By Edward L. Quevedo, J.D.
It just might be that, in the midst of the mechanized and highly-fractured culture which dominates our nation these days, we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of leadership. As a result of decades of hackneyed and simple-minded teaching in schools of management, and commentary in the popular press, we have come to think of leadership as the work of “leaders” who hold positions of influence, authority, and power.
Nothing could be more wrong, or indeed more dangerous, than this line of thinking. Leadership in our society is most often meaningfully exerted by the hundreds and thousands of good citizens and public servants laboring quietly, selflessly, and largely invisibly to create well-being for their brothers, sisters, children, and fellow citizens. In these benighted times, the male-centric model of chest-thumping “leaders” across the spectrum from industry to politics and beyond assert their alleged leadership through bluster and blunder; it is worth remembering against this backdrop the true nature of leadership.
As citizens, we have a moral obligation, arising from the social contract that holds our democracy together, to honor and seek to exemplify this kind of quiet, gentle, and authentic leadership. We would be well served to do so with humility and in the spirit of inquiry and learning. Within our work as citizens and laborers, and in the greater society which we serve in these roles, we have the opportunity to embrace the truth that leadership is about creating new realities. Leadership consists of recognizing needs before they are felt, seeing solutions before the problems they solve become fully manifest, and anticipating and responding the most urgent needs in our loved ones, colleagues, communities, and the greater society.
Conventional “leaders” are not what our society, institutions, organizations, or communities, truly need. What we need, most urgently, are engaged, inspired, joyful colleagues and citizens. Leadership is a gentle hand when a colleague is suffering, a light voice when a team or group needs uplifting, a truly inspiring word when nothing else will suffice.
Leadership is about openly and lovingly contributing to shaping the future, not about claiming one has the answers. It is exemplified when teams of colleagues have the courage and daring to innovate when it is not expected of them, to create brilliant paths forward through business ventures when they are not charged with doing so, without saying “it’s not my job,” but rather “it is a job that needs doing.”
Leadership instantiates when people are no longer victims of circumstance, but instead participate in creating new circumstances that celebrate the heart of the human experience, the joy of collaborative work, and the dignity of work done well and selflessly. Leadership, to paraphrase the words of Peter Senge, consists in creating the space in which human beings continually deepen their understanding of reality and become more adept at meaningfully and satisfyingly participate in the unfolding of the future.
In business, we must consider exemplifying this kind of leadership by acknowledging how far we must go before we can claim to be “leaders,” and by producing results in our organizations through the collaborative work of brilliant colleagues seeking not to aggrandize themselves but to delight, inspire, and fulfill their colleagues, customers, and fellow citizens. We do this mostly by relentlessly innovating the practices of tending the soil of our organizations, cultivating the fruit of that soil, producing results, and growing the capacities and skills of our colleagues, all in concerted harmony.
This work, the work of organizational culture tending, is a direct metaphor for the rich, diverse, and consuming work of biodynamics. It is a direct metaphor, or corollary, to biodynamics applied to soil at landscape level to produce the most healthy, verdant, nourished, and nutritious crops, produce, and ruminants.
Perhaps it is that leadership, most fundamentally, is the work of becoming ever more human and humane in the pursuit of a shared, improved, and thriving future. Our work at the Foresight+Innovation Lab with organizations, the work of RSF Social Finance, TriplePundit, and the work of the organizations that we all engage with, pursues a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound business management, responsible governance, ecological regeneration, and social vibrancy and community well-being. This urge is grounded in authentic, outward-focused, and bottoms-up leadership, not hierarchies and power structures.
In many regards, the rebellious and unruly nature of these alternative models of leadership call upon us to positively disrupt the conventional wisdom about how to run our organizations, responsibly cultivate a healthy culture, build the capacities and humanity of our people, and shift societal institutions as emblems of the legacy we wish to bequeath to future generations.
Stated differently, the work of cultivating a healthy, biodynamically productive organizational culture is found in the constant, gentle, devotional tending of the ways that people are being in the enterprise. This calls for authentic attention to inviting colleagues to remember and listen to their higher selves, the better angels of their nature, and the long-term well-being of the people, the organization, and those served and touched by it.
It is worth considering here the words of Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic farming, the Waldorf teaching method, and so many other worthy and profound approaches to being truly human. He offered that “We must guard against disrespectful, disparaging, and criticizing thoughts. We must try to practice reverence and devotion in our thinking at all times.” Never has this wise tonic of humility and grace been more needed than in these divisive, riven times.
In service of our children and the future generations who are counting on us to steer a true course, we are called to consider in all matters when operating our organizations, to daily challenge ourselves to build a more authentically human and humane set of actions and outcomes. In this way, we can seek to use our daily work, and the winning and making of our daily bread, to make contributions to the local, regional, and national economy that are positive, inspiring, and genuinely beneficial to the Commons.
The fundamental work of crafting exceptional people, outcomes, and communities from the best “fruit” (i.e., human potential), grown in the most healthy “soil” (i.e., the management systems, arrangements for governance, etc. of well-structured organizations and institutions), while engaging the most talented and gifted teams of colleagues we can attract, is about using regenerative development principles to create a more verdant, just, and joyful future. This “business model,” and our counter-cultural mode of operation, drives at this future with all of the energy we can muster.
Our operating premise is that the complex economic, social, and ecological challenges we face require not solutions, but responses that recognize vulnerabilities, build capacities, and enable adaptation to navigate our way through an increasingly unpredictable future. It is our task on this work to proceed in such a way as to realize and contribute to bringing into being these new realities.
This is why we take our commitments and obligations to those we serve as our most sacred trust. We embrace the duty we have to forge meaningful local relationships with our communities, human relationships among our colleagues, and to seek to build the citizenship capacities of our people alongside building their professional acumen and skills.
From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs – this is but one way of rethinking “leadership” and perhaps once and for good dispensing with the harmful hierarchical notions of power, authority, and position as defining who should help chart our future.
I once learned a powerful lesson about running an organization, and offer it to you as a summation of this set of ideas. A talented and brilliant colleague suggested, as we launched a new social venture, that we might be best served, while designing and building our business, to conduct every meeting, design every intervention, frame every response to risk and change, and always and ever carry ourselves in our work as though our children, parents, investors, customers, and fellow citizens were watching our every move and action. Following this simple formula, we built an organization focused on cultivating the skills of its people and wellbeing in the greater world in which we labor. At the Lab, we earnestly believe that this lesson can, in the fullness of time, contribute to meaningfully crafting an economy worthy of our affection.
We have tried the other path, and indeed that path has tried us. Perhaps it is time to try this new path. Certainly, it is not an overstatement to suggest that our very future as a species calls upon us to give it a try.
Edward L. Quevedo, J.D. is Director, Regenerative Design The Foresight+Innovation Lab
The Foresight+Innovation Lab is an amalgam of educators, creative agents, international diplomats, futurists, social justice activists, policy innovators, social entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders working to build the New Regenerative Economy, otherwise referenced as An Economy Worthy of Our Affection. Special thanks to the reviewers and careful eyes of my colleagues and friends who have helped to shape these thoughts, including John Bloom of RSF Social Finance and John Nagle of E&J Gallo Wineries, among many others.