It’s a fascinating yet challenging time to be a leader. Multiple and profound shifts affect the way we work, how and why we do things, and the purpose and meaning we bring to our organizations. This new-norm in business is characterised by unceasing transformation. Change upon change upon change is what leaders are now dealing with. There’s a maelstrom of motives contributing to this volatile business terrain: hyper-connectivity, volatile transaction costs, disruptive innovations, shifting societal norms, new ways of working, the search for deeper meaning and purpose through work, fragile supply chains, resource scarcity, rising mental health and wellbeing issues, widespread disenfranchisement across workforces, increasing systemic shocks (COVID, Climate, conflict and more looming on the horizon). No organization is spared.
This new-norm in business demands a new-norm in leadership: a leadership consciousness that cultivates organizational cultures able to adapt and evolve amid unceasing transformation in ways that create flourishing for all. This can seem like a tall-order, in fact it is when we face the challenge with the same level of thinking that created it. Shift the consciousness and the challenge reframes into potentiality for evolution. As the management guru Peter Drucker insightful said, ‘In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.’ So what is yesterday’s logic?
Much of today’s L&OD logic is still rooted in a worldview of mechanistic reductionism originated by the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th century. This view of the world draws upon assumptions of separateness, predictability, replicability and control. Life is assumed to be made up of separate things struggling for survival in a dog-eat-dog world of hyper-competition. It is then assumed that these separate things in life can be compartmentalised, controlled, measured and managed in linear predictable ways through push-pull mechanisms. Relationships between component parts and their wider context are often overlooked or de-emphasised. This view of life informed Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management published in 1909. Taylorism became hugely influential in setting the context for viewing the organization as a machine, a view that is still dominant today. Employees are relegated to the role of efficiently performing the duties as defined by management who compartmentalise activities and relationships in an effort to make things easier to control and measure.
As a tool within a broad human-repertoire, this reductive tendency to break things down into parts is useful. Narrowing-down and compartmentalising complexity into binary relationships enables us to create models of cause-effect linearity. For instance, detailed Gantt-charts for project management, quantized KPI measurements, and systematic foresight planning tools are useful to have at our finger-tips, all of which call upon reductive methods of analysis. As long as we also remember that life is not actually like this.
When this machine-logic becomes a dominant worldview, we start to believe that the organization actually is a set of neatly definable parts that can be measured and controlled in isolation. The leadership team controls from the top, cascading commands through layers of management to the workers at the bottom. A narrowed focus is applied to optimizing short-term returns while perceiving stakeholder relations through the threat-tinted lens of hyper-competition. This mentality creates fragile organizations based on control, fear and exploitation which undermines trust, dis-empowers employees, corrupts purpose, and exploits the wider business ecosystem for short-term maximization. This is a recipe for extinction not evolution. While the logic of the machine may pride itself on driving out inefficiencies, what it actually creates is burgeoning bureaucracy and disempowerment inside the organization and widespread externalities and fragilities beyond the organization through its restricted view of life.
Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini’s London Business School research explores how the stratified power structures, specialized roles and standardized tasks of the organization-as-machine create a massive bureaucratic-drag, costing the US economy alone over $3tn annually. Another organization-as-machine inefficiency is what the Harvard Business School professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey researched: most leaders and employees are doing a second job no one is paying them for – the job of managing other people’s impressions of themselves, covering up their weaknesses, playing politics, hiding uncertainties, wearing masks at work. Far from the machine-mindset driving out inefficiencies, it actually undermines productivity, resilience, innovation and initiative. People are fed up with working in bureaucratic organizations. We all want to actively participate in creative, passionate and empowering organizations where we feel a meaningful connection with the value we create rather than feeling like corporate cogs enslaved in a machine.
In reality, organizations are relational purposeful evolving systems made up of messy unpredictable human relationships that thrive amid a diverse web of stakeholder relations all intimately interrelated with wider society and the natural world. Organizations display non-linear dynamics and self-organizing behaviours more akin to living-systems. These living-organizations are responsive to continuous change, and continually learn, evolve and thrive amid unceasing transformation. The organization-as-machine, on the other hand, relies on top-down perspectives far-removed from the customer and expensive cumbersome change-management programmes that all-too-often fall woefully short in future-proofing the business.
The Necessary Evolution from Machine to Living-systems L&OD
The L&OD living-systems paradigm is a worldview shift onwards from yesterday’s machine paradigm. A ‘worldview shift’ may sound daunting, especially when many of us experience significant stress, busyness and volatility in the workplace today. The good news is, this worldview shift is actually a return; a revitalization of something innate – a reconnection with our true nature within us, and the rhythms and ways of nature all around us. Woven deep into our human physiology and psychology is the natural capacity to embrace a living-systems worldview. This worldview shift requires us to unlearn habits and behaviours we’ve become educated and acculturated in over the last couple of centuries. It also requires us to open-up in to who we truly are, while welcoming in more of how life really is. Letting-go of old illusory ways while welcoming-in our deeper nature, what could be more invigorating? It is the quest of real leadership. The root of the word ‘leadership’ is the old European word ‘leith’ which means to cross the threshold, to die and be reborn, to let-go of an old way and welcome-in the new.
When, as leaders, we are able to let-go of old mechanistic tendencies, and expand our restricted view of the organization, we open ourselves and our teams to more of how life really works. We learn to work with natural rhythms and ways that encourage the vitality and adaptability of the organization. We learn to lead by nature.
Leading by Nature
I call this regenerative nature-inspired approach to L&OD, Leading by Nature. It is at once completely natural and radically different from today’s dominant leadership narrative. Above all, it is a journey not a destination. This journey has both inner and outer dimensions for the leader and the organization:
For the leader – the inner-dimension is the capacity to connect to our true nature within; tapping into our essence so we lead with authenticity, coherence and purposefulness. The outer-dimension is about attuning with life around us, being open and receptive to the ever-changing nature of life, and creating generative spaces where trust, responsiveness and developmental learning thrive. This inner-outer leadership coherence allows us to create regenerative potential in ourselves and through our relationships with others.
For the organization – the inner-dimension is the mission, culture, values, meeting conventions and decision-making protocols that pervade the organization’s way of being. Creating a more purposeful, adult-adult, entrepreneurial, self-managing, diverse and inclusive way of working unlocks the organization’s regenerative potential. The outer-dimension is the customer value propositions, supply-chain and wider stakeholder relationships that drive how the organization shows-up in the world. This inner-outer organizational coherence allows diverse stakeholder relations to flourish through the products, services, experiences and communities the organization facilitates.
The up-shot of this regenerative L&OD is a working environment where people feel able to bring their whole selves to work, therefore able to unlock more of their natural creative spark. This humanness invites innovation, collaboration and purposefulness into the heart of everyday meetings and decision-making. An adult-adult culture of agility and empowered entrepreneurialism allows failures to be continuously transformed into learnings, and reduces the burden of bureaucracy.
This might sound like fanciful utopia to some. Surely business is about the bottom-line? For sure, every organization needs to survive in order to thrive in today’s world, and there are clear financial benefits in becoming regenerative. Years of detailed research by The Global Lamp Index show that companies embracing this living-systems approach consistently outperform their mechanistic counter-parts. To attract and retain high-quality talent, to innovation, out-perform and adapt amid increasingly volatile times we need to shift the way we lead and operate, especially amid a wider societal shift demanding more meaning, purpose, engagement and creativity in the workplace.
The old machine logic has an inherent control-manage dynamic that subverts and manipulates, whereas the living-systems logic has a sense-respond dynamic that empowers and enables. This shift in relational dynamic from control-manage to sense-respond requires a personal shift in consciousness, from separateness to relational interconnectedness.
As leaders, we’ve become well-heeled in the control-manage dynamic. We can unlearn this dynamic through a developmental journey of learning-in-practice. As we unlearn, we create space for a deeper knowing inside ourselves to be heard. We start to trust our natural inner capacities (non-rational intuitions, hunches, gut-feeling, heart perturbations, etc. as well as rational reasoning). These natural capacities help us sense how dynamics play out across the living-organization. This calls upon a combination of self-awareness and systemic-awareness within side ourselves.
Self-Awareness can be conveyed as containing two dimensions, a horizontal dimension and a vertical dimension.
The horizontal dimension relates to the quality of presence we bring to each evolving moment. This quality of presence depends upon our capacity to notice our own patterns of reactivity, habit, bias, conditioning, triggers and projections. In Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, he refers to the Voice of Judgement, the Voice of Cynicism, and the Voice of Fear. These three voices are in us all the time, keeping us safe from potential danger yet in the process keeping us small, reducing down our capacity to adapt and evolve. As we become more intimate with our own inner-ways, we learn to acknowledge these inner voices, and the habitual patterns of reactivity they create, so they do not hijack us so much. That way, we can keep ourselves as receptive and sensitive to the present moment, along with all its challenges and tensions. Therefore, we improve our ability to sense-and-respond to life, whether that be a difficult conversation down the corridor, a public-speaking engagement or listening to the needs of our team members in unfiltered non-judgmental ways.
The vertical dimension of self-awareness relates to our adult developmental psychology stage-development. All advanced adult developmental psychology models show stages of psychological worldview-development we progress through as we evolve our consciousness as adults. These models point to a significant threshold–crossing that occurs when we reach a certain point in our stage-development. We shift from a worldview of separateness (separate self as performance-achiever maximizing output in a dog-eat-dog world) to a worldview of interconnectedness (relational interconnected self as participator-facilitator helping co-create life-affirming futures). As we advance in our adult developmental psychology – which is more of an inner-deepening than an outer-advancement – we start to open more readily to the systemic and evolutionary nature of life. We are more able to tap in to Nature’s Wisdom, and sense the systemic dynamics at play within the living-organization. And so as our self-awareness deepens, our systemic-awareness naturally arises within us.
Systemic-awareness is the capacity to sense the wider relational system we lead and operate within: to sense its hidden ordering forces, patterns of behaviour, historic conditioning, habituated responses, and energetic networks of participation, learning and evolution. As we begin to realise that life itself is developmental (ever-learning) with emergent patterns of unfolding evolution, so too for our living-organizations.
Systemic leadership coaching can help here. Conventional executive coaching has tended to focus on the leader as an individual actor rather than understanding, and working with, the ever-changing relational field with its relational tensions and developmental dynamics. Systemic coaching can facilitate the L&OD shift by drawing upon systemic tools such as relational system-mapping, structured or unstructured constellations, deep listening, generative dialogue, Way of Council, Holistic Appreciative Inquiry, Theory U, Social Presencing, systemic immersions, and the application of Systemic Enablers (which is explored further in a moment). These, along with other systemic tools help open-up our awareness of the organization-as-living-system and help us learn how to attune with 1) the essence and purposefulness of the living-organization; 2) the systemic learning patterns and emergent-evolutionary dynamics of the system.
This mind-set shift is significant – rather than trying to externally fix the machine, by repairing or operating on it from above, instead we are sensing how the living-system can start to internally heal, renew and evolve itself. There are similarities here with oriental medicine where every system in life including the human body, is understood as being able to heal itself and realise its innate purposefulness when there is the right balance and flow of energy in the system. Blockages, stuckness and imbalance limit and undermine evolutionary potential. Just as we human-beings get stuck on past trauma, bad habits or past-conditioning which can hold us back from realising our potential, so too for our living-organizations. And like acupuncture can help the human-body, small pin-prick interventions can help the organizational-system flow with greater potential. Rather than major invasive surgery we can sense into small systemic interventions that are less costly, less intrusive or destabilising, and more respectfully aligned with the nature of the living-organization. While there may well be times when the future-fitness of the organization would be best served through major surgery (replacing a toxic Board, or carving off a part of the business, for instance) we ought first learn to sense how the living-organization can unlock its innate regenerative powers.
Let’s take the topic of performance reviews as an example to illustrate this shift from mechanistic to living-systems L&OD. Many of today’s performance review processes are based on the premise that performance resides solely in the individual. The reality is, there are systemic factors that affect the performance of every individual and team throughout the organization. In attempting to assess or improve performance, we need to be conscious of what is influencing the way people show-up, the capacity to relate with others, make decisions and work with the purposefulness of the living-organization. Within the organization, no one performs in isolation, therefore understanding systemic dynamics when assessing or improving performance is key.
Rather than trying to suppress or solve system challenges, we learn to acknowledge, attend-to and attune-with the relational dynamics at play in the organization. This process of acknowledging and attending-to involves deep listening, circles of sharing, and open honest feedback across the system. Then we may learn to attune-with the inner-nature of the organization and shift its vitality from survivalist-stressed machine into emergent-evolutionary living-system by re-patterning relational tensions in ways that allow better flow, richer purposefulness, innovative value propositions and greater impact across its wider stakeholder ecosystem. Inner-nature alignment allows the outer-nature of the organization to up-stretch towards life-affirming futures.
Over the years, I have found a few systemic practices to be particularly powerful. One I’d like to share here is the practice of what I call Systemic Enablers and their involvement in facilitating Organizational Acupuncture.
Systemic Enablers & Organizational Acupuncture
A diverse group of people from across different functions in the business are selected. Anything from about 4 to 14 people to start with can work well, regardless of the organization’s overall head-count. This group of people ought to be diverse in terms of the functional business areas they represent. It can be useful to have atleast one member from either the exec or senior leadership team, yet hierarchy is not so important here. What is important is the aptitude, perception and relational-engagement each person has with the organizational system. These Systemic Enablers should have healthy peer-connectivity and diverse networks of sharing and collaborating across the business. Colleagues often seek advice from them or turn to them in times of challenge. They are seen as positive agents of change and have a strong resonance with the purpose and values of the business.
Many of the people I come across in business are not initially well-versed or comfortable in sensing organizational system-dynamics yet if the quality of awareness and general aptitude is there, I have found that it doesn’t take long for people to start perceiving and working this way. Systemic-awareness is natural to every human being, and yet I have noticed that some people find it easier to listen-sense-respond to organizational dynamics. With enough time and dedication there is no reason why everyone in the organization can’t become Systemic Enablers, yet a circle of 4-14 folk is a really great place to start.
This cohort of Systemic Enablers then becomes a community of practice embarking upon a transformational learning journey both for themselves, as a community-group, and for the wider organization. The time requirement need not be any more than a day a month, along with some learning-in-action that only compliments the day-job. When they convene as a community, they are in-service of the organization. Through regular (for instance, monthly) circles the cohort shares their insights on the living-organization.
These circles use an appreciative inquiry method of positive questioning and collaborative inquiry. It is ‘appreciative’ in that the line of inquiry is about recognizing the best in people and seeking the learning potential each context offers; working with where the flow of potential is, rather than getting ensnared on problem areas. I also call upon Theory U practices, deep listening, structured constellations, generative dialogue techniques like Way of Council, mindfulness and somatic-based practices, in-person nature immersions, and on-line meditations. These practices, and more, are all aimed to help create psychologically deep yet safe-spaces for the Systemic Enablers to sense into the systemic dynamics of the organizational living-system. It is not always possible for the cohort to meet in-person and there are techniques that help ensure virtual circles can go deep quickly so that people can sense-in, reflect and share what is often just beneath the surface of the organization. Upon identifying and acknowledging systemic patterns, the cohort learn to discern insights on where and in what way to engage in small systemic interventions that send positive ripples across the system, just like acupuncture pinpricks do in aligning us to our inner healing potential. We re-pattern relational stuckness into better flow, richer purposefulness and increased outer impact.
One example of these Systemic Enablers in-practice is at the global lifestyle brand Vivobarefoot whose goal is to create regenerative footwear and experiences that bring us closer to nature. Early on in their journey towards becoming a regenerative business, I worked with the senior leadership team to identify a dozen Systemic Enablers who I have been journeying with for over 18mths now, through a blend of on-line and in-person sessions. Vivo calls these Systemic Enablers Proprioceptors (the biological name for the sensory neurons that sense and respond to movement in our bodies). These Proprioceptors enliven a culture of regenerative feedback, developmental learning, and self-system evolution by regularly checking-in and sharing feedback across the whole Vivo system. In parallel, the Proprioceptors work alongside a number of silo-busting learning pods, where everyone from across the business comes together in groups of about a dozen to engage in blended-learning journeys: on-line webinars, off-line homework, peer-learning, and in-person nature immersions.
To summarise, there is a necessary evolution in L&OD happening on our watch. Three important aspects of this L&OD evolution are:
A worldview shift from machine to living-systems. This involves a shift in leadership dynamic from control-manage to sense-respond.
In invoking this shift, we need look no further than within and all around us. Learning to attune with our inner-nature through self-awareness and with the relational dynamics all around us in the organization through systemic-awareness. This is an inner-outer attunement cultivated through an embodied learning-in-action transformational journey.
There are powerful yet simple practices we can draw upon to enable this transformational journey. One practice I have experienced working well is Systemic Enablers applying Organizational Acupuncture.
We are in the midst of a civilization-wide transformation of the scale never seen before: halving carbon emission by 2030, reversing nature loss, overhauling social inequality, tackling the mental health and wellbeing pandemic, embracing the digital revolution, and dealing with rising volatility and turbulence. No organization is spared. Leading by Nature welcomes-in a fresh yet timeless wisdom right into the front-line of our everyday conversations, decision-making methods and ways of showing-up. The time has come for Homo Sapiens to live up to their name of ‘wise beings’ by learning to attune with Nature’s Wisdom and cultivating life-affirming organizations.
Giles Hutchins is a pioneering practitioner and senior adviser at the fore-front of the [r]evolution in organizational and leadership consciousness and developmental approaches that enhance personal, organizational and systemic agility and vitality. He is author and co-author of several leadership and organizational development papers, and the books The Nature of Business (2012), The Illusion of Separation (2014), Future Fit (2016), Regenerative Leadership (2019) and Leading by Nature (2022). Chair of The Future Fit Leadership Academy and Founder of Leadership Immersions, co-founder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation and Regenerators, he runs a 60 acre leadership centre at Springwood Farm, an area of outstanding natural beauty near London, UK. Previously held corporate roles – Head of Transformation Practice for KPMG, Global Director and Head of Sustainability for Atos (150,000 employees, over 40 countries). He provides coaching at individual and organizational levels for those seeking to transform their personal and/or work lives. Giles is a keynote speaker on the future of business and regenerative leadership. He is also a Reiki Master, a certified advanced coach, holds a Master of Science in Business Systems and higher diploma in Advanced Leadership Development, trained in Integral Solonics vertical development, and certified in Harthill vertical development action-logics.
Leading by Nature book and podcast can be found here: https://gileshutchins.com/leadingbynature/
Giles Hutchins’ unique regenerative leadership coaching for leaders and practitioners has been called ‘life changing’, find out more here: https://gileshutchins.com/coaching/
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