Regenerative Leadership and Organisation Development

Image for post
Image for post

This article is an extract from a longer piece co-written by myself and Giles Hutchins, which can be accessed via In this extract, we emphasise some of the practical dimensions of beginning to apply regenerative principles to leadership and organisation development practice, namely:

· Start with yourself, but don’t travel alone

· Start anywhere, be generous

· Embrace a creative, inquiry-led, vs narrowly outcome driven approach to change

· Develop eco-systemic awareness and action

· Review your leadership frameworks and reward structures (if you have them)

· Make it easy for people to do the right thing, and socialise the changes

· Have faith in evolution

The term ‘regenerative leadership’ is increasingly being used to describe the integration of living systems thinking and being as expressed in leadership in all its shapes and forms, in contrast to machine model approaches which have for so long dominated our collective consciousness.

Here we will be referring to regenerative leadership as an embodied expression of living systems principles in action. Regenerative leadership has been emerging as a concept over the last decade or so, not to be confused with leading for sustainability, although some of the practices may overlap. According to John Hardman’s seminal research in 2009, at the time of his inquiry, notions of sustainability in leadership had largely focused on how leaders dealt with specific issues relating to their organisations, as opposed to what is now becoming a paradigmatic shift regarding leadership and organisational development.

Since then, much more literature and research around an essentially regenerative and living systems discourse has emerged, or been re-discovered, providing concepts and approaches to support organisations and leaders in their own developmental transitions. Yet for those who facilitate or lead change, the task can seem daunting, especially for those embedded in traditional, hierarchical organisations. Too often when we talk with leaders and change practitioners, there is a sense of wistful resignation, the sense that the dream is too far away and out of reach.

Equally, those actively engaged in enabling living systems approaches in their contexts may feel that they are not really doing things ‘properly’ when compared to oft-touted exemplars of regenerative leadership (the Buurtzorgs, the Sundrops and Patagonias), especially when they need to juggle the different needs of individuals and groups at very different stages of development. In contrast to idealised theory — which philosopher and industrial consultant Donald Schön refers to as the ‘hard high ground’ — the real world of the practitioner or the ‘swampy lowlands’ is messy, compromised, and rarely seems to conform to neat models.

So perhaps change practitioners and leaders can take heart from the fact that living systems principles in action are rarely neat and tidy, and that swampy lowland might just be where transformation needs to take place. We need to address the hang-over from machine-model thinking which perpetuates an emphasis on objectives, goals and destinations, as opposed to valuing the journey and the intrinsic learning of emergent, experimental and evolutionary approaches. Life is always busy sensing its own way forward. Hence the need to let go of predefined outcomes while accepting that regenerative leadership development may look very different in different contexts (whilst exhibiting similar traits). There is a real danger that we revert to formulaic or idealised thinking which seeks to extrapolate a formula for change, as opposed to being committed to finding out what might work in real life where cultures, microclimates, team dynamics, habitats and developmental contexts inevitably change.

Building the bridge

So within a context of swampy lowlands, change practitioners may often find themselves acting as bridge-builders to the new. At the risk of mixing metaphors, they are laying stepping-stones, placing breadcrumbs along the pathway, joining the dots. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the key strategies and approaches which we have observed over the years in clients on their own regenerative leadership journeys:

· Start with yourself, but don’t travel alone

Gandhi said, ‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.’ There is a vast difference between simply telling people about the need for change, and being the change that needs to happen in the world ourselves. For people and organisations to feel safe enough and challenged enough to go on a journey into regeneration they need more than abstract concepts and or even case studies. Living systems principles need to be embodied in our approaches, and we need to develop courage to apply them in an ongoing way. Leandro Herrero’s Viral Change highlights that as social creatures, we collectively mimic each other’s behaviours, for good or ill. Whilst the inner journey is essential to regenerative practices, it’s when people can see different things happening that, like learning a new dance step, they can start to follow.

To find your own ways of applying living systems principles to yourself and your context, you also need to travel with others. This is not a solo journey, but a collective one, through the cross-pollination which naturally occurs amongst communities of practice both within and across organisations and sectors. Simultaneously, you will find that the best learning comes when you transcend artificial divisions (e.g. between leadership and coaching, coaching and OD, OD and D&I, D&I and organisational strategy). Go beyond your own silos and recognise that the apparent categories of difference matter far less than learning to move together with awareness.

· Start anywhere, be generous

Don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect in order to start. Regenerative Leadership is a way of showing up in the world; a way of sensing and responding to life. In the words of the biologist Janine Benyus, ‘Life creates conditions conducive to life’, and that can begin anywhere. Think of yourself as a ‘guerrilla gardener’ seeding new opportunities for regenerative thinking and practice even in small micro-environments. Learn the craft of regenerative leadership wherever the opportunity presents itself, at home, societally as well as at work. Don’t feel you have to wait for some great ‘heroic’ endeavour to present itself. Regenerative leadership is inherently generous — the more you give away the more you will have to give, because as you engage in regenerative practices for yourself (body, mind and spirit), you will continue to replenish your own true nature in a way which becomes self-sustaining. This goes against the grain of traditional thinking, where the ego seeks to put its mark on and claim ownership of whatever it touches (‘that was my idea!’).

The difference when entering the space of a regenerative leader is tangible. Regenerative leaders create a culture around them that is full of life. Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovation tells a powerful story of what happened when he decided to found an organisation (but it could equally have been a team or a department) on the principles of joy. Taking an ethnographic, observational approach, he studied what made his staff deeply engage, laugh, bring their full selves to work, and then gradually incorporated these elements into the everyday artifacts of their organisation’s culture, e.g. rotating pairs of workers so everyone had opportunities to learn from each other, empowering anyone to call an all-company meeting whenever needed, allowing staff to bring their babies and even pets to work. They knew they had achieved something powerful and significant when their clients wanted to be a part of their culture too.

· Embrace a creative, inquiry-led, rather than narrowly outcome driven approach to change

Once you start seeing organisations as living systems, it becomes self-evident that trying to force compliance to a narrow set of outcomes will most certainly go against what you are trying to achieve. We see this unproductive pattern far too often in education and health-care, where fearfulness related to achieving targets inevitably drives narrow, unimaginative compliance driven behaviours, where the craft and creativity of the health provider or educator is largely lost.

So part of the shift to living systems approaches is to reframe outcome-driven approaches to inquiry-led ones, asking ‘What could be possible here?’ ‘What is really needed?’. A recent example comes from Naveed Idrees, recently awarded TES Head Teacher of the Year 2019, who with his team managed to turn around Feversham, a failing primary school in Bradford, to become one of the top 10% high performing schools in England. According to Idrees, ‘What we discovered is that children need to be engaged not just at the level of the mind and body, but also the level of the soul.’ So in response to that insight, they created a completely music-based curriculum, investing the money that would normally have gone into a deputy head salary to help pay for part-time music teachers, which also allowed core teaching staff, if they wished, to stop work at Friday lunchtime in order to care for their own families, and with the senior leadership team, in the absence of a deputy head, being entrusted to each share in the leadership of the school, and apply a coaching culture to support learning for staff at all levels.

· Develop eco-systemic awareness and action

Living systems principles invite us to look beyond narrow boundaries and definitions and into the contexts in which we live and work. Polymath Gregory Bateson identified the ‘unit of survival’ as the ‘organism-in-its-environment’, constantly in flow with and inter-dependent on many variables. This inner-outer awareness invites a new type of leadership, which requires an ability to sense into the emergent field of possibilities within and without, joining with what’s already happening, as well as setting new intentions and creating new inquiries. Shobi Lalawata, of United in Diversity in Indonesia is a great example of eco-systemic leadership, having engaged in long-term cross-sector leadership development with multiple stakeholders across the archipelago of Indonesia, and now engaged more directly in convening business, education and government leaders in addressing environmental issues together. In spite of the highs and lows of a sixteen-year commitment to change in her country, she knows that ‘this is what I was born for’, bringing a personal inner mission in harmony with external change across a wide number of variables. In Otto Scharmer’s words ‘ecosystems do not have an address or a bank account’, and this work invites us to place our trust in the future change that needs to happen, rather than tether our identities (and income streams) too narrowly to one organisational source. Regenerative eco-systemic leadership can be somewhat invisible at times, reliant on many different nodes and networks (just like mycorrhizal networks in forests), popping up and becoming more visible when the time is right.

· Review your leadership frameworks and reward structures

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but whilst ever organisations have leadership frameworks and reward structures that reinforce machine model thinking, it will be difficult to support wide-scale changes. More traditional concepts of role and job title are already changing as organisations increasingly are having to adopt more agile methodologies, bringing the necessary people together regardless of which department or even organisation they are coming from, especially in the context of delivering integrated services or partnership working. Reviewing your leadership frameworks may be a starting point. Do they reinforce a heroic, siloed mentality, or do they encourage flexibility, and better still, can they recognise that leadership can and does take many different forms within the wider ecosystem of an organisation? Traditional diversity and inclusion efforts have tended to focus on getting better representation of women and minority groups into senior leadership positions as a key measure of success without questioning whether the core paradigms of leadership might be anti-diverse themselves.

· Make it easy for people to do the right thing, and socialise the changes

Referring back to Herrero’s work on Viral Change, if we take the analogy of coffee shops, we see a whole sequence of changing behaviours over time. When once people went to cafés to drink coffee at tables, it then became normalised to have a coffee ‘to go’, increasing the use of disposable cups, which in the early days were largely not recycled. There was then an increase in workplaces for special bins for recycling cups, until it was discovered that much of the plastic lined cups are unrecyclable anyway. We now have a situation where people are buying their own re-usable and often bio-degradable cups, and cafes sourcing fully biodegradable or recyclable cups. There always seems to be a process of trial and error (back to swampy lowlands), but ultimately, once a solution is found, making sure that it is easy to do the right thing is an important factor in socialising the change, just like the banks of a river direct the flow of water. Even a small step like choosing to represent the wider world at meetings (e.g. empty chairs representing the yet unborn, other stakeholders, nature, etc.) or introducing mindfulness practices into meetings can have catalytic effects.

· Finally, have faith in evolution

In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent creates a panoramic view of how humans have evolved since the beginning of our species, highlighting the different stages in our evolutionary journey as we have changed our thinking, behaviours and patterns of governance to adapt to new challenges. We are most certainly at a point in time when a next leap is necessary, and hopefully inevitable. Part of that shift involves integrating an ancient, non-dual, non-anthropocentric perspective with all that we have learnt and achieved over millennia. This brings to bear the full repertoire of knowledge and wisdom to the complex challenges we now face. When we stop seeing ourselves as being the centre of the universe, but as co-participants in Life with all living beings, collectively partaking in that shared responsibility, we can start to relax a little, and get in flow with the life that is wanting to be expressed though our shared humanity, in spite of all its scars and brokenness. That deeper impulse towards evolution is just under the surface, right here within this moment, waiting to break through, and as regenerative leaders one of the most important things we can do is to create the conditions for it to emerge. What a humbling yet life-affirming endeavour.

Conclusion and next steps

There are many different regenerative journeys and starting points, which are iterative, interwoven and cyclical. It might help to think of regenerative leadership as a kind of ‘waggle dance’, similar to the figure of eight dance that bees use to communicate to other members of their hive.

Image for post
Image for post

The dance involves a weaving of a number of key elements which flow continuously together, where regenerative leadership (which will be a property of the whole web of relationships and not just limited to fixed roles) must learn to tune into the patterns and flows in order to engage effectively at any stage in the cycle.

Each phase invites shared inquiry: What is the reason for being and coming together and how do we express our purpose in the world? What is our desired footprint in terms of environmental and social impact? What type of culture is most enabling for living our purpose, and what are the key behaviours and values that we will embody? And how will that be expressed through our formation, both in terms of how we structure our relational dynamics, as well as how we develop and grow?

It is a special and crucial time in our human history. Building on a series of deep-dive living-systems based workshops we have run over the last few years, we are inviting a number of leaders, change agents and entrepreneurs to join us in 2020 on a shared adventure into regenerative leadership in practice — see .

Exploring together through real-world action and experimenting within our different contexts, these 2020 inquiries will add to the existing body of knowledge and practice relating to regenerative leadership.

If you are interested in joining us as a way of developing your leadership and change practice for life-affirming futures, please contact me on, .

Written by

Living systems, diversity and inclusion, people and organisation development.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store