In my last two blogs I explored two questions. The first one was “What if leadership exists in abundance?” and the second looked at the legacy leadership leaves when it is rooted in the relationship between the act of leadership and the organization and the larger community. This relationship unpacked some leadership questions about what we would expect the legacy of leadership could be if we modeled it after the relationship between wild rice and the Ojibwe Tribe.

In this blog I will unpack how we can find, nurture, and harvest leadership in natural environments. We are living in times of increasing complexity and the need to have more people who are willing to initiate action and engage with the challenges we face. Currently our primary way of developing leadership is by creating leadership development programs, classes, minors, or majors in higher education, in our organizations, or in our communities. Even if we increased this capacity by 100% it wouldn’t be enough capacity to meet the challenges we have today. Therefore, it would behoove us to consider other ways we can accelerate the development and unleashing of leadership capacity in our communities, teams, schools, and organizations.

Beliefs that need to shift to see the possibilities of leadership within individuals

There are two beliefs that need to be embraced to help us see leadership potential in our natural environments.

  1. Shift from the belief that leadership is a rare commodity to one where leadership is a naturally occurring potential that exists in humans everywhere.
  2. Shift the belief that leadership is primarily found in positional leaders to a belief that leadership in an organization or a community is something that emerges from the actions done by many people.

Once these beliefs shift, we can see the potential of leadership in many people – not just the few. It is possible that some individuals won’t be seen as having leadership as we currently define it. But if we can help people develop an internal locus of control, that can transform how they interact with others and uncover the self-organizing capacity that exists throughout nature and within each of us.

Ingredients for developing leadership in natural environments

I define natural environments as a place or space where people are doing work that contributes to their job, community, family, or organization. Here are some ingredients that can help develop leadership capacities in people in their natural work environments.

  1. Create an opportunity rich environment for people to practice leadership capacities. For people to learn and test their leadership capacity, they need opportunities to practice. Opportunity rich environments are filled with short- and long-term delegation of tasks and initiatives that allow different people to take the lead.
  2. Give real responsibility and accountability to people on your team. People learn best when they are given both responsibility and accountability for achieving goals. Part of responsibility and accountability requires receiving both the positive and negative consequences of the impact of their actions.
  3. Create rich feedback to people with a focus on learning. When we are practicing leadership the more direct and indirect feedback the individuals receive, the faster their learning curve. Feedback curbs excess behaviors within a system and can be a powerful way to help individuals find their most effective leadership style.
  4. Model the kind of leadership you are hoping to unleash. People learn leadership by doing and observing. When you have conscious leaders, they intentionally model good leadership and take the time to explain why they choose to lead and act in a certain way. This provides meaning to the observer and they can learn about leadership from these conversations. Conversely, they can also learn from bad leadership and choose not to lead in a manor that doesn’t work for them or the people around them.
  5. Increase the number of people willing to mentor and informally teach. The more people who are willing to be a thinking partner and provide feedback to a person learning how to lead others, the more leadership capacity can be unleashed in the team or workplace.
  6. See people through the lens of their strengths and possibilities (not just their deficits). Often, we limit the leadership possibilities we see in others because they don’t look like the positional leaders we have in our organizations. There are many ways to lead effectively. Taking time to see all the strengths of a person opens us up to the potential leadership they have within.
  7. Develop people’s emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and capacities. To develop leadership in natural environments, positional leaders need to intentionally develop their staff. Developing self-awareness and reflective practice can accelerate the unleashing of their learning and leadership.

If you are a positional leader and want to develop leadership in others, this simple question can help you be more intentional with how you design and delegate work.  

How can this ____ (task or initiative) be designed to build leadership capacity in our staff as a by-product of the way we do our work?

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) 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 that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at