The L&OD living-systems paradigm is a worldview shift that moves us onward from yesterday’s machine paradigm. A “worldview shift” may sound daunting, especially when many of us experience enough stress, busyness, and volatility in the workplace today. The good news is this worldview shift is a genuine return. It is a revitalization of something innate, a reconnection with the true nature within us and the rhythms and ways of nature all around us. Woven into our human physiology and psychology is the natural capacity to embrace a living-systems worldview. Letting go of old, illusory ways while welcoming in our deeper nature—what could be more invigorating?
When, as leaders, we are able to let go of the outdated mechanistic tendencies and expand our restricted view of the organization, we open ourselves and our teams up to how life inherently operates—in harmony. We learn how to work with natural rhythms and methods that encourage the vitality and adaptability of the organization. We learn to lead by nature.
Machine Worldview Living-Systems Worldview
Dominator culture > Partnership culture
Parent-child > Adult-adult
Control-manage > Sense-respond
Disempowering > Empowering
Unnatural > Natural
Life-denying > Life-affirming
Let’s take ourselves out of the busy work environment for a moment and reflect on our everyday life. We successfully go about our daily chores, errands, and affairs without the need for top-down, command-control managers telling us what to do. Whether it’s picking the kids up from school, washing up after Sunday lunch, going to the theatre, catching a train, or organizing a birthday party, we seldom hand over our self-authoring power to managers. We might seek advice from partners and friends or ask experts about certain projects, but when someone starts to tell us what to do in a dictatorial way, our defenses go up, we get wary, and we switch off.
Because being “managed” feels like a form of oppression that undermines our own sovereignty, and so we retract. As we retract, the relationship between ourselves and the other person is subtly inhibited; it no longer flows as naturally, and creative potential is lost. Sure, there will certainly be times when it is wise to exercise authority or assertiveness of one’s view. Leading by Nature is not a namby-pamby way of relating to others in the organization. No, not at all. Leading by Nature is about noticing when we are standing strong in our authentic true nature as opposed to instances when we are either forcing another person or being forced by another whose trying to dominate us. To use psychology lingo, it’s the difference between an adult-adult dynamic and a parent-child dynamic.
A recent global Gallup poll shows that 85% of workers are disengaged, which illustrates the extent to which our mechanistic mindset is crippling organizational effectiveness. It’s a mindset that creates human suffering, psychological distress, and unhealthy interpersonal relations right at the heart of our enterprises, the very place where creativity, passion, purposefulness, and adaptive learning ought to be unlocking our brilliance. Hence, the number one most important thing our leaders need to address is the ability to transcend the old, life-denying organization-as-machine mindset and expand into a leadership consciousness that frees our self-and-system awareness so that we can better sense and respond to the systemic dynamics at play across the organization-as-living-system.
This evolutionary shift in L&OD is a learning-in-action process. First and foremost, it’s an internal shift, an embodied process—rather than a linear tick-box exercise—where one must become self-aware of old habits while patiently practicing new ones. Secondly, it requires enriching the cultural soil of the organization so that each person can draw nourishment from everyday interactions as they learn and adapt.
The good news is that we need look no further than within and all around us to find inspiration for this L&OD shift from a machine into a living-systems worldview.
When we observe a forest or woodland, reductive machine logic sees trees struggling against each other in a competitive battle for survival of the fittest. However, when we sharpen our lens of perception—using a living-systems lens—we start to see the immense, inter-relational venture at play. Different species of trees share nutrients with each other through the soil, and tree roots form intimate relationships with mycelia, bacteria, and microbes. The forest floor is teaming with networks that benefit the vibrancy, resilience, and evolutionary dynamics of the whole ecosystem. In only a handful of healthy soil there’s more living beings working together than there are human beings on the entire planet.
What Charles Darwin originally meant by the phrase “survival of the fittest” was not “dominate or become dominated,” but rather each species adapts to an ever-changing context by “fitting-in” to its niche. It’s not the strongest species that survive nor the most intelligent but the ones most able to adapt to change. This adaptive edge is what our organizations need to foster by welcoming in the living-systems worldview into our L&OD.
Future-Fit Organizations as Living-Systems
There is so much to learn from our trees and soil, let alone nature’s fuller ensemble. In nature’s collectives—ant colonies, beehives, flocks of birds, and shoals of fish—we find the pervasive behavior of sensing-responding. A scientific descriptor for this sensing-responding behavior is stigmergy, where collectives create adaptability, coherence, and resilience without the need for planning, control, direct communication, or top-down dictate. But it’s not just swarms or shoals that display this sensing-responding behavior, it’s a core life behavior that we can observe anywhere, from the forest floors to deep-sea vents, from mountain ranges to prairies. Everywhere there’s life we find sensing-responding behavior.
Adult developmental psychology studies indicate that leaders able to sense and work with the emergent and evolutionary dynamics of life are better equipped to lead 21st century future-fit organizations. (Laloux, 2014) Take developmental psychologist Clare Graves who painstakingly researched levels of consciousness across thousands of adults. What he called Tier 2 consciousness (the next stage of consciousness he witnessed emerging in adults across business and society) is hallmarked by the capacity to sense the systemic inter-relational nature of emergent systems in both natural and human systems. “Know how nature functions and you know how to behave [in Tier 2],” said Graves. (Beck, 2018)
This gives way to the rising trend to learn from nature. Yet, even when seeking to learn from nature, we all too often get caught up in yesterday’s logic, which, as we know, seeks to compartmentalize, categorize, and rationalize. We bring the same old mechanistic lens to our biological explorations that desensitized us to nature’s relationality. While a reductive scientific understanding of nature along with a systematic set of nature’s principles is indeed useful (and certainly something we can draw-upon to inform the new L&OD logic), the challenge and the opportunity lie in shifting our consciousness into a more holistic attentiveness to the nature of life all around and within us. This endeavor is as fresh as it is ancient.
Chinese sages perceived the manifest phenomena of nature as conveying deep insights about how change unfolds in life. It is not the outer forms, functions, and designs of nature but the inner underlying rhythms of transformation which precede the outer natural forms that provide insightful wisdom. My nature-inspired coaching work draws upon the numerous wisdom traditions that understand the importance of the underlying wisdom innate in life—Ayurveda, Buddhism, Shintoism, Daoism, Confucianism and Sufism from the East, Alchemy and Hermeticism from the West, and Tantric and Shamanic traditions found the world-over. This underlying wisdom of life is what I refer to as Nature’s Wisdom.
The ability for our sophisticated, digitized, yet stressed-out organizations to attune with Nature’s Wisdom is the next frontier. It means aligning with life itself, nothing more nothing less. All of life—including human society, the organization, and the leader—is immersed in an ever-changing rhythmic and relational dance. When off kilter with the rhythms of this dance, chaos and fragility ensue; when in-tune, all parts find flow and the capacity to flourish. It’s the same for life within the organization as it is for life beyond the organization. Those organizations and leaders who learn to attune with the rhythms and ways of nature are the ones most able to adapt to change.
Through many collaborative initiatives and my own practitioner-based fieldwork, I have spent more than a decade exploring nature’s principles as applied to organizational development. What I now offer here goes deeper than such principles. It’s a universal substratum underpinning how nature and human nature operates. It’s Nature’s Wisdom. We can live in accord with this wisdom through certain practices of learning how to sense and work with life’s subtle ways. It’s a learning journey that involves becoming more intimate with our own true nature (self-awareness) and with the relational behaviors and characteristics of the living-organization (systemic-awareness).
Let’s take a look at three aspects of Nature’s Wisdom:
Life is ever-changing: Change is happening everywhere all the time. In everything there is both stillness and movement. Movement is pervaded by stillness. Stillness gives rise to movement. The evolution of life spawns from this movement arising from stillness. This dance of life follows the pulsating rhythm of arising and expressing and doing (yang) and falling away and reflecting and being (yin).
Life is full of tensions: Tension creates the crucible for creativity. There is tension between the yang and yin, which is what impels nature’s creative advance. Sometimes there is a little more yang, sometimes more yin. This yin-yang tension creates opportunities for synergy and “dinergy.” Synergy is where two or more inputs come together and form something new through their tension of complimentary difference. Dinergy is where seemingly opposing perspectives, such as a clash of views, may feel uncomfortable yet if worked through something new can emerge beyond the initial perspectives. Learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortableness these tensions give rise to is an important leadership skill to acquire.
Life is relational and interconnected: Infusing all life is a universal field of consciousness that informs and interconnects everything. Scientists call it the Quantum Vacuum or Field. Each manifest aspect of nature, along with ourselves and our organizational systems, is distinct in its own right—holding its own boundaries, essence, and purposefulness—yet all are immersed in this Field. Nothing is separate; everything inter-relates in varying degrees. The leadership team is nested within the organizational system, which is nested within its wider stakeholder ecosystem, which is nested within societal and ecological systems. All living systems, including human ones, thrive through reciprocity and give rise to systemic dynamics—pulsations, ripples, repercussions, flows, and potentialities.
While we might be able to intellectually comprehend these aspects, Nature’s Wisdom is revealed only through embodied experience. Future-fit leaders can cultivate this embodied capacity by embarking upon a transformational journey. I have spent over a decade honing a coaching-based practice that guides senior leaders, leadership teams, OD and change catalysts, and organizational cultures through advanced developmental learning journeys. These journeys—whether taken in-person or virtually—are immersive in that they invite leaders to learn-through-practice by going inward into themselves and also into the inner hidden dynamics of the organizational system and wider stakeholder ecosystem in which they operate. These journeys are the lived experience of Leading by Nature.
“Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” – Lao Tzu
For more on what comprises a Living-systems approach to L&OD, see my latest book Leading by Nature – The Process of Becoming A Regenerative Leader
Giles Hutchins is author of five books on regenerative leadership and learning from living-systems applied to business. He runs leadership immersions amid ancient woodlands close to London, and also engages in on-line coaching for leaders and practitioners across the globe. His podcast series Leading by Nature can be found here
Feel free to join the Leadership Immersions LinkedIn group here if have not already.