By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®

This article is part 7 of 9 in the series Regenerative Leadership & Regenerative Business

What Is Regenerative Leadership?

Regenerative leadership—the final module in our pioneering Self-to-System™ curriculum to develop transformational leaders—is perhaps the crowning achievement of contemporary leadership development. This is because it promises nothing less than the transformation of modern extractive industrial capitalism to a fully sustainable, health-generating economy that allows organizations—and all life on our planet—to flourish. See more about the importance of regenerative thinking here.

Regenerative leaders do not need to be sustainability experts. They can collaborate with technical sustainability professionals to steward their businesses and shepherd their people to more life-affirming and nature-positive ways of working and doing. They can lead the way to regenerative brands and business models, using many of the tools and innovations already available.

That said, we believe that regenerative leadership can only emerge in its full glory when other developmental areas—conscious and resilient leadership, purposeful and wise leadership, collaborative and relational leadership, and creative and innovation leadership—are in place because it requires all of these to be present to embody and enact really regenerative thinking.

Without building on strong, wise, and innovative foundations, we get the unfortunate situation—regretfully common today—where leaders promote themselves as regenerative thinkers, pioneers, and practitioners but cannot show up with truthful, trusting, awake, aware, moral, and relationally honorable mindsets and behaviors necessary for regenerative leadership to arise.

This not only sabotages their potential to lead toward regenerative business models but also devalues the power of regenerative thinking. This undermines the possibility of unlocking a Regenerative Renaissance in our lifetime.

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In our Self-To-System™ transformational leadership curriculum, we have identified a series of transformational leadership capabilities that we believe leaders should self-direct their own development towards.

Our curriculum starts with self-awareness and areas like habit change and trauma-informed thinking and ends with systemic change and regenerative business ideas and ideasl. The five capabilities below focus specifically on regenerative leadership. These are not meant to be final or conclusive: just important. They are evolving, like all our work—and all life—is.

Everyone can cultivate these leadership capabilities within themselves. They are not the technical skills a sustainability professional or regenerative design practitioner needs to develop to do their work. They are human skills for all truly transformational leaders that want to be more regenerative in how they sense, feel, think, and do.

1. Encourage and promote nature-positive, circular, and enlivening insights and ideas.

This is about cultivating and encouraging business ideas and insights that unlock healthy and sustainable living systems and honoring them, and promoting them in your organization.

It means inspiring others to design products, processes, business models, and operating models to be more circular, with no or minimal waste and pollution. It means being a leader who is informed by nature-based solutions and encourages teams to do things in ways that build the capacity of the ecological and social systems to support more life. It means generating aliveness in team relationships, in meetings, and in pitches through radical transparency, vulnerability, and hope.

We can start to build this capability by becoming relentlessly fascinated with how nature manages to support itself, unlock vast adaptive creativity, and cultivate the conditions for such raucous life over vast stretches of geological time.

We can observe, each day, what conversations feel most energizing and alive and how to bring more of these qualities into any moment. We can study how ancient indigenous knowledge systems, and cutting-edge innovations, unlock circularity, reciprocity, and distributed power.

We can develop this capability further by looking at the lack of enlivenment, circularity, and nature-positivity: reflecting on how quickly and efficiently we moderns have polluted our ecologies with our own waste, extracting value from nature without restoring it, removing messy aliveness that exists in all web of live through industrial processes and machinery, and disrupted our communities with exploitative ways of doing business and management.

2. Build reciprocal, rooted, and interdependent relationships with nature and all living things.

This is about understanding that all successful biological species that thrive on our planet live in entangled webs of life rooted in specific places, where there is give and take, competition and cooperation, death and life.

Rootedness is particularly important in our world of globalized organizations and supply chains, where it is hard to really connect with a specific place in which energy and carbon, work and value, are exchanged.

This is about understanding that the health of the whole system is interdependent with the health of all the species, the flora of energy from the sun, individual organisms, and biological structures (nerves, mitochondria, chlorophyll) in the complex adaptive system.

This means being a leader who is inspired by one of the most essential values of indigenous cultures: to ensure that the tribe is in a balanced relationship with the nature it relies on for all life, always remembering not to take too much from a plant or herd and, at the same time, tending to the plant or herd.

This reciprocal, mutual, and interdependent way of living and leading has been disrupted by successive stages of the development of mankind.

This capability is about remembering that all gifts and rights co-arise with duties and what we call “cares.” Our human rights to be alive, to enjoy freedom and justice, and to work in healthy organizations that pay us well all depend on us taking care of our responsibilities to each other and to nature.

A great place to start to care is in the locale we are rooted in: the piece of Earth—the square mile of dirt, weeds, garbage, neighbors, and colleagues—that we live or work on and that we rely on for life.

This capability requires us to foster interdependent relationships with other leaders, other business units, and other people in our system—as well as the ecologies that support all economies.

A great hack for this is to lose our arrogance, step off the podium, stop being the hero on his/her journey for a while, and decenter ourselves (and our species) from being the only important agents in the network of life.

This capability is all about leaning into interdependence. On the one hand, we must avoid being too aloof, distant, and independent. We know that our success and happiness are partially dependent on many others and the natural world. So we open up and demonstrate the vulnerability, intimacy, and humility required for reciprocity and authentic connection interconnection.

At the same time, we also ensure we are not overly dependent or co-dependent either. People-pleasing, fawning, and demanding that others be or act in a certain way so we feel good about ourselves does not lead to effective and healthy collaborations.  We must embody the truth that nobody can “make” us happy or upset. We own our own experience and our own sovereignty.

From reciprocity, rootedness, and interdependence flow truth, transparency, and trust, the lubricants of all lasting and positive change, transformation, and co-creation: the unique capability human beings have to solve new and intense challenges with collaborative creativity.

3. Align with natural cycles of expansion/growth and contraction/decay.

This capability is about remembering that nothing lasts forever in nature, including exponential growth in profits and productivity, big wins, strong feelings of power, motivation, and energy, and moments of joyous success. There are inherent patterns of expansion and contraction in all life. Every exhale, daily sleep, and monthly period (for those in a female body) is a moment of loss, relaxation, or of death.

Ultimately, death comes to all living things, and so do all businesses, nations, and species. This harsh reality is the prerequisite for life, creativity, (re)birth, evolution, and long-term sustainability. Memento mori! Remember that we are mortal and that all things die.

The modern world, perhaps seen most clearly in modern business, has tried to outrun death. We want a “perpetual summer” of constant growth, excitement, and a sense of opportunity without the darkness, sadness, and losses of autumn and winter.

We want profits to grow each and every quarter without limits to growth. We want people to work harder each week. We want our team to be even more motivated than they were last year.

Yet no living system can be driven this hard without “side effects.” No living system can grow without decay, fallow periods, and death. The push to ignore or defeat the inherent cyclical nature of life is showing up in feedback mechanisms like global warming, flooding/drought, and the rise of addictions, depression, and suicide.

A great starting point for this developing capability is to become more and more aware of the natural cycles of expansion/growth and contraction/decay in our bodies and minds. These show up in each second and day we exist in our breath (inhale > exhale); our bodies (stress response > relaxation response); our minds (focus/control > connection/creativity), restoration), and our day (wakefulness > sleep).

For adult women not in menopause—and those that care about them—there is also the monthly cycle of egg release and egg removal (unless life is formed), which has a patterned cycle of flavors to it as each day passes. Women can learn a lot about regenerative leadership from fully experiencing, studying, and embodying their monthly cycle. [If you’re interested in this, watch a video I contributed to with co-creation with Adriana Forte Naili on The Menstrual Cycle & The Cycles Of Life.]

The more we will live and lead in alignment with natural cycles—and do not override our need to rest and restore with denial, suppression, and dopamine and cortisol addictions—the more we can help our enterprise and systems to find their optimal rhythms too.

4. Balance ‘rational’ leadership qualities (e.g., control, ambition) with ‘relational’ leadership qualities (e.g., care, creativity)

This is about understanding that in all people, and all organizations, there are qualities that we can classify as rational, piercing, and linear, and there are qualities we can classify as relational, connective, and caring. These are two ‘principles’ in nature that wax and wane as the cycles above flow, which we can develop within us as leaders. 

Psychologists like Carl G Jung and wisdom traditions like Zen Buddhism and Taoism teach that the fully developed leader has harmonized both these two principles within them. This is the marriage of opposites: balancing ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ polarities within us and our business models. If we do not achieve this, we undermine and sabotage our futures as healthy individuals, organizations, and systems.

This is about being a leader who seeks to recalibrate their team, organization, and capitalism in general towards a balance between rational and relational. First, as leaders, we must see that the business and political world is calibrated far into the rational polarity, with ambition, achievement, control, and growth valued much higher than the relational polarity, such as quietness, kindness, close relationships, and caring.

This imbalance between the relational and the rational is why CEOs are paid considerably (1000x?) more than nurses, teachers, and carers and why caring for sick relatives or children does not get counted in GDP, and so is seen as not valuable to the economy.

A great place to start is to proactively recalibrate our own work/life balance, team climate, and company culture to recognize, honor, celebrate, and cultivate care and connection as much as achievement and ambition. We want to give as much time and energy to building strong relationships with colleagues and customers—authentically sharing and caring—as much as we focus on transacting with them to get what we need to be done and to get our return on investment.

5. Sense fragmentation and schism and move towards more wholeness and integrity.

The capacity to sense fragmentation and schism—which often arise as a result of linear industrial processes entering the circularity of the natural world to extract and exploit—and move towards wholeness as an individual leader and as a leader of others is crucial for regenerative leadership.

Wholeness as an aim is fractal or scale-agnostic: it is as important in managing our own health, happiness, and integrity—so we can lead with less ego and fear and more truth and transparency— as it is in leading systems to healthier states in complex environments.

This is about being able to spot cognitively—and sense with heightened emotional and interoceptive intelligence—when a person, group, or process is leading towards fragmentation, discord, and schism and how to course correct with regenerative leadership to move towards harmony, wholeness, and togetherness.

This definitely does not mean being “nice” all the time and avoiding conflict and tension. Instead, it is about understanding why fragmentation exists and how one might move to ‘heal’ it so the system becomes more whole. Whole and healing come from the same root word/concept, so healing is the process by which systems become more whole.

This healing—or ‘wholing’ as I prefer to call it to be free of prejudices—is about holding space for a group of people or organization to release shock, trauma, and stress, the precursor to repair, restitution, and restoration. This requires us to develop trauma-informed leadership.

We must be able to understand how Adverse Childhood Experiences, traumatic events, and major stresses and disappointments leave an imprint in human biologics that distorts cognition, disturbs emotions, and disrupts our capacity to show up with truth, transparency, and relational openness.  

Shock in the nervous system—and distress in any team, organization, economic or social system—can only be released when people feel safe enough to first stop protecting themselves.

Then, and only then, can then become vulnerable, grieve losses, let go of old assumptions that felt comfortable, and allow the inevitable death and decay of products, processes, successful strategies, and unsustainable business models. We have to be able to hold preciously safe and brave spaces for this to occur (a capability from our systemic change domain).

We can bring this capability to life by fearlessly injecting radical truth and transparency into a system and expressing the apologies, forgiveness, and compassion that are often required once the truth is present in a space. Truth, and forgiveness for the impact of lies and violence, can set us free.

We can see this capability at work in restorative justice programs (such as the Truth & Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa) or restorative ecological programs (such as post-colonial regenerative programs in the Amazon).

Regenerative Leadership: In Summary

By understanding and seeking to develop these five critical skills for regenerative leadership, we will have more power to lead our organizations to become regenerative in how they think, do, and operate.

Once we have become aware of these capabilities—and begin the earnest work of developing them within through committed leadership development—we will be more effective at designing regenerative businesses and brandsregenerative business and operating models, and regenerative technologies.

Transformational Leadership Development Programs

We deliver outstanding transformational leadership training programs designed to ensure your organization can survive and thrive in the disrupted, digital, and damaged world—and customized to your unique context, strategy, and culture.

We offer creative and experiential leadership training—with cutting-edge thinking, empowering and effective tools, brain-based leadership practices, and innovation/transformation fieldwork—aimed to meet your leaders’ real needs and challenges.