We are nature and nature is us. Pure and simple. It’s only an imbalance in our perception – our state of consciousness – that lures us in to believing we are separate from each other and life on Earth.
The cold reality today is, the dominant worldview pervading our businesses, institutions and societies is flawed, corrupted by an illusion of separation. This logic sets ourselves apart from nature and each other. It’s deeply divisive and woefully inadequate, yet seldom questioned.
As entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken notes,
‘Our planet and youth are telling us the same story. Vital connections have been severed between human beings and nature; within nature itself; and between people, religions, governments, and commerce. This disconnection is the origin of the climate crisis, it is the very root.’
As King Charles III of the United Kingdom notes,
‘When people talk of things like an ‘environmental crisis’ or a ‘financial crisis’ what they are actually describing are the consequences of a much deeper problem – a ‘crisis of perception’. It is the way we see the world that is ultimately at fault.’
As systems scientist Gregory Bateson notes,
‘The source of all our problems today stem from the gap between the way nature works and how we think.’
Regenerative Leadership closes that gap. It attends to the heart of the crisis of perception by finding right-relation inside ourselves and with life on Earth.
This involves a shift in consciousness – and it costs nothing, and is simple (though not necessarily easy). It’s our birth-right. It’s the essential purpose of what it means to be truly human.
From this regenerative ground we find our way out of illusion and into the way life works. Life, itself, is naturally life-affirming – its innately regenerative. So too is our human nature. If we right ourselves back into our own authenticity we become regenerative, naturally. This ‘inner turn’ is vital for any outer regeneration. Try walking the path of regeneration without embodying this inner-shift and you slip back into illusion without even realising.
‘There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.’ Morpheus
Let’s keep this super simple for a moment, by starting with simple definitions:
‘Regeneration’ – Tending toward harmony with life. Bringing life into the centre of every decision.
‘Regenerative’ – Working the way life works. The process of tending toward regeneration (harmony with life).
‘Regenerative Leadership’ – Leading self and system toward harmony with life. Drawing upon both self-awareness (authenticity/wholeness) and systemic-awareness (sensitivity/wisdom) to cultivate the conditions for regeneration. A process of becoming more authentic and life-centric.
‘Regenerative Business’ – An organization that seeks harmony with life. Both the inner-nature (culture) and outer-nature (value propositions and stakeholder engagement) are purposefully journeying toward regeneration (harmony with life).
Keep it simple! Job done, now let’s go home.
Not quite so fast – as the journey home is actually the very regenerative journey we are exploring here, and its way beyond neat-and-tidy definitions, although defining things can definitely help.
Essentially, ‘becoming regenerative’ is a full-bodied reconnection into the rapture of reality; an authentic connection into our inner-nature (the essence within ourselves) and outer-nature (the essence of the living-organization, community and world we participate in). Connecting to inner-outer essence allows energy to arise, informing our flow with life.
‘Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.’ Lao Tzu
The vitality of the individual, team and organization enhance when connected to essence. Aristotle’s eudemonia or ‘wellbeing’ emanates from inner-nature into outer-nature and vice versa. This is the gift of regeneration right into the heart of day-to-day interactions and decision-making. Connecting to inner-outer essence enables right-relation that informs right-action shaping business strategy and tactics that seek harmony with life.
For many business leaders this can seem very far from what they’ve been taught at mainstream business schools or bootcamp 101 courses. But for a growing number of conscious leaders, this capacity to centre and deepen into self-and-systemic awareness forms the foundation for right decision-making: Making decision not just in nature but by nature. This is the art of regeneration – leading by nature, attuned with inner-nature/outer-nature and finding harmony with life.
We are born regenerative, and we die regenerative – but we get lost during much of our waking lives in a kind of slumber of sedentary-sedation inured in the malaise of our mechanistic-materialistic culture.
We ‘grow up’ and get acculturated. We start to think we’re separate from life: anxious, fear-filled, must-get-on, win-out amid the hyper-competitive marketplace. We start to lose touch with our own essence and with the essence of life. We grasp at life, seek to control, clutch at straws, apply artifice to get-on, and start believing our own illusion. Techno-fix short-cut solutions seem sure enough, not realising we are but lost in the labyrinth far from home, no longer able to read the stars or inner-compass, cut adrift, tossed this-way-and-that amid fickle ego-urges, false quests and superficial distractions. We start to lose our own sovereignty, give away our power to people we assume know how to run a successful company yet who don’t connect with the essence of the organization. Instead of emancipation, enslavement creeps-in.
So we need to journey – I mean really journey. Not some touristic voyeuristic excuse of a journey.
To explore, and not cease exploring inwardly and outwardly, and to arrive not at some new-found-land out-yonder aghast in-wonder, but to soberly arrive here into reality, and know it as if for the first time. Then the heart-beat within us knows the rhythm of nature, and can better serve the evolution of life. This is the ‘First Time’ the ancient Egyptians and other ancient peoples speak of – the space-time where Heaven and Earth meet, the centre point where movement and dance unfold. This is where regeneration begins and ends, and it’s the only place we find right-relation with our own selves and our organizational systems. Everything else is distraction.
Find tongues in trees,
Books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones,
And good in every thing. William Shakespeare
To be explicitly clear here, regeneration is not about us fixing the world or even slowing down the negative impact we have on the world through greener-shades of consumerism. It’s about us learning to get back in tune with life, each and every day, remembering the wisdom that is already here, always has been, right before our noses, amid every tree, brook, stone, sunset and sunrise.
Regeneration, regenerative leadership and regenerative business are predicated upon a worldview shift from Mechanistic-Materialism to Quantum-Complexity (I explain this in detail in Leading by Nature and what this shift means for leadership and organizational development).
Mechanistic Materialism is a 400 year-old mindset born out of the Scientific & Industrial Revolution. We’re still running on it today; managing our businesses with a 400yr old operating system. Isn’t it ironic that the mechanistic mindset prides itself on being up-to-date yet it’s woefully out-of-date, proven wrong by brilliant scientists for a century already – think Einstein, Schrodinger, Bohr, Bohm, Meadows, Margulis, Midgley, Bateson, and many more.
The mechanistic story goes like this – humans are separate from nature, nature is a set of resources to be used for human betterment. Nature has no intrinsic worth other than to humans, simply a collection of things to be manipulated by us for us. This view posits that there is nothing in life beyond that which can be measured-monitored-controlled-managed. Gone is the life-force of nature, any sense of soul or sacredness. Life becomes de-animated, therefore ripe for our exploitation.
Evolution is viewed primarily as a competitive struggle for survival – Newtonian/Cartesian/Neo-Darwinian. Masculine yang-assertion is prioritised over feminine yin-receptivity, outer-form/productization is prioritised over inner-depth/craftsmanship. Left-brain hemispheric and head-based thinking seek control and linearity, while deprioritizing the right-hemispheric full-bodied embodied/intuitive and emergent experience of life.
Many sustainability initiatives are caught up in this Mechanistic Materialism. Let’s fix the world so we humans can survive at the expense of nature. Let’s strip-out wildlife and plant monocrop trees for carbon-sequestration. Let’s flood bird sanctuaries and wetlands so tidal dams can enable green-electricity. Let’s geoengineer the weather to reduce the sun’s rays to help mitigate global warming. Let’s augment reality, wear smart-watches and smart-glasses to be incessantly connected to smart-grids for a smart-planet to track-and-trace our movements and choices for controlling carbon footprints… and so forth. These are the hallmarks of Mechanistic Materialism at work. For sure it’s neat-and-tidy objectified-reductionism is a useful tool we can draw upon, but when dominant it’s dangerous.
We can draw upon the tool of technology and linearity without it usurping our inner-outer connectedness. Life is not something to be controlled but something to dance with, and become one with.
In our own psyches, Mechanistic Materialism creates an imbalanced tendency of human-over-nature; left hemisphere-over-right hemisphere; masculine-over-feminine; outer achievement-over-inner wellbeing. So much so, we probably do not even notice how divisive and corrosive it is to ourselves and our systems. With it comes heightened separateness, imposter syndromes and a constant background level of fear. This decouples us from our centre. We search for outer-satisfaction to mask over the inner-fear, and find addiction to superficial connection. Enter the contagion of consumerism we’re caught in today. We think it’s OK (or even ‘progress’) when witnessing more and more people staring into screens when walking down the street, on the train, in restaurants together, at the park with their kids, and the breakfast table on a Sunday morning. Disconnection is rising, with all sorts of mental health and wellbeing issues now rampant. Today’s corporate-machine mentality responds with yet more apps and algorithms corrupting its own consumers in the name of ‘wellbeing’. We slip further into the labyrinth; further from essence and regeneration.
Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not a rage-against-the-machine, I love technology and the immense benefits it brings us, including the ability to reduce air-miles, connect us across boundaries, and find sustainable solutions that reduce negative impact. Yet let’s not be seduced into a sedentary-sedated stupor of superficiality where real connection to our deeper selves, each other and the present moment gets trampled by the titillation of social media, augmented second-life and consumer-app transactions.
The imbalance Mechanistic Materialism creates in the psyche unroots us from Earth/Universe, disrupting the yin-yang harmony of working the way nature works, taking us out of the path of regeneration. Chaos and dis-ease ensue.
Ancient wisdom traditions and indigenous peoples the world-over have long known this – take yourself out of harmony with nature, and we get sick in the mind and body.
For instance, ancient Egypt’s rich wisdom tradition conveys a struggle between Maat (the harmony innate within the rhythms of nature) and Isfet (corrupting distraction that pulls us off-centre and out of harmony into chaos). The quest of the wise person is to discern Maat from Isfet, to know when one is being led astray by the seduction of false connection and when one is on the path to regeneration.
Indigenous prophecies speak of a time when the forces of nature will be undermined to such an extent due to a distracting disease of the mind infecting vast swathes of humanity. The choice will be a simple one – wake-up and rebalance or chaos unfolds. Such prophecies also say how this time of immense breakdown/breakthrough can also be a good time, of hope and opportunity, of new dawns and new steps if we are able to connected to our centre and banish struggle from our minds.
Prophecies or no prophecies, wisdom traditions or no wisdom traditions – this much is clear: imbalance is very real – let’s notice the tendency to prioritize the yang outer-achiever what-gets-measured-gets-done, the desire to compartmentalise and silo, to command-and-control.
In seeking to solve the climate emergency, social inequality or any of the other systemic challenges we face, if we lead with imbalance all sorts of wrong-footedness, confusion, stress and conflict creeps in that taking us away from the path of regeneration. Keeping life at the heart of our decision-making is not simply a rational endeavour mapped out through planetary-boundary frameworks (though this is indeed an important step forward, and vitally needed) it’s a deep felt-sense of connectedness with the web of life that awakens in us as we reconnect with Nature’s Wisdom within and all around us.
‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind its faithful servant; we’ve created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ Albert Einstein
In reality, we need to work with BOTH the rational-analytic tools and technologies we have today AND the deeper integral awareness of living-systems as emergent-ecological-quantum phenomena. Yet as Einstein wisely notes, it’s the intuitive embodied connection that is primary, the tools and technologies serve it, not the other way round. Then, with this sacred gift is activated within us, we begin the journey out of the labyrinth of our own illusions and find our way toward regeneration.
So, what does this mean for leadership? Well, we need more than Responsible Leadership, Transparent Leadership or Sustainable Leadership – as these forms of leading do not necessarily involve a mindset shift from Mechanistic Materialism to Quantum Complexity. For this we need Regenerative Leadership – a way of leading that enables the team/organization/community to journey toward becoming a ‘regenerative business’ – where the organization is recognised as a living-system deeply immersed in the living-systems of life on Earth. This kind of leadership involves two dynamics – self-awareness and systemic-awareness:
1) Self-awareness (Know Thy Self) a path of deepening into our inner-nature and learning through our relationships with others. This is a developmental journey of becoming more of who we truly are, and living our dharma by serving life;
2) Systemic-awareness (deeply sense-in to the organizational system), not just mechanistically mapping-out structures, control mechanisms and decision-making protocols with our heads, but attune with the essence of the living-system, in a full-bodied way that necessarily activates our super-nature, head/heart/gut integration, embodied knowing, along with a practical (and scientific) understanding of how complex adaptive systems work through emergent and evolutionary dynamics.
The living-organization itself has its own life-force, its own evolutionary potential, and as regenerative leaders we work with this life-force. It’s a celebratory dance that challenges us every day at deep and partly unconscious levels. It’s not a day-job but a totalizing way-of-life that emancipates us from the slumber of sedentary-sedation.
This necessarily involves a threshold-crossing – a metamorphic shift in consciousness – for the leader.
Regenerative Business has two dimensions to it 1) the outer-nature of the organization – its value-propositions and stakeholder impact, 2) the inner-nature of the organization – its culture and everyday interactions for employees. When these two dimensions intentionally seek to become more life-affirming then the organization is more authentic and can be said to be on the journey toward regeneration.
Let’s briefly explore each dimension:
1) Outer-nature – the way the organisation interacts outwardly with the world through its value-propositions, stakeholder relations and impact the organization has on its entire ‘stakeholder ecosystem’ (including wider society/environment).
This is a journey, with stages or layers along the way – think Russian Dolls, each layer contains the previous layers nested within the business. We have earlier stages still present within the business at any one time, yet can operate from more advanced stages not just falling back on old constructs.
The traditional stage of ‘conventional business’ mindset (aka amber/orange – in integral/ego stage-development lingo) is helpful for cutting costs, managing and controlling the P&L, etc. the business basics essential to running the organization, but essentially ‘survivalist’ and short-term profit focused – think Milton Friedman and 101 business bootcamp.
Then, transcending-and-including into ‘sustainable business’ mindset (orange/green) with its recognition of the wider impact the business has throughout the stakeholder ecosystem (Responsible Leadership, Conscious Capitalism and B-Corp initiatives start to kick-in at this stage).
Then, transcending-and-including into ‘restorative business’ mindset (green) aka ‘net positive’ in recognition that minimizing negative impact is not enough and there are sound business reasons for creating shared-value across the stakeholder ecosystem, creating ‘net positive impact’.
At all these three stages of business mindset one can still be operating within a human-centric rather than life-centric perspective, and still sitting comfortably within Mechanistic-Materialism.
Though, once the organization starts moving out of conventional into sustainable and restorative/net-positive business, more and more people in the organization start to open their minds to regeneration. A rising dissonance amongst leaders dawns that mechanistic thinking is no longer adequate to deal with the interwoven systemic challenges of the day. And then the transcending-and-including from restorative/net-positive business into the next stage ‘regenerative business’ mindset (teal/living-systems) involves a threshold is crossed into a deeper recognition of the innate interconnectedness of the organization embedded within Earth’s living-system with rhythms and ways that we can learn to attune with in making life-centric decisions.
A common mistake today is to assume net-positive initiatives are the same as regenerative – they can be if a living-systems mindset is activated. But often, in my experience, net-positive initiatives can draw from a human-centric mechanistic ‘humans doing something to nature’ mentality. This is NOT the same as regenerative. Hence, the importance of regenerative leadership to cultivate conditions for a shift in mindset out of mechanistic into living-systems, to wake-up from the slumber of separateness.
As said earlier – an organization is like nested Russian dolls, so while it may be journeying toward regeneration it still displays ‘conventional’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘net positive’ business tendencies as and when needed, but this is no longer the default go-to mindset. A threshold is crossed in the consciousness of the organization. This is largely predicated on key people, like the founder and CEO, operating from next-stage regenerative leadership consciousness by having gone through a threshold-crossing in their own meaning-making from mechanistic into living-systems. Otherwise, we are merely gesturing toward regeneration, excited by the word, but not full-heartedly and courageously progressing on the regenerative journey. Enter the phrase ‘regenerative rinsing’ (rather like ‘green washing’) where the word ‘regenerative’ and ‘regeneration’ are used without fully embracing the threshold-crossing required.
2) Inner-nature – this is about how employees show-up and engage amid the day-to-day working environment. Traditionally this has been overlooked by the sustainable business narrative, with HR/Culture Leads going to completely different conferences and networking events, even using a completely different business lexicon to their Sustainability/CSR counterparts – two different silo’s within a corporate-machine competing for attention and prioritization.
For regenerative business the day-to-day culture is a vital part of the living-systems mindset. Here are 3 key qualities essential for the living-organization to become regenerative: Developmental, Emergence, Evolutionary (DEE) – all of which combine together to enable future-fitness, agility and authenticity in journeying toward regeneration. It’s simply good business sense, and far from creating a drag on business performance, increases adaptability, creativity and resilience.
‘In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.’ Margaret Wheatley
I unpack each of these DEE qualities in detail in the book Leading by Nature with supportive practices and tools. Here, I briefly summarise each:
Developmental – A developmental culture celebrates learning. The learning-edge happens in what I phrase a ‘psychologically safe yet developmentally challenging’ environment. It’s a culture than integrates reflection-in-action, coaching conversations and feedback.
Emergence – Emergence is the way life unfolds propelled by tensions. Creating the right space for tensions to become crucibles for learning, growth and evolution enables the life-force of the living-organization to thrive rather than merely survive amid volatile times. A simple yet powerful way I have found that helps teams work through tensions of divergence-convergence spawning emergence, is through practices like Dialogue, Deep Listening and Non-violent Communication, and a host of Liberating Structures – simple rules that liberate creative innovation and emergence. I provide some free-to-download tools on my website that help with individual and organizational emergence.
‘We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.’ Donella Meadows
Evolutionary – As we embrace the Quantum Complexity worldview, we realize that the living-organization is continuously adjusting and adapting both within itself and with its external environment through relationships. Just as we are learning to connect to our essence inside ourselves, the organization as it adapts and evolves is deepening its connection to its essence – its ‘reason-for-being’. The more we tune-in to the relational patterns and systemic dynamics of the living-organization the more we can sense-respond to what best serves the organization’s reason-for being. A practice I have found that helps with this is what I call Systemic Enablers which I describe in detail in Leading by Nature.
This DEE inner-nature of the organization allows it to thrive amid a constant state of flux. It aids a threshold-crossing beyond fear and separateness by embracing change in deepening who we truly are. This helps us live life more fully and become more true, organizationally and individually.
As the Quaker leadership specialist Parker J Palmer notes, this way of learning and operating opens us into life, whereupon time, and life itself, becomes more abundant as we learn to live more responsively to the wisdom of nature. We create space in our working relationships that welcome diversity while deepening into the ‘seed of the true self’ unlocking our innate potential as a force for good in the world. This may sound idealistic or utopian, but what other option do we really have? Continue in our sedated slumber and ruin all our life-support systems, or awaken into how life really works? Besides, there are many good practical business reasons for walking the regenerative path. And there are a growing number of organizations embracing this journey because they know it’s true to their being – I provide examples in Leading by Nature, and also in this previous blog article.
Briefly, just two examples:
AXA Climate – its reason-for-being is to make regenerative business universal. It’s outer-nature is journeying toward regeneration by providing training, education and risk-management services that help clients join the regenerative journey. Its inner-nature is journeying toward regeneration by cultivating a life-affirming living-organization through practices and rituals that aid an agile, developmental and emergent culture. In the words of AXA Climate:
Reducing our negative impact on the planet is not enough. Our collective challenge is to switch from extractive companies to regenerative companies. To that end, we are transforming our business models, our organizations and our collective missions. And this transformation movement drives us. We are changing the paradigm: our companies are living beings, nested in the living world.
For a podcast interview with AXA Climate CEO Antoine Denoix listen here.
Vivobarefoot – its reason-for-being is to help reconnect people to the natural world and reclaim their potential. Its outer-nature is journeying toward regeneration by providing barefoot sustainable footwear, bespoke 3d printing and natural health education services, events and communities. It’s inner-nature is journeying toward regeneration by cultivating an adult-adult self-managing culture based on regenerative leadership principles informing a developmental, emergent and evolutionary living-systems mindset. In the words of Vivobarefoot:
When we reconnect to the natural world, we reconnect to ourselves. It’s time to embrace a natural way of living, and let nature heal us. Vivo is on a mission to regenerate both human and environmental health.
For a podcast interview with Vivo CEO Galahad Clark listen here.
As the ancient Lao Tzu knew:
Open yourself to nature,
Then trust your natural responses;
Everything will fall into place.
What Lao Tzu points to is a shift in our way of attending to life, from one that seeks to assert control over life, to one that opens into the Way of Nature.
This is the act of regeneration and it starts with an inner-turn into the stillness amid movement. No credit card required. But a dose of Balance, Patience, Courage and Purposefulness will definitely help the journey unfold (see Leading by Nature for a comprehensive exploration into these essential regenerative leadership virtues).
The final words I shall leave to the poet:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 4 Quartets
“Giles Hutchins has for over a decade led the way with his championship of learning through nature. His new book is a really important evolution of these ideas emerging into a philosophy of systems thinking/being – it’s bang on the money, a really important book that will inspire all those whose role it is to champion resilience and adaptability, ethical commercial development, wellbeing in the workplace and the nurturing of a moral compass.” – Sir Tim Smit, KBE, Founder of The Eden Project
“Leading by Nature is THE handbook for regenerative leadership. A must-read for every business leader who genuinely cares about the future of humanity.’ Jayn Sterland, CEO of Weleda UK
“A truly exceptional and timely book that redefines the locus of power in relationship to leadership; leadership that seeks harmony and alignment with nature. Giles reminds us to bring awareness/presence to everything that unfolds. This book is the teacher we all need.” Sue Cheshire, Founder and former CEO of The Global Leaders Academy
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, and trained in advanced Integral Solonics leadership development, Harthill vertical leadership development, as well as other advanced modalities.
Leading by Nature: https://gileshutchins.com/leadingbynaturebook/
Feel free to join the LinkedIn Community Leadership Immersions here https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13767578/