I had a conversation recently with a young MBA student who had read my book Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World. The student wanted to know more about the concept of unleashing. In the book, I propose new leadership questions that need to be asked when we assume we are leading living systems – instead of inert ones. Traditionally we ask What do I need to control? But with a living system, the new question is What do I need to unleash? This student wondered if unleashing was like a laissez-faire leadership style. His question helped me understand that one might interpret the phrase “unleashing talent” to be consistent with a hands-off management approach. However, the act of unleashing talent is quite the contrary. As a leader when I ask myself what I can unleash I connect the practice with creating conditions for self-organization.

Self-organization vs empowerment gone wild

One of the negative effects of laissez-faire management is it creates parts of the organization that act autonomously. The philosophy of this leadership style is basically – Do anything you want as long as you get your job done. This approach creates conditions of empowerment gone wild. We see this when a director, manager or team leader focuses on the interests of themselves or their team without regard for the organization’s mission. The department’s priorities supersede those of the entity as a whole. In many instances the leaders of these departments are competent and engaged – they’re just not aligned with the larger organization. This misalignment is what creates empowerment extremes and, consequently, problems for the organization.

In nature, unleashing self-organization is always aligned with the higher purpose of the whole ecosystem.

In human living organizations, this concept can’t happen unless there is a higher shared purpose that individuals self-organize around. This is the difference between unleashing talent and laissez-faire management, where individuals don’t hold the center of the whole organization.

Self-organization requires a higher purpose

Nature has 3.8 billion years of regenerating itself around its purpose – creating conditions conducive to the life of future generations. Without this larger purpose, nature’s design for self-organization wouldn’t demonstrate the cohesiveness and integrity that it does. For example, we have had five mass extinctions in the history of this planet. The fact that life still exists proves that this purpose is shaping the behavior of the whole system in nature. Species, plant life and the interdependent network of an ecosystem create feedback loops that dampen down excess and reinforce behaviors that serve the vitality of the whole system.

Individual initiative in a nature-inspired leadership framework similarly improves the entire organization. If you want to increase self-organization in your business, then you also must increase the power of your purpose. If you have one without the other, you won’t be able to optimize your organization.

Finding and naming your organization’s higher shared purpose

Higher shared purpose comes from connecting the organization to a deep need in the larger community. To discover an organization’s higher shared purpose, one must understand the difference between this kind of purpose and a mission. A mission is developed for the organization and is typically used to focus employees to it. A higher shared purpose, however, transcends the boundary of the organization and connects it in a powerful way with the external environment. It names the deep need that triggered the creation of the organization. When this is understood, it helps us articulate the higher purpose. And once that message is widely communicated and accepted across the organization, it becomes a higher shared purpose that shapes the direction and contributions of self-organization.

Ready to unleash self-organization? Learn how to align with a higher shared purpose and apply other key principles of nature to your own management and leadership strategy. Join Kathy and other management experts for a special Living from the Roots Workshop in Omaha on October 11th, 2019. Follow this link for more information and event registration.