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Connections are made slowly

Sometimes they grow underground.

You cannot always tell by looking what is happening.

More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.

—Marge Piercy

Our perspective on leadership—what it is, who practices it, how it is most effective —fundamentally defines the trajectory we will pursue toward a more sustainable society. Although clear leadership is often identified as an imperative for transformative social change, current practice is still primarily an individual pursuit, often achieved within a traditional hierarchical structure.

But there are new ways emerging to view and practice leadership.

If we look at nature, each element in an ecosystem is imbued with its own characteristics supporting the health of the whole. We usually think of a redwood tree or a mountain lion at the “top” of an ecological pyramid rather than how it authentically serves as a true part of that ecosystem. We are just beginning to understand the complexity inherent in nature and how ecological patterns might teach us to establish healthy relationships in human communities.

What are the implications for leadership and social change movements if we view our work in a more ecological light? Perhaps we might acknowledge that each element of a system has something to contribute, that everyone can be seen as providing leadership.  We might see leadership as less invested in an individual, and more interdependent, existing within a vibrant system of collective relationships. And we might see that the health of any system, the outcome of any enterprise is based on the health of all the constituents in that system.

While the practice of leadership is often seen as results-oriented, in an ecosystem this arises in very different ways and is more cyclical than linear—through the creation of space, light and fertility for younger trees to grow when a large tree falls, or through a collective sense of protection and direction experienced by flocks of geese or schools of fish. In fact, the strongest and most vital systems are able to respond to changing conditions and crises; just as an ecosystem self-adjusts, our most resilient human institutions are able to learn from mistakes, address needs for improvement, correct course, and create a forum for honest exchange that builds upon what works.

Our entire view of leadership—even the word itself and our association with it—requires rethinking within an ecological context if we are to create  dynamic  relationships, and outcomes that advance  a more sustainable, socially just society. Groundbreaking work in the arena of biomimicry has initiated creative thinking and design for the physical elements in our communities, but must evolve to address human relationships. Such a culture will be characterized not by individual force of personality and vision, but by relationships that honor sustainability and social change, built upon values of open exchange, shared vision, inclusion and regeneration.