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;  instead of machines – inert and directly controllable.

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:

Who can make this work?

Try asking this:

What interactions will make this work?

What is the largest possibility in this situation?

Our attraction to finding the person who can make change happen or achieve a goal is a primary default in organizations.  It assumes that our organization is structured as a closed system where things are independent and siloed. Finding a person who has the authority and positional power to make things happen is the most important criteria for assigning responsibility and leadership to a task. In an organization that assumes it operates like a machine, the organization has a set of positional leaders with teams below them – like a series of small pyramids within a large pyramid – where the top on one pyramid is connected to the bottom of the next one up the chain of command until the CEO is reached. The leverage points in the organization are all the positional leaders.

Living Systems Aren’t Separate and Siloed

However, living systems aren’t separate and siloed. Instead they are interdependent and connected. A living system can’t be controlled or led from one position. Instead we need to learn how the organizational system is connected. The more we understand the ties, relationships, connections, and interdependence within the organization and between the organization and its environment, the more we appreciate the interactions and voices that need to be brought together to generate action and outcomes. Interdependence requires our strategies to look at what interactions are needed to create the highest possibility of impact.

Interdependence has many impacts on a system. The first is that there are no more silver bullet solutions. Interdependence by its nature means that there are key variables in a system that need to be worked together to create systems change.  Resilience science thinks that in every interdependent system there are a handful of variables that can help the system maintain a dynamic equilibrium (Walker & Salt; 2012). Identifying these key variables help us understand what interactions need to be orchestrated to influence change in an interdependent living system. We need to learn to simultaneously work multiple variables. The leadership question that shifts us from who can make this happen to what interactions can make this work helps us shift our focus and default.


Lines of inquiry:

  • How easy or difficult is it for you to pay attention to what and who needs to be in the room to facilitate change or get a specific result?

  • Does your organization think and behave this way?

  • Are there people in your organization who work this way that you can learn from?


Walker, B. & Salt, D. (2012). Resilience Practice: Building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Washington D.C.: Island Press

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.