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Six Leadership Rules for Complex Systems from Regenerative Agriculture. (Short Version)

A lot of traditional leadership advice focuses on helping the leader drive change. That works in hierarchical organizations or systems where one dynamic personality has power and influence and the opposition is resistance to change -the way things used to be. In highly complex systems and challenges -think climate change and environmental issues; diversity, equity, and inclusion; any issue with increasingly wider gaps in polarized politics- leaders need to think and show up differently in order to facilitate change. Here are my top six lessons from working in nature.

1. Let go.

We live in a culture that drives problem solving by adding one more process, policy, tool, technique, or technology. That’s probably not what’s holding us back from getting better. Sometimes, we have to let go of our own thinking (dysfunctional beliefs) to see the problem anew. Letting go is natures’ regenerative process. Some plants need to die and break down to become nutrients for the next crop.

2. Immerse yourself in the environment:

All the reports, real-time metrics, and information you get on a screen (in your office or even the tractor cab) are just that -information. It’s not the big picture, but can easily delude you into thinking you understand the big picture. Get out in the field and experience the environment first hand.

3. Observe without Judgement:

This is the difference between looking for something and looking at it with fresh eyes. Our minds filter information so we don’t suffer from overload, but those filters can create unintentional biases. Looking at something opens your mind up to discovering relationships in a system.

4. Build the soil/culture to promote flourishing:

Incentives and deterrents -like fertilizers and pesticides- are short-term tools that require regular application to work. Build the right culture and living things will flourish. If your system still needs inputs -including regular cash injections -it’s not regenerative.

5. Practice Radical Collaboration:

You have to implement rules 1-3 to get here. Some of the greatest diversity in nature comes from “the edge effect” -the species at the boundary of two micro-biomes. Stop fighting everything that doesn’t fit your version of “right” -it takes tremendous energy and creates resistance (whether it’s RoundUp resistance or an organization whose cause is to fight your cause).

6. Think in systems:

Weeds -both literal and metaphorical- tell you something. They’re a product of your environment, but also a product of how you interact with it. Killing them isn’t likely to change the conditions that brought them there in the first place. If you keep fighting the same problem year after year, it’s not your tools, techniques, or technology that need to change–it’s your understanding of the entire system.

I didn't originality get these rules from regenerative agriculture. During grad school between 2018 and 2021, I started looking back at my Iraq experience and seeing how counterinsurgency follows similar principles as social innovation. At the same time, I was diving more into regenerative agriculture practices on my farm. Regenerative agriculture -at it's best- is learning from nature and how to partner with it.

Whatever field you're in, driving change has its limits. Twenty-first century leaders from vastly different culture and points of view will have to come together to effectively tackle our most intractable issues. These rules are a good start.

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