One of the reasons it seems so impossible to solve the complex social challenges that our society faces is that we’re waiting for leaders “out there” to do it for us.
Well, who are these people?
Elected officials, business leaders… our culture has become used to a narrow and hierarchical notion of leadership: one leader and many followers. Few with power, and many powerless. The result of this paradigm is that most of us are turned into victims: we don’t believe we can make the changes we need happen, and it’s not our job anyway. We wait and hope somebody else gets it right.
This is a deeply flawed approach to leadership, and we can do better.
My work as an educator, researcher and consultant has been primarily centered around the development of what I call Evolutionary Learning Communities – which calls for a completely different model of leadership: evolutionary leadership.
Evolutionary leadership is shared and collaborative leadership that embraces the complexity and interconnectedness of world problems and acknowledges the need to co-create a synergic system of innovative solutions. Evolutionary leadership is a means for each one of us to understand that we have a role to play in the creation of a better world, no matter what our field, interests, or expertise: Improving educational systems, saving the rainforest, transforming organizational cultures, engaging youth in creative expression, producing renewable energy, serving victims of abuse. We are not used to think of all these dimensions as interconnected, but they are, because they are important aspects of a healthy and sustainable world. By using our talents in positive ways, we are contributing to a network of solutions. The complexity of the task calls for the individual genius of all.
By our mere participation in social structures through our daily lives, we are creating our future. But we haven’t done so intentionally, purposefully, consciously. We give up our right and responsibility to co-author the narrative of our lives. Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak, expresses this notion beautifully:
“'Leadership' is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads."
Evolutionary leaders are individuals from all walks of life, acting in all kinds and levels of organizations, who respond to the call to participate in the most important task of our time: to innovate a future of peace and abundance in partnership with all the living systems of Earth. This is not a task for a few privileged or “enlightened” ones, but a responsibility for every human being.
This idea that everyone follows and everyone leads is powerful because it captures the understanding that weare co-producers of our social realities. Evolution is currently happening primarily at the socio-cultural level. Our cultural ideas and technologies (our memes) are shaping the new stages in the evolution of society. This transformation begins within us: what does it mean to be a conscious human being in today’s world? Are we ready to embrace our leadership role?
(This blog was originally published in Triple Pundit)
In a previous post, I presented the need to move from systems thinking to systems being.
There is a reason for that: I believe that it is through systems being that we will be able to truly transform our world. And transforming the world is the task of leaders. However, the most prevalent understanding of leadership is narrow and hierarchical: one leader on top and many followers below; few with power and many powerless.
As members of society and organizations, we have accepted a passive, victim stance in the face of complex challenges while we point fingers hoping that elected officials and business executives take care of our problems. Our behavior represents a relinquishing of our power. We suffer the problems but we don’t see ourselves as part of the solutions. And if we find ourselves dissatisfied about our leaders, we act as if we can’t do anything about it.
This distorted concept of leadership needs to be revised and expanded, because it is not very useful and it may be dangerous in today’s world. By our mere participation in social structures through our daily lives, we are creating our future. But we haven’t done so consciously.
Peter Senge shares the view that "ultimately, leadership is about creating new realities." He once said, "Because of our obsession with how leaders behave and with the interactions of leaders and followers, we forget that in its essence, leadership is about learning how to shape the future.... Leadership exists when people are no longer victims of circumstances but participate in creating new circumstances. Leadership is about creating a domain in which human beings continually deepen their understanding of reality and become more capable of participating in the unfolding of the world.”
In our blindness to our own power as participants and co-creators—as leaders—in “community,” we too often give up our right and responsibility to co-author the narrative of our lives. Author Parker J. Palmer expressed this notion beautifully.
"'Leadership,'" Palmer once wrote, "is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads.”
This idea that “everyone follows and everyone leads” is powerful because it captures the understanding that we are co-producers of our social realities. It is a reflection of the systemic nature of human relations: fluid, dynamic, reciprocal.
Leadership is not static. Evolutionary leadership is an ever-changing flux of interconnections that seek to intentionally create the conditions for the emergence of a better future, or “for the good of the whole” as Peter Merry wrote in the dedication of his book Evolutionary Leadership: Integral Leadership for an Increasingly Complex World.
Evolutionary leadership is shared leadership that embraces the complexity and interconnectedness of the world’s problems—the "problematique"—and acknowledges the need to collaborate and create a synergic system of innovative solutions—the "solutionatique." Evolutionary leadership is a means for each one of us to understand that we have a role to play in the creation of a better world no matter what our field, interests, or expertise—whether we are improving educational systems, saving the rainforest, transforming organizational cultures, engaging youth in creative expression, producing renewable energy or serving victims of abuse.
In my view, evolutionary leadership is an expanded (and expanding) notion of leadership. It goes beyond a leadership concern with narrowly defined success—as in the corporate world—to a more systemic and inclusive notion of success that takes into account the economy, society, ecosystems, and future generations.
I see two dimensions of evolutionary leadership.
The first dimension of evolutionary leadership calls for ongoing learning and personal development because it demands more capacities and skills to cope with increasing complexity.
The second dimension involves an expansion of the boundaries of the inquiry, seeking to contribute to the transformation of social and environmental systems in an increasingly inclusive way. The inquiry may begin in a local community or organization, but it eventually becomes connected with socio-ecological efforts.
I had a powerful experience this past week. It was the launch of the Global Leadership Lab, an organization I co-founded even though it was never my plan to do so. The experience has shown me the power of pure intention and deep collaboration in the quest to accelerate systemic transformation. For the past six months, I have been part of a magical (I can’t think of a better word to describe it) process where I have seen my own desire and ideas become part of meaningful change in the world as they blend with the ideas and intentions of others. Together, we have witnessed something beyond our individual imaginations begin to emerge.
From my observations of what moves people to initiate change, I can identify at least two sources of inspiration for entrepreneurs and leaders. On the one hand, there are individuals who are compelled to act out of visions that come from their minds and hearts. Their personal projects and initiatives literally project their personality, their genius, and their brilliance in the form of an invention, a new product or service, a book, an organization or opportunity that can be brought to life (or to the marketplace) because of the unique experience and expertise. These projects shape our collective identity. If connected to a sacred purpose, they can heal and serve as platforms for self-actualization or otherwise simply feed our egos. This is the world of entrepreneurship.
On the other hand, there are individuals whose visions blend with the longing of a fully altruisitic humanity capable of living peacefully on this Earth—visions connected to be in service of something larger, to address in some way an overwhelming global problem, to heal the planet, to be part of the larger socio-cultural transition towards a peaceful and sustainable world. These ideas are beyond an individual’s skill set. They require deep collaboration and something else beyond smarts. This is the world of social innovation.
And then there is the process to translate the vision into reality. There is a kind of accomplishment that comes from hard work, the accumulation of many smalls victories, of lessons learned, of ongoing sustained effort. Entrepreneurs and business leaders are familiar with the kind of stamina required to translate visions of possibility into reality. I, myself, have been on this path for many years, patiently nurturing many dreams, learning from mistakes and making course corrections as I move forward. But there are also moments when the vision seems to have a life of its own and rather than struggle upstream, things flow easily downstream.
My experience in the emergence of the Global Leadership Lab was the combination of a large dream that was ready to come into being. Together with my collaborators, I found myself in the role of a midwife, listening to the pulse of a possibility that was coming through us, not from us, and inviting it into existence. The talent and resources that were needed showed up and, last week, we were able to give birth to it in a first lab retreat at the Marin Headlands with a group of 35 individuals. Just like Juanita Brown and David Isaacs don’t consider themselves the “creators” of the now well-known conversation process World Café but rather their “discoverers,” similarly, I feel that our role was to reveal the Global Leadership Lab as a gathering place—a sacred container that many of us have been longing for coming together to work hard, play hard, and make the shift happen.
My experience with my partners in this adventure was simply delicious. It is not common to be able to come together with such ease and depth of commitment. I would say that the key ingredient for experiencing the joy of this high performance team has been our authenticity and willingness to show our vulnerabilities. The distinction between personal and professional was irrelevant because we invited our full selves to be present in our conversations. Our life experiences and our emotional states were always there. Learning together and defining a common goal was not done on a pre-defined scheduled because building trusting relationships cannot be done looking at the watch.
After a couple of months of our own exploration and some key conversations with potential collaborators and supporters, we received seed funding to test our ideas. It was around Thanksgiving and we all had multiple commitments and travels that prevented us from getting together for some time. We knew that we needed to start moving rapidly into action if we were going to host an event in January and, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much during the Winter holidays, we were experiencing for the first time in our collaborative process some external pressure.
We scheduled two days of work on a Thursday and Friday. My partners were coming to my house for both days. As usual, we started with a check-in: we usually define a question to share how we are feeling at that moment so that we can arrive and hold for each other whatever is happening in our lives. But this day, because we haden’t seen each other for a relatively extended period of time, the check-in took the whole day. We had lunch and continued to share our stories over cookies and Mexican hot chocolate. At some point, maybe 30 minutes before they were planning to leave, a thought crossed my mind: Are we going to ever get to work?! But I didn’t say anything. I allowed the thought to come and go just as one is instructed in meditation practice. I soon was back in the present moment truly enjoying the company and intimacy of our process. We said goodbye and I was left with the curiosity if, at any point during the five hours that we spent together, they felt concerned or impatient. The truth is that nobody expressed any sign of worry or irritation—neither in words nor in gestures. The next day we were meeting again at my place also for five hours. When they arrived, we again opened our circle with a check-in and, very soon that morning, we had clarity of what we needed to do. Still in the same relaxed state of the previous day, we were able to accomplish so much work around the design of the event. In fact, our subjective experience was that we accomplished more than what would be usually possible for a day of work. As we closed our circle for the day, we were one mind: our productivity of this second day was a result of our willingness to come together at such a deep level the previous day. We were grateful for the experience and feeling so happy. The accomplishment of outcomes was non-linear and, as a result of the trust and deeper understanding of each other, we were able to have a super efficient and accelerated experience of team performance.
Acceleration has been in our minds for a long time. Out of the urgency and complexity of everything from poverty to climate change, the need to bring together the leaders committed to systemic transformation has been evident. If in some way we can support the creation of synergy for greater impact, that would be a meaningful contribution. However, acceleration can be interpreted as quickly moving forward, pushing ahead, forgetting about the details: do something, anything, just do it. But the kind of acceleration that we need is the quickening that happens only when we are fully present. And to be fully present, we first need to slow down and breath before we can go fast.
There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Acceleration in the old ways means forget collaboration—it is too inefficient, too slow. Today we need to figure out a way to go fast and together. To find the path of least resistance, the path of joy, the path that allows us to honor our own rhythms, and that produces the best results. That’s the paradox we are embracing at the Global Leadership Lab. We are ready to continue the experiment.
For me, this year promises to be a year of integration. Recently, a colleague told me that I am a weaver. We were working on the design of a leadership program for social innovators when she said, “And just as I thought that we were done, your brought in another thread and weaved it to make this idea even more complete, more beautiful.” Her reflection was a gift to me. It resonated with my experience of what I bring to groups.
It feels like for the last few years I have been preparing to create something that I cannot yet fully articulate. But in the last minutes of 2012 and the first minutes of 2013, I had a moment of quiet clarity in which I could hear the whisper of exciting possibilities on the way. This may be the year when some of the seeds that I have been planting will sprout and come to the surface.
I’m learning to listen in a new way and to come to that place of humility where I can finally accept that I am not in control. Although there are things I want to make happen, all I can do is to be in service rather than push my views of what could or should be. After so many years designing and planning possibilities from my intellectual understanding, I’m coming to realize that what I don’t know or understand is as important as what is already part of my awareness. Rather than working on ways to manifest my will, I’m learning to open up so that a will that is larger than myself can happen through me.
In a call with my students last semester for the “Dealing with Complexity” course, we were reflecting on the boundaries that define our work and our role as consultants and change agents. Who are we serving? On the one hand, we can limit our contributions to satisfy the expectations of our “clients” or those who request or pay for our work directly. On the other hand, we can put ourselves in service of something larger. And this is what came up for me. I told my students, “My client is the planet.” All I do is seeking to serve humanity and to honor past, present and future generations of all beings. That is my compass for deciding where to put my attention and energy.
But since I’m an insignificant human being, such a grandiose intention can only be possible if I belong to a community of diverse individuals who share the vision. Collaboration becomes essential: the main source of hope and the main strategy for action.
Integration is a different type of contribution since it may not involve creating something completely new or novel, but rather bring together elements that are already in existence. It involves giving attention to something that has been invisible, ignored, or dismissed: the primary value of connections and relationships. I have a vocation to connect the dots. I want to create relationships among people, projects, initiatives, and ideas that are already making a difference in the world but that are not yet part of one ecosystem. I want to foster synergies. I want to make visible the emotional and spiritual glue of authentic relationships that sustain and hold together systemic initiatives. I want to demonstrate the value of intentional collaborative learning and action.
My inquiry into integration involves
…connecting head, heart and hands;
…blending work, learning and play;
…combining intellect and creativity;
…bringing spirituality into business;
…balancing masculine and feminine energy;
…relating theory and practice;
…and creating containers where people can come together to explore these and other dimensions of integration.
I think it is time to integrate all the dimensions that make up the human experience. I don’t want to keep functioning from a fragmented place. I don’t want to have mental work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then struggle to find space in my life to connect with people I love, to create beauty, to dance, to do things that enhance my physical and emotional wellbeing. I want no distinctions between work and learning. I want everything I do to be meaningful and joyful because it is aligned with who I am; with my soul’s purpose. I want to engage with my whole brain all the time. I want to pay attention to my intuition and to the messages encoded in my felt emotional responses. I want to be able to follow my heart and to listen to the needs of my body rather than to override my personal needs with the artificial structure of our rushed society. I want to feel comfortable with not knowing so that I can allow for the future to reveal itself and design possibilities with humility and awe. I want us to remove the fear, the scarcity mental models, and the ego barriers that prevent us from coming together.
My intention for this year is to fully step into this role of integrator and weaver and to put my energy in service of the people and initiatives that are ready to come together and experience the magic of deep, heartfelt collaboration.