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Stress in all Systems – A Unique Window of Opportunity

May 19, 2020

Every leader, organisation and society around the world has been affected by the COVID-crisis. We have all been affected by the same challenge at the same time. It’s remarkable. Yet, we have each had very personal experiences and varied losses.

Routines and ways of living and working have been upset. Many have been altered permanently, with no possibility of going back to ‘normal’.  We might question what is ‘normal’ anyway.  Suggesting a ‘new normal’ may provide some solace that things will settle into a new rhythm, and yet the astute and prescient know this is illusory.  Perhaps one might speak of a ‘new natural’ where we adapt to a way of living and leading that can embrace shocks, upsets, volatility and instability as part of the natural context of life as ever-changing, intimately interconnected and ultimately uncontrollable.

One thing is certain, we can expect more systemic shocks to come. Regardless of whether we get a new vaccine on-stream quickly, we face a long list of systemic risks of which harmful viruses are but one.

Today’s world is characterised by multi-dimensional stress – economic stress, personal and social stress, ecological and climate stress.

Economic stress – Economies the world-over are reeling. Sovereign, corporate and consumer debt is mushrooming to unprecedented levels. Global supply chains have shown how fragile they are to supply shocks. Businesses are folding, redundancies are rising, with the inevitable repercussions this creates. The system is being stressed to near breaking point.

Social and personal stress – Mental and stress-related illnesses across developed (and many developing) economies were rising exponentially before COVID hit, and things have not magically improved. People have suffered all sorts of psychological stresses and strains amid lock-down. That said, people are in no rush to get back to how things were before lock-down. A recent YouGov poll in Great Britain showed only 9% of people want to go back to ‘normal’. A sense of loneliness in urban environments was already a rising theme before COVID, and interestingly – amid social distancing – some people have felt more connected to others due to a common feeling of us all being in this together. Rather than caught up in the usual must-get-on rush from one task to the next with little time to pause and listen to those around us, many have found moments when they can actually be present to what is going on within their neighbourhood and family. Yet others have found family and community relationships strained at times. Before COVID, 1 in 4 people in England were on addictive prescribed drugs, a trend that is rising.  Things are far from healthy.  No wonder we don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ when ‘normal’ is far from sane. New ways of working are now emerging due to COVID, as is the meshing of work and family life, which brings a range of risks and opportunities. I’m a coach with a diverse client base of varying age, culture, gender, privilege, seniority and background. During lock-down, it has been interesting to observe the emotional roller-coaster many people have been experiencing. Post lock-down may be no less challenging. Many people are asking deeper questions about to whom or what is their work actually serving? More and more people are starting to question why our economic system is creating futures no one wants. Why is economic growth undermining the wellbeing of ourselves and our social systems? Why would we wish to go back to ‘normal’ when ‘normal’ is damaging ourselves, societies and ecologies?

Ecological stress – We all know the Climate Crisis has not gone away due to COVID, nor have any of the other systemic challenges we face, such as the impending water crisis, plastics in our oceans, global biodiversity loss, widespread deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, peak phosphorus, etc. Put simply, we are plundering our planet at an alarming rate. Yes, general awareness of this ecological ruin is increasing. Yet, in the desire to kick-start our own enterprises and the wider economy post lock-down, will this plundering ramp-up again?  Many of us have found ourselves noticing nature more as a result of lock-down. We notice the reduced air and noise pollution. We  see pictures of polluted water-ways running clear again, like the seas around Venice or the River Ganges where porpoises have been seen for the first time in years. Many are questioning whether all the rushing around, consuming, manufacturing, travelling and working we do is actually serving us. How we emerge post-COVID in terms of economic stimulus packages that trigger sustainable investment and innovation while reducing ecological and social degradation will be telling. Can we learn and evolve from this situation or will the desire to ‘get the wheels back on the road’ out-trump are innate love of life and our children’s future? Some scientists have made the indirect link between ecological degradation, ecosystem fragility and the rise of pandemics such as COVID.  Might we see that how we consume, work and behave interrelates with the health of our planet?

This triage of economic, ecological and social/human stress creates a trialectic context that has the potential to invoke a meaningful and lasting step-change in our evolution at individual, organisational and societal levels.

In short, the situation we are in, can cajole us out of the dominant status quo, or freeze us caught-in-the-headlights of our own global car crash. The stress can trigger our evolution or it can suck us into stuckness. The choice is ours. This is a supreme moment. It’s far more than a ‘war on the virus’ or a ‘war on carbon’. It’s so much more. It’s about our humanity, about who we truly are, and our capacity to evolve as Homo sapiens – wise beings. Can we live up to this name of ‘wise beings’? The window we are now in will define us.

There are plenty of good initiatives springing up that provide the potential for the ‘new natural’ narrative to become hope-filled and evolutionary, rather than fear-filled and stuck-in-status-quo.  For instance, Amsterdam is to embrace a regenerative circular approach  at a city-state level as a solution to its economic stresses post-COVID – meeting the wellbeing needs of everyone while respecting the ecological systems of the planet. And in Costa Rica, not just a city-state but a whole nation is exploring how it can become regenerative post-COVID. The European Commission is also exploring the potential of regenerative circular approaches to economics, social wellbeing and ecological health, so that solving one set of stresses does not create more stress elsewhere. It’s simply joined-up thinking that looks at all stakeholder relations in totality. It’s this shift from narrowed silo-thinking into interconnected systems-thinking that lies at the heart of our evolution. I will explore this shift in thinking in a moment. But first, in case our excitement to move into solution mode means we rush past the pearl of wisdom this crisis affords us, lets pause for a moment.

Evolution Impelled by Death/Rebirth

This epochal time we are in is about death/rebirth.

Death/rebirth is a natural part of evolution.  It can feel uncomfortable, so we might try and gloss over it, yet it is fundamental to evolution. We ignore it at our peril.

Let’s take some learning from the evolution of life itself.

When we look at how life unfolds and evolves we see a process of emergence – a constant creative adaptation to changing conditions. All life thrives through emergence, just as our human systems do.

We now know – thanks to brilliant Nobel Laureate scientists such as Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Ilya Prigogine – that while evolution may bumble along quite happily through a series of incremental changes amid relatively stable life-conditions, when life-conditions change quickly living-systems experience significant stress. As this stress persists, every living-system has (simplistically) two pathways ahead of it 1) struggle with the stress, try and ride it out by sticking to routines, habits and behaviours of old, and eventually die as the stress undermines it; or 2) allow the stress to cajole it into a process of death/rebirth, whereupon it lets-go of old ways and opens up to new ways that are fundamentally different from before, i.e. it evolves. This is called ‘punctuated evolution’ where an individual organism and the wider ecosystem shift relatively quickly into a new state fundamentally different from the old state in order to overcome system stresses. Ways of behaving and relating fundamentally change, and a leap forward in evolution occurs.

Both pathways require facing death. In the first pathway (where we stick to the status quo business-as-usual in the hope of riding out the storm) we experience a holding-on, a tightening followed by a painful stressful dying into extinction due to a failure to let-go of old ways.  The second pathway (where we allow the stress to cajole us into exploring new ways of working, living and relating) requires a psychological death of our old ways of behaving and dissolution of our old structures, habits and norms. This letting-go, is a surrendering and releasing, quite different from the tightening and hardening that occurs in pathway 1.

Pathway 1 is fear-based. The changing life conditions and system stresses naturally trigger fear in us, and if we allow the fear to become the dominant driver in us, then we hunker-down and fear the unknown by sticking-to-our-knitting. The outcome is extinction.

Pathway 2 is courage-based as we cross the threshold, through a psychological death of letting go of old perspectives and transcending fear-filled reactions so as to enter a deeper space of not-knowing. We open up to not-knowing with humility and vulnerability. We die so we can be reborn psychologically.  From this space of vulnerability and uncluttered authenticity comes real insight. From this place of deep connection within, we can then start to creatively explore solutions that are unencumbered by yesterday’s status-quo logic and fear-based reactivity. The outcome is evolution.

Learning to let-go of old ways and open-up to the unknown amid challenging stressful times is not easy. When we feel under attack it is quite natural to harden-up, and yet to soften and release is what evolution requires for a threshold to be crossed.  Only by entering a space unencumbered by yesterday’s logic can radical creativity spawn. From this space of not-knowing, we evolve in an emergent way that can’t be planned or predicted but can be prepared for through the quietening, heart-centring and surrendering presence that creates a space of not-knowing inside us and inside our leadership team; a space that is simultaneously empty yet abundant, as from this emptiness insight and creativity emerges.  As Aristotle knew, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. The wisdom in this is that if we create space, something new will emerge, but first we need to create the space, and yet today’s must-get-on, must plan, strategize, predict, control, get-to-it mind-set fails to create adequate space for something truly innovative and fresh to emerge.  For sure, there is a right time and place for strategizing and planning, but first we need to let-go of what we thought we knew, open-up into a place of not knowing and connect deeper into our selves at a heart level. Then we can access wisdom within life itself. We activate our super-nature.

Activating our Super-nature for our Evolutionary Up-stretch

This psychological death by letting go of old ways of thinking so as to open-up to not-knowing is immensely powerful. It’s the source of all real creativity, and it’s what powers evolution through times of system stress such as now.

As we create space to centre ourselves, we allow our busy rationalising analysing mind to ease its grasping grip on our attention. We allow the fear to ease as we breathe-deep. The busy head-thinking of yesterday’s logic is frantically trying to patch up the old ways, yet in-so-doing distracting us from the real insight we need to evolve into future-fitness. As we quieten, we allow space for richer ways of knowing within our humanity to come to the fore.

The Godfather of psychotherapy, Carl Jung, extensively studied different ways of knowing we have within us: intuitive, rational, emotional, and somatic. When we integrate these different ways of knowing within ourselves we open up to radical creativity innate within life – the wisdom of life flows through us, and we create the conditions to move along pathway 2 towards future-fitness.  Let’s briefly look at Jung’s 4 Ways of Knowing:

The rational analytic way of knowing is our thinking mind’s ability to focus-in on things and analyze, and is often related to the element air and IQ (rational intelligence). This is by far the dominant intelligence we call upon in today’s business environment. It is a powerful tool that helps us make sense of, delineate, focus-in and compartmentalize complexity. It is what dominates today’s meetings, strategies, dashboards and decisions. It is but one intelligence within our human repertoire, and a very useful tool for sure, yet when it dominates too much, it can suppress our other ways of knowing, and undermine our capacity to evolve in times of stress. This rational analytic way of knowing has a habit of focusing in on what it knows, and pulls us away from going into a deeper space where insightful creativity can emerge. Hence, a dominant rational analytic consciousness seeks incrementalism and avoids transformation. In today’s situation, we do need this analytical tool, yet only once we have created space for our other ways of knowing to spawn insight and creativity or we will get stuck in pathway 1 and fail to evolve.

The intuitive way of knowing is inner insight and intuition, and has often been related to the element fire and SQ (spiritual intelligence). This requires us to quieten and still ourselves, so we can better listen inwardly to this subtle intuition. This also requires an inner trust to go with what feels true, aligned and coherent with our deeper Self. We learn to listen to that soft inner voice that often immediately knows about the rightness of a situation which is easily over-ruled by our busy rational mind.

The emotional way of knowing is the ebb and flow of feelings and emotions, and has often been related to the element water and EQ (emotional intelligence). We cultivate this emotional way of knowing by allowing our feelings the non-judgmental space they need, so we may gain perspective on what is underpinning these feelings and how best to respond to them. It is a subtle yet important shift from emotional reactivity – when we become the slave of our emotions – to informed emotional intelligence. It requires a shift beyond fear and fixing into heart-centred non-judgement and pausing.

The somatic and sensorial way of knowing is the sensations we have in our body: gut pangs, hairs on the back of the neck, butterflies in our stomach, or chest perturbations. It has often been related to the element earth and PQ (physical or somatic intelligence). Our soma (our body) is full of psychosomatic sensations that can inform how we attend to everyday interactions. Most people get a tense, unpleasant physical sensation when they are stressed. That’s the body’s intelligence letting us know to ease up, breathe deep, relax and rebalance.  More and more scientific research is emerging about how this somatic way of knowing works alongside our emotional and intuitive ways of knowing. Again, by calming and centring ourselves, we can learn to listen to these subtle somatic purturbations, so they can contribute to a more full-bodied wisdom beyond head-busyness.

When we allow these four ways of knowing (rational, intuitive, emotional and somatic) to cohere within us, we allow the four elements of our inner nature (air, fire, water and earth) to integrate in their rightful way, and as we integrate these four elements, we open ourselves up to the fifth element. Ancient and modern cultures have many names for this fifth element, such as Akasha, Spirit, Source, Universal Mind, and so on. In the book Regenerative Leadership, we call it the Living Systems Field.

The illustration below shows the shift from our prevalent imbalance in to an integration of our four ways of knowing, which activates our super-nature – our innate human capacity to open-up to the field and tune-in to life’s wisdom.

This understanding of our individual mind reverberating within a deeper Mind is becoming more widely accepted as scientific studies in this area gain wider recognition. For instance, the internationally-acclaimed neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert coined the phrase ‘bodymind’. Rather than thinking of our mind as encapsulated in our head, the bodymind pervades our entire body (drawing on the somatic, intuitive and emotional as well as the rational), and this bodymind continuously senses and responds to changes within us and all around us.

Leadership specialist Otto Scharmer explores the importance of learning to let go of the dominant rational-mind in order to open up to the ‘field’ within and all around us – what he calls ‘Source’ – as this is where wisdom resides.  As we let go, we connect more deeply with the wisdom inherent in the ‘field’. Then, we can invite in this wisdom to inform our emergence. Essentially it is about getting out of the way and letting a greater wisdom emerge.  Then our consciousness expands, and our ability to deal with the complexity of the current system stresses improves.  We shift from yesterday’s logic into a richer way of engaging with life, that serves our leadership, our organisations and our wider social systems. We become more human, and live up to our name as wise beings – Homo sapiens. This enables us to evolve.

Yet holding-space for oneself and ones’ team amid the cacophony of confusion and stress is not easy. It requires an act of real leadership.

Holding Space for Stress to Reveal Wisdom

As we cultivate the practice of letting-go of the busy over-analysing head-space of status-quo fire-fighting, we start to see how the tensions in this crisis can reveal insights. The stresses themselves act as crucibles for creativity to emerge, as long as we can hold the tensions rather than collapse them with incrementalism and busyness.

This requires courage.  All about us is confusion, and within us lies a deep-seated fear to get busy, to find some semblance of order and control amid this crisis. This is very understandable. But we can’t go back, nor ought we wish to.

The logic that got us here will not get us out of here. In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic, as the management guru Peter Drucker knew all too well.  The logic we now need to draw upon is actually all around us and within us – the Logic of Life which Laura Storm and I write about in Regenerative Leadership.  Yet, this logic asks us to face into the unknown not with pre-prepped answers but with humility, receptivity and not-knowing; to have the courage to hold-space for tensions to reveal pearls of wisdom through emergence.

This holding-space amid confusion and stress is what leadership is all about.

The word leadership finds its root in the old European word ‘leith’ which means to die and be reborn, to cross the threshold from an old way of being into a fundamentally new state.

To cross the threshold from fear into trusting in life, trusting in the emergent wisdom of evolution, trusting in our innate creativity, trusting in the Logic of Life – it goes against much of what we have been programmed to do by out-dated business methodologies, strategies and MBAs rooted in yesterday’s logic. Yet, it is what this crisis is now asking of us, if we so choose to see.

This crossing of the threshold of death and rebirth is an important key within all wisdom traditions the world over. Now is the time to use such a key to enable us to evolve as wise beings.

We ought not take anything for granted, nor be complacent, amid this hour of humanity’s reckoning. Thousands upon thousands of species on Earth are experiencing pathway number 1 – extinction – as a result of the stresses we have inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems. Why ought we be able to succeed with pathway number 2 when other species have not? The solution to this question lies in the stresses. Today’s triage of stresses have a common root cause – an imbalanced out-of-kilter perception we humans have allowed to corrupt our worldview. The way we currently perceive life is skewed, and it creates a complexity gap amid our leadership today. This flawed perception cannot get us out of the mess it created.

The good news is, it is well within our natural capacity to address this corruption in our perception.  In addressing this corruption, we adapt and evolve. It really is that simple.  To realign our perception from current imbalances into a more integral and balanced perspective is simple and natural – though not necessarily easy (as we have become inured in a dominant worldview at deep and partly unconscious levels, hence the need for a psychological death/rebirth).

Shifting the Logic: From Machine Mentality to the Logic of Life

So what are we shifting from-to?

It’s a shift from a mechanistic logic that finds its roots way back in human history, born out of a militarised mind, rising patriarchy, an ego-explosion, etc. – see The Illusion of Separation for a full exploration of what has caused our current corruption and our way beyond it.

This mechanistic way of attending really came to dominant our Western worldview with the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution: materialistic, individualistic, mechanistic.

This mechanistic logic has a narrowing-down reductive tendency that breaks down the complexity and relationality of real life so that we can make sense of it and package it up into bits and bytes. This ability to drill-down and compartmentalise reality is a powerful tool we most certainly need. It has brought great advancements in modern medicine, technology and transportation that we all enjoy today. There is nothing wrong with it per se. The problem comes when this logic starts to dominant, crowding out our other natural ways of knowing. Then, it creates imbalances in us and in our collective worldview.  We become too caught up in a rational analytic perception, and suppress the emotional, intuitive and somatic intelligences within us. We deactivate our super-nature and unplug ourselves from our deeper humanity and from the Logic of Life. In-so-doing we impoverish ourselves, our relationships with other and with life itself: enter the social, economic and ecological mega-crisis we face today. Dealing with this mega-crisis without dealing with the cause that created it merely wastes time through the incrementalism of pathway 1, heading towards extinction and creating yet more system stresses along the way.   If we are honest with ourselves, we might begin to see how much of our daily activity is still dominated by yesterday’s logic.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the ways this mechanistic logic can play out in the stresses we experience today.

Economic stress: Much of today’s business management, operations and strategy is still caught up in Scientific Management Theory left-over from the Industrial Era, and Milton Friedman’s narrowed-down focus on maximising short-term returns for one isolated stakeholder group – shareholders. This logic encourages us to see the organisation as a machine where assets are sweated. These assets include resources we plunder from nature and ‘human resources’ – i.e. human beings become cogs in the machine to be sweats for short-term returns. Business leadership warps its perspective from creating real value to a reductive focus that actually undermines the long-term vitality of its ecosystem of stakeholders including its own employees.  Organisations become devoid of meaningful purpose beyond beating the competition. This mindset corrupts well-intended activities around purpose, CSR, culture, etc. turning them into incremental initiatives that serve the machine rather than transform the machine into something authentic and life-affirming.  The organisation becomes control-based, fear-based, purpose-less, stressed-out, hyper-competitive, android-like, inauthentic and infatuated with Big Data while increasingly unable to cope with its own systemic complexity.  Stocks and shares bounce around with no real relationship to true value. And the economy’s inherent imbalances mean it is desperate for yet more consumerism, rushing about, rising pollution, rising debt.

Personal and social stress: No wonder people don’t want to return to normal post COVID because our ways of living and working have become imbalanced. We wake up, and quickly rush through breakfast into rush-hour so as to get to a machine-like organisation where we feel unable to bring our whole selves to work. We present a narrow part of ourselves, and shut aspects of ourselves off, to conform to the machine. We remain vigilant amid a competitive environment, and our brain waves are on high-Beta. Much of our day is an oscillation between fight-flight adrenaline-rushing between meetings and mind-numbing tedium amid machine-bureaucracy. There is little time to truly ground, centre and connect with real creativity and a deeper sense of purpose. Our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system gets out of balance as the sympathetic fight-flight always-on mode is dominant, and so our immune system and mental health system is undermined, each and every day. We feel worn out and yet unable to stop the rushing from one thing to the next, with no space to drop into wholeness, flow or creativity, so we remain caught up in rational-analytic incrementalism, like hamsters in a wheel. Ground-hog day, after day after day, we look forward to the pension and some final respite from this enslaving work-life.  Soon, anxiety and depression become part of the ‘norm’.

Ecological stress:  The narrow-focus on organisation-as-machine sweating assets for short-term returns means anything beyond its narrow lens is excluded from view and ignored. Impacts on wider society and the environment are simply ‘out of scope’, and not what the core business strategy ought focus on.  We might be measuring our waste, carbon, water footprints, and yet the understanding of our relational interconnectedness with our stakeholder ecosystem is limited to facts and figures in a sustainability report, divorced from the business strategy and distant from normal employee activity. The strategic view is too narrow to realise that the organisation is actually intimately interrelated with communities and ecologies, and that real value can come from widening this narrow view. To embrace such a holistic perspective feels like too much of a distraction amid this crisis because now more than ever we need to maximise short-term returns to simply survive. We must keep on with pathway 1, any deviation will be a distraction. We are blinded by our own narrowness. And so we march down pathway 1 as the roads, trains and airports get busy again, and we feel safe and secure in the knowing that we are getting back to ‘normal’, temporarily satisfied to be busy again. This is fickle security based on insecurity and fear. We simply distract ourselves from the death/rebirth letting-go/opening-up of pathway 2. Soon we notice that the porpoises have once again disappeared from the River Ganges and the waterways around Venice are polluted, as is the air in our cities. We notice how ‘normal’ is not at all wise. Who can we look to blame?

To shift into pathway 2 is to shift our mind-set, to shift our logic: A shift from organisation-as-machine to organisation-as-living-system that recognises it is intimately interrelated with the living systems of society and ecology. The living organisation creates cultures where people love working and can bring their whole selves to work. This creativity in the culture enables the organisation to evolve. Fortunately, there are myriad examples of such businesses across all sectors and sizes making this shift in logic, for instance:


  • Iberdrola (large incumbent energy company)
  • Gore & Associates (multinational manufacturer)
  • Nucor (large steel manufacturer)
  • Patagonia (outdoor fashion retailer)
  • Novo Nordisk (pharmaceutical manufacturer)
  • United Technologies Corporation (conglomerate of different manufacturing brands)
  • Henkel (world leader in applied chemical and adhesive technology)
  • Pukka Herbs (international herbal tea and supplement provider)
  • Weleda (global health and hygiene provider)
  • Pantheon Enterprises (global chemicals provider)
  • North Star Housing (UK Housing Association)
  • Fetzer (US wine producer)
  • Buurtzorg (Dutch home-care provider)
  • Impact Hub Network (global membership network)
  • Mud Jeans (global jeans producer)
  • Dr Bronner (global health and hygiene provider)


In Regenerative Leadership we provide insights from some of these and many other organisations.

So how do we shift from this mechanistic logic into the Logic of Life?

Yesterday’s mechanistic logic has imbalances that corrupt it, and in addressing these imbalances, we cross the threshold into the Logic of Life, it really is that simple.

Let’s briefly look at these imbalances:

Left/Right Brain Hemisphere Imbalance

To draw on the insightful research of the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, we can see an imbalance in how the left and right brain hemispheres inter-relate. The left-brain hemisphere enables us to focus on the parts, to drill-down on the detail, and isolate things abstracted from their lived-in fluid and relational context. This is a powerful tool, and yet can start to dominate the right brain hemisphere’s natural capacity to sense the inter-relational nature of reality ad wider systemic context. We get more and more caught up in the bits and bytes and de-emphasise the contextual relations. Hence, we need to re-align or re-balance this.

If you have not yet seen the engaging TED talk by Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor, the neuroanatomist who experienced first-hand how the left and right brain hemispheres filter our perception, I highly recommend it, see here.

Masculine/Feminine Imbalance

Another imbalance that needs addressing is the advancement of ‘masculine’ or ‘yang’ qualities of attention prioritised over ‘feminine’ or ‘yin’ qualities. (NB – to be clear here, we are not referring to gender or sexual orientation, but rather qualities of attention that each person regardless of gender has within them).  Masculine qualities of focusing-in, driving forward, responding, asserting, doing, competing and such like are prioritised by social systems and organisational cultures, while the feminine qualities of listening, reflecting, empathising, holding-space, collaborating and such like tend to be deprioritised.  While both qualities make up healthy human growth, we have tended towards the prioritisation of one over the other, this needs re-aligning.

Outer/Inner Imbalance

Another imbalance is that of a prioritisation of the ‘outer’ over the ‘inner’. One of the hallmarks of the Scientific Revolution and the materialism that has followed is the outer objectification of reality, where we emphasis the forms, materials, what-gets-measured-gets-done tangibility of reality while impoverishing the inner, the intangible, the psychological and metaphysical dimension of life.  Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts. We all know in our hearts there is much more to life than KPIs can measure, and in overly prioritising the outer tangible aspects of life we skew our perception and create imbalances in how we lead and operate.

Human/Nature Imbalance

Humanity’s sense of separation with and domination of nature has created a deep imbalance. This imbalance is a root problem that triggers the imbalances of left/right brain hemisphere, masculine/feminine, inner/outer, which then further exacerbate our sense of separateness from nature, and so we get caught in a vicious cycle of separateness, fear, insecurity, and the need to control/dominate. We shall explore this human/nature imbalance in a moment, as it is for our evolution.

So what are we shifting into?

We are shifting into the Logic of Life, where a re-alignment within our leadership consciousness happens at 3 levels: head (systems thinking); heart (systemic awareness); soul (ecosystemic awareness)


Systems Thinking – rebalancing left/right hemispheres

The first level is at the cognitive head-level, re-aligning our left and right brain hemispheres. It relates to what leadership specialist Otto Scharmer refers to as Open Mind. We allow our capacity to focus-in on the parts to align with our capacity to comprehend the inter-related context of life.  We allow the left and right brain hemispheres to work together like two hands on the piano each doing different things yet making music together in a coherent fashion. This is the land of Systems Thinking, where we draw upon systems-tools to help us understand both the parts and the inter-relations of the systems we are attending to.

A practical example here is the work of systems designers, for instance my collaboration with a leading design agency Halogen that applies the systems-tool of Giga Mapping, where the technical, material, social and ecological parts and inter-relations between the parts of the system are mapped out.  This helps us understand the feedback loops and systemic effects of systems change, and is a very important part of implementing circular economics approaches across an ecosystem of stakeholders.  Such systems-tools are becoming more widely used in organisations these days thanks to the work of pioneers like Peter Senge who have been championing systems-thinking in business for many years now.

Systemic Awareness – rebalancing masculine-feminine, inner-outer

Then there is the second level, which is a move beyond systems-thinking into systemic-awareness. This is no longer just a head-based re-cognition of systems-behaviours, a mapping of the system on paper, but also an embodied shift in our ways of knowing. It relates to what Otto Scharmer calls Open Heart, where we re-align the inner-outer and masculine-feminine dynamics that came out of kilter through yesterday’s mechanistic logic.  We sense in to the living system dynamics at play within the organisation and throughout the ecosystem of stakeholders.  This calls upon an embodied and intuitive tuning-in and sensing-and-responding to living-system dynamics.  Tools such as Systemic Constellations, Social Presencing Theatre, Art of Hosting, Deep Listening, Dialogue, Presencing and Systemic Coaching come in handy here.

A practical example of embedding this systemic-awareness into the organisational leadership is the systemic coaching work I undertook for an FMCG organisation going through significant change. We identified leaders with innate systemic capacities across the business and throughout the organisational hierarchy, provided some systemic training, and then held-space for deep dialogic sharing to uncover the systemic dynamics, nodes, stuckness and flows unfolding in the organisational living-system during a time of transition for the company. The insights gleaned from this systemic work would not have been uncovered through traditional mechanistic methods.

Ecosystemic Awareness – rebalancing human/nature

Then there is the third level of the shift. This is from systems-thinking and systemic-awareness into ecosystemic-awareness.  This is where we re-align the human-nature relation, and with it unlock transformational regenerative energy for redesigning life-affirming futures.  Yesterday’s logic is rooted in separateness, which projects a Neo-Darwinistic perspective on to life. It warps Darwin’s original observations through a mechanistic lens.  This perspective views life as separate species struggling for survival in a dog-eat-dog world, and the whole process of evolution seen as nothing but selfish ascendency. It’s a deeply divisive logic and woefully inadequate and yet it underpins much of our ideology in business, politics and beyond. Science shows us that life is actually very far from this simplistic portrayal.  In opening ourselves up to nature and reigniting our sense of place and purpose in this interconnected world, we allow a re-alignment of this human-nature separation.  This shift in awareness is an existential shift, a soulful opening. It relates to what Otto Scharmer calls Open Will, where our small ego-will opens up and permeates with the deeper interconnectedness of reality. Detailed research undertaken by advanced adult developmental psychologists identifies this shift in human perception from separateness to interconnectedness. For instance, Clare Graves work shows a shift from what he calls Tier 1 adult consciousness (rooted in separateness and individual development) into Tier 2 consciousness (rooted in interconnectedness and service for all life).

One of the most powerful tools I have found through my own research in this ecosystemic space is to take leaders on immersions in nature for generative dialogue round the camp fire, connecting head and heart while learning from living-systems about how life embraces complexity, evolution and emergence.  Hence why I run a leadership centre amid 60 acres of ancient woodland in close proximity to London. In this private and secluded woodland leaders can connect deeply within themselves either through one-day or over-night sessions where tools like Theory U, Purpose & Legacy life-reviews, liminal work, solo-time and vision quests allow for the power and wisdom of death-rebirth to unfold within our leadership consciousness.  As one senior leader wrote after an immersion on the land, ‘it’s so powerful and provocative – it’s simply the best leadership course I’ve ever attended’.  For more on this see Leadership Immersions where you can find science-based research on the power of nature.

‘Look deep, deep, deep into nature and you will understand everything better.’ – Albert Einstein, genius

As the genius says here, when we look deep, deep, deep into nature, at these three levels of head, heart and soul,  we see with new eyes. We bring a fundamentally different quality of consciousness to our solutions than which created our problems in the first place.  It’s this shift in leadership consciousness that this metamorphic moment we are living in fundamentally needs.

‘The greatest voyage of our lifetimes is not in the seeking of new landscapes but in the seeing with new eyes.’ – Marcel Proust, philosopher.

The time has come for the leadership capacities we have within ourselves to step-up to the systemic challenges our social systems and organisations now face.

The times we are living and operating in are simultaneously deeply troubling yet deeply rewarding for those who are courageous enough to let-go of the status quo logic and open-up to the Logic of Life, in-so-doing step-in to what it really means to be human.

The very armoury, weaponary, skillsets, cunning capacities and hard-won experiences that got us this far will not be adequate for the future. For sure, life-learnings will be vital, but much of the mechanistic control-based and burearcractic mentality prevalent in today’s organisational, social and economic systems need to be revisited, deeply reflected upon and largely let-go of.  But that feels tantamount to dropping our sword and shield, and then stripping off in the midst of the battle-field just when things are getting heavy.  Well yes. That is why this requires immense courage. The word ‘courage’ comes from the French/Latin word cour meaning heart – to lead from the heart. Yes we need to use our head, but overly rational-analytic mechanistic thinking is what created the systemic frailty and stress in the first place. Now is the time for the heart to step back into its rightful place as we activate our super-nature by reintegrating all of our human intelligences.

And now here is my secret, it’s a very simple secret: Its only with the heart that one sees rightly, said the Fox to the Little Prince, by Antoine Saint Exupery. This is wisdom.

Real creativity, real innovation, real reinvention seeks nothing less than a root-and-branch transformation, starting with the self.  To do this while haemorrhaging cash, laying-off people, watching revenue streams evaporate? Surely, now is not the time for heart-based space-holding? Surely, it’s about hunkering down, sticking-to-our-knitting, so we can sit this one out? Alas, that is pathway number 1 – extinction. The only real pathway ahead is that of death/rebirth, of radical transformation, all while keeping our business functioning.

One global CEO we interviewed (as part of Henley Business School’s Tomorrow’s Leaders Today’s Leadership Development study) shared the impactful metaphor of having to retrofit a plane in mid-flight while flying into increasing turbulence, keeping the ground-crew up-to-date and all the inflight crew happy!  This speaks directly to what leaders are now having to embrace as we venture down pathway number 2. And all the while, the temptation to fall-back into yesterday’s logic will loom.

‘The greatest breakthroughs of the 21st Century will not occur because of technology, they will occur because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.’ – John Naisbett, futurist

To be involved in this expanding concept of what it means to be human, to help us Homo sapiens – wise beings – evolve; its this that is at the heart of Regenerative Leadership – a way of leading that doesn’t just help our organisations become agile and profitable amid these stressful times. It’s a way of leading that cultivates the conditions for developmental cultures; cultures that enables us to become more of who we truly are in the workplace; cultures that we would be proud for our children to work in when they come of age; cultures that create strategies and solutions, products and propositions that enhance the very fabric of society and the more-than-human world upon which we all depend.  This is pathway number 2. And it’s already unfolding. The myriad business examples packed into the book Regenerative Leadership are testament to this.


Feel free to join the Leadership Immersion LinkedIn group if you have not already:

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Giles Hutchins is a pioneering practitioner, coach and senior adviser at the fore-front of the [r]evolution in organizational and leadership consciousness and developmental approaches that enhance personal, organizational and systemic agility and vitality. He is author and co-author of several leadership and organizational development papers, and the books The Nature of Business (2012), The Illusion of Separation (2014), Future Fit (2016) and Regenerative Leadership (2019). Chair of The Future Fit Leadership Academy and Founder of Leadership Immersions, he runs a 60 acre leadership centre at Springwood Farm, an area of outstanding natural beauty near London, UK where he holds-space for clients to create life-affirming futures for themselves and their organisations.



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