intention is the North Star that guides an organization towards becoming a regenerative business. It is about holding onto the vision of a life-affirming organization, and then putting it in practice. It involves not only recognizing that an organization is a living system but also following through with life-sustaining ways of being and doing. (I have been writing about these shifts in my earlier posts — Leading in Uncertain Times and Leading in Uncertain Times: The Journey Within.)
No amount of re-engineering, reorganization, and re-training will work if the fundamental intentions and consciousness are still rooted in the past. In short, the foundations of a thrivable organization cannot be built on profit maximization. The inner conditions of leadership have a profound impact on the outer reality. Only when leaders stay steadfastly true to the purpose of the organization, uphold its capacity to be a regenerative and healing force, and take actions and decisions rooted in their intention, can they propel an organization to move to its next stage of evolution.
Create conditions for emergence. Emergence is a fundamental property of living systems as they adapt to their constantly changing environment. When we move from the metaphor of “organizations as machines” to that of “organizations as living systems,” it is easy to understand why creating conditions for emergence is important. Emergence in organizations takes place at the intersections of relationships — their divergence and their synergy. Synergy arises from maintaining and facilitating a fine balance between agency and symbiosis among diverse and different individuals for something fundamentally novel to arise. This means that diversity and inclusion are pre-conditions for emergence, and it behooves leaders to design for this.
One of the foundational qualities of regenerative leadership is then to create and safeguard an inclusive culture based on embracing widely divergent worldviews, perspectives, and even paradoxes. Holding space for emergence is an active process of staying in the liminal space, listening deeply, engaging all our sensemaking capacities, and staying open to the “magic in the middle.” Leaders who can lean into the emerging future are the ones who create magic in the face of chaos.
Go beyond collaboration. Collaboration has become an increasingly important aspect of 21st century’s boundaryless, distributed, and fluid workplaces. Individuals and teams collaborate across borders to pool expertise, accomplish a set of pre-defined goals, and share learnings. I am proposing that in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, we need to move beyond collaboration. Collaboration works when the path is known, an outcome is defined, and solutions are clear.
But when there is no path and outcomes cannot be predicted, then it is time to go beyond collaboration and embrace co-creation — a process of manifesting what is wanting to come through; giving shape to the emergent future by staying present, curious, compassionate, and courageous. Leaders need to become enablers and connectors — balancing divergence with synergy, facilitating the letting go off familiar outcomes, and holding the space for collective co-creation toward an ‘evolutionary purpose.’ This act of collective sensemaking requires deep trust in oneself, in the process, in human potential, and practice in Presencing. It should be a central part of today’s leadership quest to cultivate one’s capacities to create the conditions for co-creation.
Make life-affirming decisions. Organizations today can hardly be called life-affirming. They abide by and are driven by systems and policies that have turned them into profit-making machines at profound cost to their people and Planet. We are in the midst of a crisis that is beckoning us toward a different future possibility — one characterized by harmony, balance, resilience, and generativity. The purpose of the leadership quest today will be to make this potential a possibility. This will require leaders who are self-aware, mindful, and operate from a conscious understanding of the inter-connectedness and interbeing of everything. Without this felt sense of inter-relatedness, they will not be able to make life-affirming decisions.
The process is neither easy nor linear. It is an inner quest as well as an outer one. Leaders will be faced with infinite paradoxes and ambiguities, forces which will compel them to play by the old rules, and circumstances which will cloud their vision. However, by holding on to the overarching intention to be life-affirming, they can still act as stewards and facilitators of life. As Daniel Christian Wahl says in the context of regenerative leadership:
“Re-patterning the future regeneratively requires the transformation of the whole playing field, the redesign of our economic system and our monetary system, and — ultimately — the collective redesign of the human presence and impact on Earth.”
In conclusion, I believe that we are at a point in our evolutionary history where we are collectively being called to listen to our deepest truths as human beings, as stewards of life, as imaginal cells of the future, and to direct our intentions, thoughts, and actions toward co-creating a life-sustaining society.
“Thrivability emerges from each of us holding the persistent intention to be generative: that is to say, to create more value than we consume.” ~Jean M. Russell
Written by Sahana Chattopadhyay