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Complex Social Problems Call for Evolutionary Leadership

Saybrook University | Monday November 1st, 2010 | 1 Comment

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students, managers, leaders and consultants who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change toward systemic sustainability.

by Kathia Laszlo

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 we are 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?

Kathia C. Laszlo is professor at Saybrook University in the Organizational Systems program and is the director of the MA in Leadership of Sustainable Systems. She is co-founder of the international organization Syntony Quest through which she consults, facilitates trainings and conducts action-research projects on the design of innovative ways of working, learning and living that embody socio-ecological integrity.


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  • manuel manga

    Kathia has presented a short but powerful declaration and invitation for all of us to become evolutionary leaders and consciously build a better sustainable world.