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.
What is regenerative leadership and why is it needed now?
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 1.5℃ and systemic inequalities 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 movement and 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 need.
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 Unilever, 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 zero — to commitments to the fundamental repair of the damage done to living systems and a complete reorientation of the goals of the system.
Adopting a just and regenerative mindset
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.
How to define and build a regenerative business
How can we start building truly regenerative systems? Download our new report, The Road to Regeneration, to understand the principles of regenerative business and learn how to put regeneration into practice.
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.
What might a regenerative approach to leadership look like?
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 Business, is 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.
There are five principles that characterize a just and regenerative approach:
Principle 1: Focus on the how, not just the what. The ends don’t justify the means. Meeting renewable energy targets in a way that doesn’t tackle human rights abuses 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 employee, 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 leadership recognizes that systems are nested. 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 targets — recognizing that these targets only work if everyone plays ball and we know there will always be laggards. As my former colleague, Iain Watt, has said:
“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 work 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 traditionally marginalized. 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 need 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 radical consent, 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 conference, a young activist on stage implored those in the audience to listen to the wisdom of his generation, 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 of our lands versus “producers”?
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.