Understanding Regenerative Leadership & Systemic Leadership
How to become a systemic leader and regenerative leader who can lead lasting change to deliver a sustainable future
Until we become regenerative leaders and/or systemic leaders—committed to regenerating our crisis-hit world—our attention as transformational leaders will have been focused on our own resilience, purpose, and creativity as individual leaders; on transforming our teams to be collaborative and agile; and our optimizing and adapting our organizations.
This 6th, and final, spiral of transformational leadership now brings our attention to bear on the systems we touch; and 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—through the quotidian acts of transformation, adaptation, and innovation we deliver in our own enterprise: 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
Ultimately, systemic leadership and regenerative leadership are about ensuring that we leave humankind and the world better than how we found it. We are not just interested in basic Corporate Social Responsibility or sustainability initiatives to minimize our footprint (which are great, but not sufficient for the crises we face). We want to improve the systems of which we are part and leave them in a more regenerative state to not just sustain, but affirm and encourage, life on this Earth.
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 livability 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.
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.
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.
Such tools and techniques can help us make sense of chaotic, adaptive, living systems and then anticipate opportunities for systemic transformation before crises ensue. Most supposed ‘Black Swan’ events, like climate change-induced flooding or Covid-19 pandemics, are in some ways predictable—and, at the very least, preparable for—by students of systems thinking. We are all students of systems thinking, no matter our expertise. Beginner’s Mind is crucial when intervening in complex systems; and so real peoples’ lives.
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 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.
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. This takes huge amounts of presence and patience.
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. 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.
High levels of Interoceptive-Affective Complexity, another term for embodied wisdom, allow us to discern when and how to intervene in a system. I-AC allows us never to fall into the pattern of being righteous about our systemic ideals; or judging those in the system who we believe pollute, persecute, resist, or just don’t get it. An enhanced capacity for empathy, both cognitive and emotional, helps us gain key insights into “resistors” and “accelerators” of systemic change; how to engage and influence them effectively; and how to orchestrate complex sequences of interventions and interactions to shift hearts and minds.
We honor all perspectives, and proactively look to build bridges between different camps without privileging one. We actively choose to ‘love’ everyone in the system, whilst never staying silent about, or encouraging in any way, behaviors and beliefs that diminish our humanity and endanger our work. This is as much a biological imperative as a moral one: ‘abusers’ in the system will change their mindsets and habits most effectively if they feel safe and sense that they are held with unconditional positive regard.
With C-BC and I-AC married together in a creative harmony—congruent and integrated—we create the optimal conditions and contexts for personal and systemic change. We are inclusive of all views in the system, even those we find painful or distasteful. We have the courage and conviction to stand up for people who are being repressed or marginalized by dominative hierarchies, yet we never succumb to the dictatorship of forced flatness and consensus. We hold and host generative spaces—acting as an amplifier and accelerator of others’ talents and skills—without this always being visible or appreciated. We build a sense of belonging in the group, finding ways to weave together disparate change agents (who often won’t agree) into a cohesive and coherent whole, grounded in a common purpose.
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.
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.