Understanding Regenerative Leadership & Systemic Leadership
How to become a systemic leader and regenerative leader who can lead lasting change across enterprises and systems to deliver a sustainable future
Leaving our planet better than we found it might sound like a tall order. However, systemic leadership theory and regenerative principles guide the way. Regenerative and systemic leaders make a positive impact on all the systems they touch. Essentially, these types of leadership are committed to regenerating a world in crisis.
Changing Focus as Regenerative & Systemic Leaders
Until we become regenerative leaders and/or systemic leaders, our attention as transformational leaders will have been focused on the following three factors. Firstly, our own resilience, purpose, and creativity as individual leaders. Secondly, on transforming our teams to be collaborative and agile. Thirdly, on optimizing and adapting our organizations.
Systemic and regenerative leadership goes further and deeper. This 6th, and final, spiral of transformational leadership now brings our attention to bear on the systems we touch. It looks at the ecosystems we rely on for all life on this planet. Our focus as systemic leaders and regenerative leaders is to:
- Consciously and purposefully seek to impact the systems we are part of positively. This is done through the quotidian acts of transformation, adaptation, and innovation we deliver in our own enterprise. It encompasses everything from the employees and vendors who support us to the customers and communities that buy from us.
- We consider how we can use our own brief career, and our organization’s engines of commercial value, to deliver transformative benefits to wider society and the planet upon which we all rely on for sustenance and life. We seek to not just sustain our planet’s complex systems but repair and renew them; to regenerate them.
We are not just interested in basic Corporate Social Responsibility or sustainability initiatives to minimize our footprint. These are great, but not sufficient for the crises we face. Rather, we want to improve the systems of which we are part and leave them in a more regenerative state. This not only sustains, but affirms and encourages life on this Earth.
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No Business or Organization is an Island
Any ambitious and transformational purpose for an individual enterprise—whether micro-business or ancient societal institution—must necessarily seek to shift the dynamics of an entire system. Otherwise, it is a self-centered goal instead of a genuine, compelling, and meaningful purpose.
No business is an island, entire unto itself. Every organization is part of a system. Any transformations within an organization will always impact webs of suppliers, customers, workers, and shareholders within the wider system—whether we are conscious of this or not.
Becoming systemic leaders involves shifting our entire frame of reference from feeling and thinking in the straight lines of Industrial Age enterprise—capital>raw materials>labor>industrial processes>product/service>marketing>margin>return on investment—to sensing, feeling, thinking, and acting with a Networked Age systemic view: that is modeled on more circular, web-like, and non-linear relationships between all things.
This worldview understands that our organization is situated within a vast web of life that is interconnected. It is our duty as business leaders, and human beings in the Networked Age Operating System, to leave this web of life better off—in terms of its liveability and its ability to cultivate more life—than it was in the Industrial Age, when people assumed businesses and economies could grow without limits, and without negative effects.
The Responsiveness of Regenerative & Systemic Leadership
We no longer see simple vertical silos and functions, even within a matrix organization, but a vast constellation of humanity, matter, and data that together make up the entire local and global systems; and within which our business plays a role. The systemic leader must be able to switch between both linear and non-linear views at will: constantly zooming in and out of different levels of magnification and resolution to make sense of enormous complexity, which may be challenging our long-term strategy, and then decide what to do about it in a team meeting at 9 am in the morning.
One minute, we need to be able to understand how our products and processes impact the people and things in the systems of which we are part, trying to understand how to reduce carbon across our networks of suppliers and generate a more biodiverse and socially diverse community; and, the next minute, we need to be able to zoom right into the linear and silo-ed detail to suggest a nano-level process or productivity intervention that delivers one small element of our transformational vision.
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Sweetspots & Systemic Thinking
We must hone our capacity to map, individually and collectively, complex, adaptive systems; and understand the feedback loops, both negative and positive, that shift system dynamics. We want to be able to use, like a virtuoso, tools like systems mapping and scenario planning that serve to help us glimpse the future into the present; and that bring the cacophony of myriad voices from the system to our attention.
Systemic and regenerative leaders need to be able to deconstruct and destabilize all claims to truth/power in the system; and ensure systemic inequalities and iniquities are brought into sharp focus. But we also need to be able to swiftly move out of criticism and analysis—in doing so risking our reputations and livelihoods—to actually intervene in the system (even if others are profoundly challenged by this and attempt to bring us, and our projects, down).
Systemic leaders must be able to spot weak signals in everyday life that suggest historic patterns within a system are breaking down; and sense new patterns that are “seeking to emerge” from the system as it unfolds in a biodynamic process of always-becoming. We can then accelerate this process, or mitigate it, through our leadership actions and systemic change interventions.
We want to be able to locate and understand systemic “sweet spots”—where small actions might create outsized impacts—and innovate the lowest cost and lowest friction ways of acupuncture-like stimulation of these sweet spots effectively. Key is to constantly evolve, to be resilient and iterate an arsenal of potent systemic change interventions, ensuring they are driven by real biology and psychology not just wishful thinking.
This means becoming a lifelong learner of systemic interventions and social change movements, constantly updating our toolset and practice-set with critical nuances that can mean the difference between project failure (degeneration) and some kind of success (regeneration). We also want to build muscle in being able to project forward in time the dynamics of a system to understand, as best we can, potential unexpected returns that might make our interventions less powerful, or even detrimental, to the system longer-term.
Making Sense of Complexity
At the heart of systemic leadership is quickly and effectively making sense of complexity with others in the system, capturing vital perspectives and insights from different areas of the system that are not our own; and then making collective decisions about what to do next in ways that balance collaboration and consensus with action and entrepreneurship.
To make systemic change achievable, we want to be able to surface and understand—rapidly yet compassionately—the worldview of each sentient being, and even concepts like ‘money’, within the system. We want to empathize with, and in some ways sense-feel within us, each systemic agent’s perspectives, motives, wounds, and worries; without becoming co-dependently involved in their narratives and dramas.
Systemic change projects necessarily only work when collaboratively executed with a group of multiple leaders/change-agents. As systemic leaders and regenerative leaders, we cannot afford to waste days and years convening agents of change, and building consensus and alignment within the group.
This can dissipate shared intention and collective momentum and lead to failure. But if we do not build a “field”—like a magnetic field of resonance—that holds the diverse group together, miscommunications and misalignments will plague a project; and often lead to its implosion. Systemic leadership and regenerative leadership like this takes huge amounts of presence and patience.
Finding Common Purpose
I suggest that all systemic and regenerative projects should be grounded in something bigger than any individual organization or leader. Such a common purpose orients everyone to a shared source of possibility: ideas and insights coming from the future to shape a regenerative present. The kind of common purpose we want in systemic transformation generates a strong field for self-organization.
To be a truly transformational leader, we must consciously develop ourselves to the level of systemic leadership and regenerative leadership. Otherwise we can never drive transformations beyond the level of our team, or enterprise. Becoming a transformational leader who can conceive of, and execute, regenerative innovations that transform systems takes the highest levels of both cognitive smarts and embodied wisdom.
In terms of cognitive smarts (what we call Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity), we need to be super sharp to make sense of the vast flows of people, stuff, and ideas that make up a system; and the sheer complexity of complex, adaptive, living systems. We have to be able to cognitively grok how a system can shift to become more regenerative; and have the Get Stuff Done skills to make (the) shift happen.
The Challenges of Regenerative & Systemic Leadership
But systemic genius is not enough. In fact, without matching smarts with the development of embodied wisdom, we can easily get overwhelmed by the complexity of systemic change; or become arrogant and intervene without suitable humility. This can have us act, and react, in inappropriate and damaging ways.
With emotionally immature delusions of grandeur, we might believe that we can fully understand and ‘control’ a system with our planetary-level intellect or our techno-utopian interventions. We might forget that every abstracted data point in the system is a feeling, sensing, concerned citizen of the world who must be respected and honored. We might attach, emotionally, to single solutions, interventions, models of change, or technologies; and discount other peoples’ perspectives and actions as stupid or irrelevant.
We might become paralyzed by fear of the Law of Unexpected Returns and end up retreating from any action, afraid to risk our reputation and livelihood in case we make mistakes or people doubt our intentions. We might end up with beautiful cognitive cathedrals of systemic insight—and libraries full of maps, models, and algorithms—while being totally unable to convene a group of stressed, yet committed, human beings to take responsibility for, and then guide with their actions, a system to a more regenerative state.
Aikido-like, we harness human resistance to change to propel people toward transformation. We subtly, yet sometimes emphatically, micro-coach and mentor individuals elegantly to upgrade their beliefs and transform their defenses—helping people overcome collaborative glitches that are blocking creative flow, inspiring them to leap over dips in energy and moments of despair, and always stabilizing them when the chaos and complexity are almost too much to bear—even if they don’t thank us for it.
Truly interdependent, we take on all feedback without neurotically questioning our own integrity.
As this is happening, we can shift our attention to people in systems and sense the mood of it before moving to resolve issues. We always remember that we are part of the system and need to act fully and with commitment rather than just wait for perfect data or for the ideal moment: neither ever come.
We exist in a creative tension between humility (who do we think we are to lead systemic change?!?) and hubris (who do we think we are to not step up and lead systemic change?!?). Confident, courageous, and willing to take wise risks, we show up fully to serve whatever is seeking to emerge as we listen individually in our hearts—and collectively in circles—often in silence, to the whispers of the system.
In systemic and regenerative leadership, we do all this while stubbornly guiding the system as a whole toward a regenerative vision through concrete action. We orchestrate the sequencing, and support the collaborative execution, of systemic transformation strategies; and ensure they are adapted to fit the changing landscape.
By fusing instinct, intuition, intelligence, and insight within us, we do our best to de-risk systemic interventions and promote actions and movements that will bring the system into a more thriving state; while being fully aware we might be catastrophically wrong. We are totally at peace with this possibility.
Ever more free from egoic fixations and resistance, we challenge our assumptions and cognitive biases with alacrity to let go of old ideas so we can forge Triple Win solutions that not only deliver profit but also improve and restore the habitats in which we play. We naturally want to step out of extraction and accumulation and toward contribution and collaboration.
We are happy to give up a lot—whether industry reputation, great wealth, or convenient flights to our holiday homes—to fulfill our potential as leaders of systemic change. No longer tossed around by the damaging and diminishing actions of others—and the vagaries and uncertainties of the VUCA reality—we are instead likewise, stable oaks that stay grounded and generative even in the most extreme storms.
Thus, we are back, full circle, where we started—conscious leadership—as if for the first time (pace T.S. Eliot). Except, having been through a complete spiral of transformational leadership, we are both wiser and smarter, ready to meet the next challenge of our times.
Regenerative and Systemic Leadership are the only hope for our future in an unstable and ever-changing world. By understanding the archetypal blueprint and pathway for achieving lasting, positive change in yourself and the systems you participate in, you will equip yourself with the most effective skills for Regenerative & Systemic Leadership.
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