Sustainability has always been an important idea for me, but making the leap from "good idea" to "daily practice" has been no small challenge. For years, I dreamed of living a life that was "off the grid" and connecting myself to the land in a way that more deeply connected me to my spiritual practice. Over the years I have worked my way out of the city and shifted to a rural lifestyle, learning to grow organic, weaving the fleece shorn from livestock, gathering eggs warm from the nest, converting to solar – and all of these small steps are deeply gratifying. But this is not why I am writing.
I have come to wonder why it is, when there is so much good information about sustainable practices available to us, that we fail to respond to the wake-up call, that we drag our heels when it comes to changing our personal lifestyles (not to mention our organizations, our countries) to make them consistent with our beliefs. I am coming to realize that it is an inner change that must precede the outer change. We must learn the inner mechanics of sustainability before we will be successful with the outer!
My own work in the field of leadership training and human capacity development has led me to a study of humankind and how we change, or perhaps more relevant, how we resist change. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what we have historically taught as leadership skills are practices that are not "sustainable" in terms of human behavior. We treat people as "things" and even the term "human resources" reeks of this.
We have come to see the world, and even people, as pieces, or cogs in a machine that can be fixed when faulty! We dissect, we analyze, and we "fix" problems. While this thinking may carry us far when it comes to some of our world’s problems, particularly those of a mechanical nature, it falls apart when we consider living systems.
Living systems, such as a plant or even your body, continually re-create themselves. They are not sets of parts that can simply be fixed, but are constantly growing and changing. Buckminster Fuller illustrated this point in a simple way by holding up his hand before a group, and asking people, "What is this?" Of course, they’d answer, "A hand." He’d then remind them that the cells in that hand are continually dying and regenerating, and that, in fact, a hand is completely recreated within a year or so! Again, living systems continually recreate themselves! And we are living systems.
As we face the ever-present reality that our levels of consumption are not sustainable on a long-term basis, and that our actions are already impacting global climate patterns, it is not a great leap to take in stating that our ways of working, too, are not sustainable. I speak of more than burnout and retirement on the job, or stress-related illness. The mechanistic, Newtonian, hierarchical approaches to problem solving, innovation and communication simply are not enough to deal with the complexities we face in our lives today. Quick-fix solutions are not sustainable when it comes to human practices any more than they are in the global arena.
I am proposing a new model, a model that like the living systems it models itself after, "continually re-creates itself." Because human beings themselves are living systems, our health and wholeness are vitally linked to the fate of our planet. What would a living systems approach to leadership look like? The answer to that question cannot be spelled out, because it is evolving and will evolve further as it is explored in depth.
There are some cornerstones that can be suggested as a starting point, however.
First, it is a holistic leadership. By this I mean that it is modeled after nature and living systems, for it recognizes that it, too, is a living system. This approach requires working with the entire body/mind system and exploring multiple ways of knowing. It works from a post-Newtonian model and learns from the new science.
It is leadership in a state of constant evolution, that is generative by nature. It has learned to ally itself with emergent forces and take cocreative action from that place of broader and deeper connection to Source, rather than ego. It recognizes its role as a change agent, cooperating with and flowing with change rather than "selling it" or holding the status quo.
It is a leadership of community and interdependency, and it considers the whole, even unto seven generations. As such, it has learned to think and work in terms of interdependencies, rather than hierarchies. It has highly developed capacities for deep communication that cross differences in gender, age, education, and ethnicity, and it is skilled in finding shared purpose and win-win solutions.
Perhaps most important, it is a leadership that pursues development in both inner & outer dimensions. It practices the "be’s" of leadership with the same dedication as the "dO’s" of leadership and is constantly challenging inner paradigms before implementing new external solutions. It is continually growing the field of leadership, through ongoing work on four levels: physical, psychological, mythic and spiritual.
At its essence, it is a whole life leadership, rather than just work-focused leadership, and recognizes and respects the full life of the individual. In this capacity it practices constant renewal, recognizing natural cycles of energy and works within those cycles. It is able to suspend traditional ways of seeing, and use the past to inform the present, not to dictate it, while balancing the health of the organism/system with the needs of production.