Nature starts with two generous acts. The first is that it provides sunlight, a free resource that makes life possible on earth. Nature runs on sunlight, but sunlight alone cannot generate life. Its energy must be transformed into useable nutrients through the act of photosynthesis – which takes sunlight and turns it into nutrients.
Photosynthesis is the second generous act of nature. Nature requires active reciprocal relationships with the leaves of trees, grass, and algae to harvest the sun’s energy. Without photosynthesis, sunlight could not be utilized. The moon also receives sunlight, but because there are no trees or grass, it can not be transformed into nutrients.
The reason I consider photosynthesis the second generous act found in nature is because it establishes partnerships and collaboration as an essential requirement of life. It assumes that a partnership with trees, grass, algae, etc. is capable of showing up and contributing. Without this relationship, nutrients can’t be harvested.
Primary Self-interest Doesn’t Reflect Nature’s Design
These two generous acts are often lost in the way we see the world and our organizations. We readily accept that people are driven by self-interest without questioning if we can transcend this motivating force. In the self-interest mindset, the individual sees itself alone against the world. Sometimes self-interest can extend to one’s family or “tribe”. In these scenarios, an individual is within their rights to act in a way that serves themselves first and foremost. This creates challenges in families, communities, organizations, and societies. If everyone is fighting for themselves first, there is an assumption that they are all they need to survive.
Nature, however, isn’t designed to be a system filled with individual self-interest. Nature is designed to have relationships that help plants and other species survive. In fact, the more isolated a species is in nature, the closer it is to death. Thriving is always done in relationship with others because nature is designed as an interdependent system!
What if organizations could be designed to create conditions of reciprocal generosity, where we were expected to work together in service to a higher shared purpose? Photosynthesis assumes that the earth has the capacity to use the energy of sunlight. When was the last time managers assumed that employees were fully capable of equally contributing value to an action, decision, or the larger organization? This essential belief is necessary for nature to work and is critical to an organization’s success. Generosity invites, supports, nurtures, and demands engagement because the leader believes employees are capable and essential.
If we were to lead an organization in a way that invited generous relationships, we would focus on the following things:
1. Build and Strengthen Integrative Power
Integrative power creates conditions where people are predisposed to cooperate and trust one another. Traditionally, we see power in a “power-over” dynamic, wherein a position and the person at the top has power over anyone below them. To strengthen integrative power, the power of position would need to be transformed into the power to include and the power to accomplish goals that are shared across the organization regardless of position.
2. Strengthen Authentic Reciprocal Relationships
Generosity flows through relationships. If our relationships are based on fear, generosity becomes extremely risky behavior. However, if our relationships are healthy and authentic, we build empathy and understanding. These attributes help us base our relationships on reciprocity which causes us to care and help each other.
3. Ensure the Organization has a Larger Shared Purpose that Transcends the Organizational Boundaries
When we focus on something larger than ourselves, our self-interest expands to enlightened self-interest. Having a powerful purpose helps people to serve the larger purpose and help and care about each other along the way.
Imagine waking up on Monday morning wanting to go to work. If our organizational culture was more generous in nature, would it also be more inviting and satisfying to work there?
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership based on lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net.