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Leading Us "Into" The Woods

We use the word leadership easily, as if we really knew what we are talking about. But do we? We often view leaders as the ones who ride in on a white horse to save the day, to slay the dragons, to lead us out of the woods.

We use the word leadership easily, as if we really knew what we are talking about. But do we? We often view leaders as the ones who ride in on a white horse to save the day, to slay the dragons, to lead us out of the woods. What if, in the search for a truly meaningful, healthy, regenerative world, the best leaders were the ones who led us *into *the woods? This is a question we might engage with to find new levels of leadership.

What is leadership in a forest? Who are the leaders and how do they lead? What is their leadership style? How does this type of leadership emerge? And what can we learn from it?

Many of the “mental models” we live in and operate from come from a “machine view” of the world - looking at our surroundings, our world as a great machine, as a linear system. Machine systems are maintained through protection and restoration. Living Systems are sustained though protection, renewal, and regeneration.

A new paradigm, a new vision and new kind of leadership is clearly called for. We need new skins for the new wine we are making. Where can we turn for new models? Who can teach us?

Living systems have 3.5 billion years of beta testing behind them, so they must be doing something right. What can we learn from them about leadership? If we consider a natural system to learn from, say a forest, what can we learn about leadership? How does leadership show up in a wood?

Are lichens on a rock, leaders? Certainly they are pioneers, and lead the way for other species to take root by breaking down the rocks they cling to and laying down their bodies and providing the soil for the next generation of plants. A lichen is an example of a shared collaborative relationship, a partnership between an algae and a fungus, one providing structure, the other, food through photosynthesis. Who are other potential leaders? What about the stately pines, broad maples, or other large trees who come to dominate the forest? They surely set the stage for much of what happens, determining who can grow and who cannot grow below their shade or acid soils. Are they leaders? What about the bees and other pollinating insects, the “networkers" of the woods carrying genetic and other information back and forth?

Ant colonies show remarkably coordinated behavior, despite lacking any direction from a well-informed central controller. Each worker instead applies simple decision rules to limited knowledge, and exchanges information with her neighbors using rudimentary cues and signals. From this process emerge the construction of complex nests, collective decisions among food sources, the adaptive allocation of labor across tasks, and many other group accomplishments.

It seems that many in the forest carry the functions of leadership, simultaneously or sequentially, so that leadership becomes a “shared job” distributed among many players, and residing permanently in none.

We might say it is the systemic structure that is the leader, the rich interplay between soil, air, latitude, altitude, climate, water, weather, sunlight and so forth that determine suitable habitat.

Or perhaps it is the interrelated processes that lead, a strong, ancient collaboration, each building on the work of the others, sometimes in conflict, usually in harmony, dancing between competition, (literally striving together), and cooperation, always growing, dying, and regenerating, from generation to generation, world without end … amen .

What can leaders do to see the world as cyclical, collaborative, and regenerative? What can enable the transformation of leaders to be as effective as the forest? What paths can leaders explore? Certainly understanding the larger systems of which nature and commerce are a part will help, like a better understanding of new market forces raising customer expectations for sustainable products and business models. But the inner transformation of leaders- the ability to perceive and act systemically- to see like a forest, think like a field or act like a river, will lead to a kind of leadership that can bridge the built and the grown world.