A few weeks back I was interviewed by Wolfgang Kerler for the BMW Foundation and RESPOND-Accelerator programme that is equipping entrepreneurs and leaders with the right skills to lead into regenerative futures. The interview was originally posted here a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I’d repost the full version of it here so the readers of this blog get visibility of it, as I feel its very relevant for the discussion many leaders are having today about what next, where to point, and how to transform.
The operating system of our economy is broken. While the ‘take-make-waste’ model has generated growth and prosperity, it’s also causing multiple crises. We need a systemic redesign, from value creation and business models to innovative technologies, regulations, and social outcomes. How can we strive for a Regenerative Economy? By implementing regenerative leadership, a concept linked to responsible leadership, says executive coach and author Giles Hutchins.
Question: We’re facing wars, a pandemic, inequality, a loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis. Yet, amid all these challenges, you see the opportunity for a paradigm shift towards regenerative leadership. Why should leaders in business, politics, or civil society make this fundamental change now?
Giles Hutchins: This big breakdown is cajoling us to evolve. Either we adapt or die. That sounds ruthless, but that’s essentially what’s unfolding – a pivotal moment for us to evolve our ways of living and leading. Leaders have no real option other than to change their way of thinking, as current problems can’t be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them. Many probably know this phrase from Einstein.
The good news is, this can be a deeply rejuvenating and liberating phase-change to move through. It doesn’t have to be some burden to add to everything else, it can instead be the very thing that helps lessen the burden, by opening up to more of how life really is.
How would you describe our current economic systems, its leadership principles, and the problems it’s causing?
Hutchins: The 500 year-old paradigm that came to shape our worldview with the Age of Reason, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution is essentially a mechanistic worldview. I call it Mechanistic Materialism. It created Scientific Management Theory, Taylorism, Fordism, and Milton Friedman’s work that dominate how we approach business management today. And there’s nothing wrong with a mechanistic awareness that breaks things and processes down into parts to understand what each part does and how to optimize it. This is a very useful tool and brought advancements in medicine, transportation, supply chain, and digitization, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
However, as a dominant paradigm it has a tendency to crowd out other ways of knowing and create systemic challenges like we are facing today. The mindset becomes one of outward achieving divorced from inner-connection based on an ideology of dog-eat-dog competition, control, exploitation, and reductive linear thinking. We even end up seeing an organization, a collection of people, as some form of machine to be sweated for short-term maximization. But that’s not how life is, there’s much more to reality!
Hutchins: By shifting our awareness beyond Mechanistic Materialism, we’ll see that life is complex and emergent in nature. It’s about the relationships and interdependencies between all things. I call this worldview which understands an organization as a living system participating within an ever-changing, inter-relational systemic context Quantum Complexity.
The marriage of Quantum Physics and Complexity Science gives us entirely new insights into how complex systems (like our organizations) work. Simply put, no individual leader, team, or organization exists separate from each other and from the world. Everything is connected to everything else, and decisions have an impact on everything. It’s complex, but that’s how life works. And there are patterns and principles of life that we can learn to work with.
This brings us to the principle of regeneration which, according to your work, is a fundamental part of nature and life. What’s the case for regeneration?
Hutchins: Regeneration is about working with the evolutionary potential of life. By shifting out of the mechanistic way of considering evolution as individualistic hyper-competition into understanding evolution as a participatory and relational endeavor, we’ll start seeing ourselves as participating within the world. Our actions, our interactions, and our relationships have consequences.
We also learn from nature that life is ever-changing and thrives through tension. On the one hand, this can feel threatening or fearful – ‘oh my god, I need to manage and control all this change’ –, but on the other hand, it’s liberating, as life is beyond control. We don’t need to hold on to everything. In fact, we need to start flowing more with life and understanding its cycles and rhythms. Just as the season goes through a wintering phase that brings a renewal – a regeneration – we need to go through a process of death and rebirth in order to renew and create.
You argue that the way towards a regenerative economy is through regenerative leadership and Leading by Nature based on the worldview of Quantum Complexity. By that, you probably mean more than going into the woods every now and then to copy a few ideas from nature …
Hutchins: It’s absolutely useful to go out into nature and copy patterns, principles, and processes and apply them to us, our organizations, and our economy. Designing our products in circular, biophilic and biomimetic ways, we need all of this. But the idea of regeneration doesn’t stop there!
Leading by Nature and regenerative leadership are about working with life, and cultivating your inner and outer nature – your mindset and psychology, and your relationship with others – to become more of who you truly are. This involves a journey of attuning to life, which also involves tapping in to different ways of knowing that we naturally have as human beings. Not just the rational analytic knowing, that’s important, that’s a useful tool, but also intuitive, emotional, and somatic (body) knowing.
Through this process, the self-as-separation-from-and-in-competition-with opens into the self-as-participating-within life. The achiever becomes the regenerator.
But how does this personal transformation to regenerative leadership help us in terms of businesses and organizations?
Hutchins: Regenerative leaders transform the inner and outer nature of their organizations. The inner nature is the culture, decision-making protocols, values and behaviors. The outer nature is the value propositions and stakeholder relationships.
Often the shift starts with outer nature, so we’ll start here, too. Instead of exploiting nature for resources and also exploiting suppliers to produce stuff and then we package it up and flog it in a transactional linear way, organizations will first start measuring, monitoring, controlling, and reducing their negative impacts along their value chain. Then, they’ll start to transform their value-creation proposition from linear transactions into circular service provision and community participation. This enriches the future-fitness of the organization and enriches the life-affirming capacity of the value propositions as they start to contribute to the life-affirming futures we all wish for.
What do you mean by that?
Let’s take a fridge, for instance. Rather than just selling a fridge without caring about its sustainability, a company now provides a rental service for cooling your food – which means that it makes and owns the fridge, and therefore cares about its durability and recyclability. The fridge, which is enabled with a platform into the internet-of-things (IoT), has a monitor reminding you that you’re running low on carrot juice, connecting you with local farm shops and letting you know what other people who are also buying carrot juice are interested in. Then, the organization looks at ways to enrich local communities and the health and wellbeing of its customers and wider stakeholder ecosystem. It recognizes how everything connects with everything else – and a negative impact over there can’t just be traded-off with a positive impact over here (net-positive) but that each and every interaction can seek to benefit the fabric of the economy, society and environment.
A regenerative business is no longer just manufacturing and shipping fridges in a linear transactional way, it’s involved in community participation, and societal transformation toward regenerative futures. This also involves suppliers and their local communities, investors, and customers in helping everyone become more conscious of how we engage with life.
The inner nature (culture) then interrelates with that. Regenerative leaders will create a life-affirming culture that enables people to bring more of themselves to work, which unlocks their creativity right into the heart of everyday decision-making. It’s a shift from parent-child hierarchy and bureaucracy to adult-adult self-management, self-responsibility, and spaces to truly listen to and respect each other. Through this culture, people will leave work and go back to their personal lives more enriched, because they’re inspired, interested, and challenged, instead of going home exploited, drained and suppressed.
Some leaders might think that all of this sounds good and important, but their companies need to make money.
Hutchins: While profit is not the main driver for becoming a regenerative leader or transforming an organization, there’s evidence that regenerative living-organizations are more future-fit, more able to adapt and evolve in these times of change. There’s a whole bunch of companies like AXA Climate, Patagonia, Halogen, Triodos Bank and Vivobarefoot that are journeying towards regenerative, serving local and global communities, while also increasing profits, attracting and retaining high-quality talent, and improving agility and creativity.
There are all sorts of organizations – of all sectors and sizes – actively embracing the journey towards regenerative leadership, because this journey welcomes everyone and any organization. What’s important is the willingness to shift the mindset.
Let’s look at the big picture: What would a regenerative economy look like?
Hutchins: Right now, Mechanistic Materialism creates monocultures, which is kind of funny, as the underlying neo-liberal theory is all about ‘free markets’. However, in reality, there’s a tendency toward control and domination, which stymies creativity, entrepreneurialism, diversity and freedom.
The regenerative economy is challenging these monopolies and oligopolies. It’s participatory, responsive, decentralized, and diverse. Without giving up on globalization, it’s rejuvenating the local connectivity that we’ve seen breaking down over the last decades. It’s encouraging local entrepreneurialism that’s seeing a revival thanks to advancements in modern technologies like, obviously, the internet, but also 3D printing and mobile technologies. It’s allowing all kinds of people the freedom to come up with their ideas without being caught up in bureaucracy and control.
Could you explain how all of this is going to help our burning planet?
Hutchins: Jan Christiaan Smuts, who originally coined the word Holism, was very keen to say: You can’t have holistic awareness until you understand that the individual mind is attuned to and immersed within the universal mind. Our planet has immense intelligence in it. To most people inured in Mechanistic Materialism that’s anathema. How could the planet be intelligent, it’s inert – says the Mechanistic mind – something to be plundered and exploited for profiteering. Yet the mind of Quantum Complexity understands. It understands what Smuts noted, and also what Einstein noted – without a shift in consciousness toward a mind that understands the sentience and interconnectedness of all life, we are but lost in our current malaise.
When you start recognizing everything has this sentience, everything is alive, which of course we’ve known for the vast portion of our human history, but the modern mind has forgotten due to Mechanistic Materialism, then you’ll naturally start caring and start feeling more attuned to all life on Earth, as well as the life-giving potential of our organizations. People then pause for a moment when throwing stuff out the window, and companies question themselves when pumping sewage into the ocean – not to avoid penalties, or reduce negative impact, but because they know it’s wrong. The French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery once said, if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the immensity of the sea. Leading by Nature inspires the leader right in the heart of everyday business to reengage with the immensity of real life, and in-so-doing helping the organization adapt rather than die-out in these transformative times.
What do you say to critics who think it’s naïve to bet on the personal transformation of leaders to save the planet?
Hutchins: What’s naïve is to think that anything could happen without involving psychology! Let’s be assured that psychology is being used heavily in the Mechanistic paradigm right now – whether it’s advertising, whether it’s propaganda, whether it’s culture change or business management. The most important systemic shifts are mindset shifts – it’s that simple – therefore we must attend to shifting our mindset if we wish for lasting systemic change. If not now then when?
Finally, let’s clarify some terminology: How does your concept of regenerative leadership fit with the idea of responsible leadership that the BMW Foundation represents?
Hutchins: There’s absolutely no reason why responsible leadership shouldn’t include regenerative leadership, as long as it includes the mindset shift. In my leadership work, I come across all kinds of different phrases and concepts: transformative leadership, systemic leadership, responsible leadership, conscious leadership, future-fit leadership. If it involves and understands the importance of this mindset shift into Quantum Complexity, it’s good!
Giles Hutchins latest book and podcast series Leading by Nature can be found here
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