Published 2 years ago.
About a 8 minute read.
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As a fellow leader in this sustainability movement, how might you shift to a more regenerative approach? Here, Forum for the Future’s Samantha Veide explores what the concept means for business and shares five principles for regenerative leadership.
For individuals like myself who have spent their career in service of
sustainability outcomes in both business and non-profit entities, it can be hard
to face the fact that despite — or perhaps even because of — the work we have
done, the world is still wildly off target to remain within
are still deeply entrenched.
On good days, I think that this is because the challenges in front of us are
mammoth and we just need more time. On bad days, I think some of our corporate
sustainability work has actually propped up unsustainable systems by distracting
us with incremental changes and band-aid solutions, while the deeper changes
that are needed “slipped out the back door.” I now find myself hoping that the
burgeoning regenerative business
regenerative thinking have the potential to help us break out of “business as
usual” thinking and catalyze the deep and urgent, wholesale systems change we
The private sector stands at a crossroads right now; we need more businesses to be courageous and support work that rewires the economy to one that enables equity, social cohesion, protects ecosystems and holds to a purpose greater than profit.
The Forum for the Future team has been
working on a nine-month inquiry to explore what it actually means for businesses
to make these bold moves and transition to a just and regenerative mindset. In
partnership with WBCSD, and with input from the American Sustainable
Business Council and leading businesses including
Nestlé, Ingka Group
(IKEA), General Mills, Kimberly-Clark, Seventh Generation,
SIG and Capgemini, we have explored how to move the guiding star of our
sustainability efforts from risk mitigation — or even net
— to commitments to the fundamental repair of the damage done to living systems
and a complete reorientation of the goals of the system.
A regenerative and just mindset calls for a move from current, extractive
business models to embracing the ability of all living beings and ecosystems to
regenerate, replenish and create the conditions for more life.
Going far beyond how a business minimizes its environmental impact or prevents human rights abuses, a just and regenerative mindset gets to the heart of how we recognize our interdependence with other people, other living beings and ecosystems, and ultimately how we enable all living beings to not simply survive but to thrive together.
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I know this is a bold ask. So, how do we lead this movement? What does it mean
to not only be a leader who is steering a team, an organization or even a whole
movement to a just and regenerative future — but also a leader who embraces a
just and regenerative belief system as a fundamental compass to how they lead?
The essence of a just and regenerative approach respects the right and
potential for all living beings and systems to thrive. It recognizes the
wisdom in living systems and moves away from machine thinking. It acknowledges
the interdependence of people, other living things and full ecosystems. It
challenges still all-too-dominant approaches that are transactional versus
relational, and that elevate ‘predict and control’ approaches to problem-solving
versus ones that center sensing and responding.
First, it requires leaders to do the work to understand what a just and
regenerative future looks like and believe in it as the chance to save our
planet. This isn’t just about adopting new vocabulary — it is about changing
one’s worldview and being courageous enough to make the bold moves needed to
restore our world socially and ecologically. It is about exploring current
resources and the latest publications on regenerative thinking and beginning to
align your work with this thinking. Without this, the word “regenerative” could
quickly become one more word to add to our vast lists of jargon. Forum's recent
report, A Compass for Just and Regenerative
a place to start: In it, we outline our journey in exploring regenerative
thinking and list other resources and thinkers doing this work.
Second, it requires new approaches to leadership that start from a place that
centers on peoples’ innate potential to thrive.
Principle 1: Focus on the how, not just the what. The ends don’t justify the
means. Meeting renewable
targets in a way that doesn’t tackle human rights
in renewable-energy technology supply chains does not get us where we want to
be. When it comes to leadership, this means centering effort and results — the
process and the outcomes. I still remember an executive telling me early in my
career that “good performance isn’t about effort; it is about results.” With a
just and regenerative approach, you can’t separate the two — the “how” gets
baked into the “what.” If outcomes that appear sustainable come to be through
the same structures built on excessive consumption, extractivism, power and
privilege; they aren’t sustainable at all.
Principle 2: Start with potential, not the problem. This does not mean
ignoring the problem; but if you start with the potential of a situation, a
business or even an individual
it reorients your solutions and creates space for more generative and creative
options. It moves you from a perspective of risk mitigation to seeing innovative
possibilities. It is like opening the aperture — it allows one to start from an
abundance versus a scarcity mindset.
Principle 3: Care for the operating context. Truly regenerative
recognizes that systems are
Your business is nested in a larger context — an ecosystem, a whole world. It is
about recognizing the co-constitutive nature of how the world impacts you and
vice versa. In sustainability work, this means recognizing and taking
responsibility for your organization’s impacts outside of your four walls. It
means going beyond science-based
recognizing that these targets only work if everyone plays ball and we know
there will always be laggards. As my former colleague, Iain
“There will be no awards and little solace for those companies that did their bit if we cross thresholds that threaten agricultural and societal stability. The urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge now requires companies to become vocal and effective advocates for (and agents of) widespread, societal decarbonisation.”
In leadership, it means encouraging people to bring their whole selves to
and that outdated modes of management that ask people to leave their personal
lives ‘at the door’ are not only impossible (people just hide a part of
themselves; they don’t actually leave that part anywhere), it actually prevents
people from doing their best work.
Principle 4. Value history and lived experience. A deep commitment to
valuing different ways of knowing — ‘I lived it’ vs ‘I learned it at
university,’ for example — enables us to find wisdom in voices that are
The very concept of regeneration comes from indigenous world views and should be
recognized. This is also about specificity, not generalities — recognizing that
“best practice” application across contexts doesn’t work and that we need to
listen to what specific communities say they
for a particular challenge at that particular point in time. Similarly with
people, it is about recognizing that each individual comes to the table with
their own needs and talents; and that a leader creates the conditions — like the
soil — for them to thrive, rather than trying to manage people like replaceable
cogs in a machine.
Principle 5. Radically embrace a participatory approach. This is about
involving voices typically left out, challenging who decides and then who
decides who decides. This is about recognizing the potential for leadership
outside of titles. At the recent Sustainable Brands
a young activist on stage implored those in the audience to listen to the
wisdom of his
where learning and listening were seen as more important than leading. This is
about not only questioning who is at the table, as we have all heard this piece
of wisdom; but where is the table located? Tables on top floors of glass towers
in urban centers lend themselves to certain conversations where some folks will
likely always feel left out. We also need leaders to practice more self-to-self
engagement versus employer to employee and consumer to buyer. What might we gain
when we see people as fellow citizens versus “consumers”? Farmers as stewards
As a fellow leader in this sustainability movement, how might you move your
practice of leadership to a more regenerative approach? What might be gained if
we all approached our sustainability challenges and the individuals who work on
them with a mindset that acknowledges all living beings’ fundamental potential
to thrive and centers on potential, not problems? A regenerative approach just
might offer us a way to leapfrog incrementalism and deliver the transformative
changes that we so desperately need in time to make a difference.
Published Dec 2, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Samantha Veide is Forum for the Future’s Associate Director — Americas. Her work focuses on working with businesses to stretch their sustainability strategies to be more ambitious and more systemic, and working for sustainable value chains and livelihoods that work for all.