Today I had a call with Marcus Blankenship, who does podcasts on leadership (among other things), and he shared a story about his father who liked to restore furniture. One day he went into his father’s workshop and looked at a table he was restoring. In the corner his father was working on, the wood was completely stripped of layers of paint that had been applied over the years. The wood was beautiful, and he wondered at the reasoning behind applying all those coats of paint that covered it up.

This story reminded me of how we have painted over the essential wisdom found in nature and living systems. The last century was all about applying mechanistic ideas to our organizations, management theory and the people who worked in our organizations. Now, we are faced with the consequences of all those layers of thought that covered up the livingness of the systems we work in, systems which are now less vital and resilient. Many organizations have focused on short-term profits and left us with consequences such as climate change, aging infrastructure, a decrease in the quality of life of future generations and unequal distribution of profits, leading to a growing income gap.

Deep change and living systems thinking

How can we learn to recognize and let go of old thought patterns that no longer serve us going forward? It’s a process that requires deep change, a concept in Robert E. Quinn’s book Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (1996). In the first chapter, he describes the difference between incremental change and deep change. Incremental change is usually found in rational analysis and planning, and it can be reversible because it is an extension of past thinking.

Deep change, however, requires new ways of thinking and behaving. It distorts existing patterns of action and requires risk-taking and a tolerance for the unknown. Quinn calls it “walking naked into the land of uncertainty.” I experienced deep change once I started perceiving organizations as living systems. I could no longer see them as machines or objectify the people in them. That’s because deep change is discontinuous with the past and is irreversible.

Peeling back the layers of conventional thoughts

One way to start this change within yourself and your organization is to engage in a reflective process that contrasts your current defaults and leadership behaviors with nature’s design principles and living systems thinking. Here are some questions that can help prompt this reflection:

  • Are you optimizing the whole organization and the larger environment in your decisions, or are you only putting profit and money at the center of your choices?
  • Are you making decisions that focus on short-term benefits without regard for longer-term consequences to future generations?
  • Do you or your organization see natural resources as only being valuable if used to generate profit – or valuable in their natural existence, even when they remain untouched?
  • Are benefits and burdens of choices widely distributed, or are benefits only shared with a few?
  • Do you unintentionally support or continue practices that diminish the wholeness of the people in your workforce?
  • Is there a separateness mindset that drives choices and actions? Or do you see the intricate interdependencies that cause intended and unintended consequences over time?
  • Can you imagine leading an organization that works for all instead of a few?
  • What practices or thinking do we hold that causes us to keep the status quo in ways that lead to a degenerating system?

These are just some ways to challenge the layers of thought we have painted over our living systems. My book Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) is an organizational leadership road map for shifting from leading a degenerating system, to leading toward a regenerative system. Nature is designed to regenerate life on this planet. We can choose to see the beautiful wood on a restored table after all the layers have been peeled. We can engage in deep change that requires us to let go of conventional thought and replace it with something better. Something that leads to a system that is more resilient and conducive to the life of future generations.