Our traditional leadership frameworks were primarily developed and written in the 20th century. The 1900s also saw the rise of organizations. So many of our deeply held leadership assumptions were informed and formed by this context. Hence, management and positional leadership blurred together since most of our research on leadership was done on business leaders.

The 21st century is experiencing a paradigm shift from a machine-driven organizing metaphor to a biological-driven one. This shift to a century of biology means that our organizations must be understood as living systems – dynamic evolving organizations that are filled with energy.

This shift is why I wrote Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018). In a century that works more like a biological system instead of a mechanistic one, we need to rethink everything about leadership. One of the areas we need to examine are the traditional leadership questions we use to build strategy and get things done in our organizations. Here are the new leadership questions for a living system.

Instead of Asking:

How do I avoid resistance?

Try Asking:

How do I embrace resistance?

Traditionally we have been taught that resistance is a form of conflict that interrupts the smooth running of an organization. Hence the leadership question of the 20th century in organizations was “How do I avoid resistance?” Therefore, managers responded to resistance by eliminating it, overcoming it, or shutting it down. These strategies come from the assumption that opposition splits the organization’s focus, and any conflict or tension hinders productivity.

How to Embrace Resistance in the Workplace

When we shut down resistance in our organizations, we also have an unintended consequence of restricting innovation and our evolution as an organization. Living organizations are complex and understanding them requires inviting in alternative points of view, ideas, and positions. Living organizations also thrive on information – all information, not just the information we agree with. It is what helps an ecosystem or species in nature continually adapt to the external environment.

The new leadership question is “How do I embrace resistance?” In complex, dynamic living organizations, resistance is welcomed and incorporated into the thinking and practice of the organization. For example, when people resist change in an organization, it can sometimes be because they believe the change is violating the core values of the organization they thought they were working in. When we shut their concerns down, we also lose their active cooperation and the resistance they have to the change goes underground. At other times, people resist change because they don’t know if they have the capacity to succeed in the new iteration of the organization.

Missing Opportunities for Advancement and Improvement

If we ignore this resistance, we miss an opportunity to understand the gap between the current capacities employees have and the additional skills they will need. This may mean that we won’t help our employees develop to meet the needs of the changing organization. If we drive the change through the organization without the increasing the capacities of our employees at the same time, the change initiative either won’t be sustainable or will never reach its potential.

Embracing resistance flows from the assumption that opposition is necessary for understanding and achieving wholeness. Opposition is often linked with diversity. A diversity of opinions and perspectives enhance decision-making by helping us see blind spots in our thought processes. As individuals, we all carry unconscious bias in the way we see the world, what information speaks to us, and what perspectives matter. When we embrace resistance, we set a structural and process check on our individual or organizational unconscious biases.

This matters to a living organization because being open to feedback drives innovation and evolution. If we ignore information that we don’t like, a startup or competitor who embraces different or opposing information will develop the next innovation.

When we start seeing our organization as a living entity, we realize that different rules emerge. In a machine, resistance hindered the machine’s ability to do its job – like ohms of resistance that interfere with an electrical current. However, a living system needs resistance to grow. Our bones become stronger when we engage in resistance exercises. When we are in a dynamic environment, we often use resistance to our advantage. I used to sail and the resistance that the keel of the boat gave against the wind of the sails is what helped move the boat forward. And anyone who has flown a kite knows that the kite rises against the wind!

Shifting the leadership questions from “How do I avoid resistance?” to “How do I embrace resistance?” is a powerful way to help a leader embrace the livingness of their organization and create a more adaptive and innovative business at the same time.

Lines of Inquiry:

  • How does your organization dampen down resistance?

  • What consequences of this behavior have you noticed?

  • Who in your organization embraces resistance and what can we learn from them?


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. www.kathleenallen.net