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What is regenerative leadership?

By Roberta Attanasio

The world is up for re-invention—complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty call for innovative models of leadership. We’re all here to be leaders, we all need to embrace new aspects of leadership, and we all need to step into unique roles that allow our gifts and talents to shine while contributing to a life-honoring present and future. Shared leadership and purpose-driven leadership provide up-to-date paradigms aligned with current needs, which are shaped—among others—by climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and civil unrest.

Shared leadership is group-based. It empowers group members by giving them leadership responsibilities—individuals within a group lead each other to achieve successful outcomes. Think in these terms: two compatible heads are better than one, three compatible heads are better than two, and so on. In the Preface of their book “Shared Leadership: Reframing the hows and whys of leadership”, authors Craig Pearce and Jay Conger state: “Leadership is therefore not determined by positions of authority but rather by an individual’s capacity to influence peers and by the needs of the team in any given moment. In addition, each member of the team brings unique perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities to the team. At different junctures in the teams’ life, there are moments when these differing backgrounds characteristics provide a platform for leadership to be distributed among the team.”

Purpose-driven leadership is a form of shared leadership based on the “why” and on the idea of shared purpose, as a contribution we want to make to our community or to the world, for example by solving a social and/or environmental issue. Here, the leaders’ driving force is the desire to solve a specific problem so to serve the greater good. Regenerative leadership is not only purpose-driven, but also focuses on solutions that aim to a future where organizations flourish, ecosystems thrive and people come alive.

In their book “Regenerative Leadership: The DNA of life-affirming 21st century organisations”, authors Giles Hutchins & Laura Storm write: “Regenerative Leadership is not yet another leadership approach that applies the very same mechanistic logic that caused our problems in the first place in seeking solutions to these problems. No, this Regenerative Leadership approach deals with today’s landscape systemically. The epic challenges we face demand a wholly new way quite different from the level of thinking traditional leadership approaches have applied.” A new leadership logic must embrace the understanding of the parts and the way they interplay—“Underpinning the ability for the leader to embrace both is the re-connection and re-integration of left and right hemisphere, inner and outer, masculine and feminine, human and nature.”

They cite Peter Drucker: “In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil but in facing it with yesterday’s logic”.

John Hardman, author of “Leading for regeneration: going beyond sustainability in business, education and community”, talks in terms of a regenerative leadership framework and explains the need for the development of individual and collective consciousness to transform the culture of organizations. Indeed, on the basis of research he carried out, Hardman supports a radical change in our consciousness—change that will make possible to balance the reductionist tendency of reason in search of “a holistic understanding of who we are and of our place in the grand scheme of things.”

Why is the concept of “reductionist tendency of reason” included in a discussion of what regenerative leadership is? Because, currently, we use the reductionist approach as the predominant way to make sense of the world around us. Regenerative leadership aims to combine and balance the reductionist approach with the holistic approach, therefore shifting our perception of the natural world and our place in it.

Reductionism is based on the notion that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents and the interactions of their parts. The idea of Reductionism was first introduced by Descartes in Part V of his “Discourses” of 1637, where he argued the world was like a machine, its pieces like clockwork mechanisms, and that the machine could be understood by taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back together to see the larger picture.

Under the holistic approach, complex systems are viewed as inherently irreducible, and more than the sum of their parts.

For example, a reductionistic approach to science, epitomized by molecular biology, is often contrasted with the holistic approach of systems biology. A fundamental tenet of systems biology is that cellular and organismal constituents are interconnected, so that their structure and dynamics must be examined in intact cells and organisms rather than as isolated parts.

However, molecular biology and systems biology are actually interdependent and complementary ways in which to study and make sense of complex phenomena—in other words, by “balancing” the two approaches, we can gain a better understanding of the natural world.

As Douglas Adams said, “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision.”

 

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Author: Roberta Attanasio

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25 Comments

  1. Reductionism is typically used to explain a complex phenomenon in a simpler, layman form by connecting the individual parts. Author John Harden supports and encourages reductionism when it comes to regenerative leadership. Initially, in a reductionist approach, one uses the environment and certain stimuli and makes sense of it. Therefore, how we perceive these environmental stimuli influences our perspective of life, which in turn impacts our leadership. Thus, regenerative leadership wants to incorporate both the reductionist approach and the holistic approach to influence views on the world. The holistic approach is essentially taking into account all factions of a system and not merely focusing on one area.

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  2. What really stood out to me from this article was the breakdown of the reductionist approach verses the holistic approach. Understanding how the balance of the two leads to the desirable regenerative leadership is key. As independent as we can be or like to be its our interdependency that paves the way for success. No one has all the qualities so looking at the system as a whole and seeing how all the parts play into the success of a team is super essential. This works in with allowing people to be individuals because it’s the combination of the individuals that leads to successful leadership, not just a single individual.

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  3. I really like the idea that every person in a group can be a leader in their own right by having influence over the others. I am so used to seeing leadership as a kind of hierarchy. It’s refreshing to think of leaders on an equal level to others. Personally, I struggle to view myself as a leader because I am not in any kind of official leadership position. I don’t have any special title, so how can I be a leader? I can be a leader among my peers just by speaking up and offering my thoughts and help. Anyone can be a leader in this way. I like to think that I can utilize the leadership skills that I have learned in all kinds of interactions. Leadership as a concept does not feel very personal, but it can be very personal when a person develops their own style and niche of leadership.

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    • Kristen, I agree with you, it’s nice to think that every person in a group can be a leader. I think an essential part of being a leader is also knowing when to follow. It’s not always about having that title, but like the article said, it’s about being able to influence those around you. In my experience in the workforce, I’ve found that the people with titles are able to identify the leaders within their groups and (depending on the workplace) use that for the betterment of the company. I like seeing this concept in terms of science because it allows all the people involved to contribute in a capacity they might not have thought to otherwise.

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    • Hi Kristen, I agree with your statement that you believe that you can utilize your learned leadership skills in all types of interactions. To be a leader is not to have power over someone. I believe it is simply being an excellent team player. Take into account a football team, the quarterback is essentially the team captain and without the quarterback you cannnot have a complete team, right? Wrong, the team does not solely depend on one player but all the players: running backs, wide receivers, kickers, etc. They are all great at their positions and strive to be best at what they know best while helping out the entire team win. Another example is in the operating room, you have the surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurse, etc. Same concept. They all strive to be the best at what they can do to help out the entire team because they cannot be the best without each other. This reminds me of the article “You Do Not Have to Be a Leader” because a leader cannot be a leader without the followership. Together the leader and followers make up a team.
      Furthermore, within the followers can also be subcategories of leadership to help maintain the groups’ structure. For example, in large corporations, you have VPs, then project managers, regional managers, store managers, department managers, etc. All these positions are considered to be leadership positions that help make up an entire team. If they all do their part well, then the team is successful. Granted, some of these positions may be interchangeable, but the point is that in order to be a leader, you do not need to always have to highest position in office. You can still have a huge impact on individuals just being a worker but still be a strong team player.

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  4. The many variations of leaderships contribute to the foundational functions of a society and community. With the current pandemic and swift shift to a majority tech-based life, this article truly described the necessary components and adaptations that leadership must entail. With an ever-changing environment, economy, and innovations, it is imperative the leaders are able to assimilate appropriately.

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    • To expound on this comment, regenerative leadership leverages ideas and concepts from various leadership forms and approaches. These initially include both shared leadership and a subset of shared leadership called purpose-driven leadership. The reductionist and holist approaches also include regenerative leadership. I agree with the article’s statement of” A new leadership logic must embrace the understanding of the parts and the way they interplay.” This seems to relate to the fundamentals of reductionism, which I also agree with in terms of leaders. I believe our perception of the world influences how we relate things together and how we conceptualize ideas.

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  5. The keyword is “regenerative.” I am incredibly fond of that expression because it inspires structure amid chaos. This phrase, “regenerative thinking/leadership,” allows me to have a different definition of what leadership means. To be a regenerative leader, you first need to be able to regenerate your fixed mindset, of what your preconceived notion of leadership means, into one that is balanced and accepting of diverse mindsets. The old definition should be something of the past. I believe that more people should adopt the idea of regenerative leadership because it does not limit an individual just to be a leader. Instead, it teaches the idea of being a team player in our society. Our current leadership ideology leaves us stagnant in the past, with a system that makes us a polarized society without the inclusion of all. As Peter Drucker said, the danger lies within “yesterday’s logic.” I found this statement very powerful because it allows for a moment of self-reflection to become better. As students, we have to take many tests, and among those tests, some will inevitably become points of failure. It is only up to us to decide to figure out a new way to become better and avoid sticking onto “yesterday’s logic” by not acknowledging our shortcomings. I only tried to apply this concept to something relatable to us as students, but this concept can be applied to many aspects of our life experiences. As students, we are developing individuals within our careers of choice, but the idea of developing should not limit the way we perceive progression nor the way we aspire to lead one day.

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  6. The many forms of leadership, whether shared, purpose-driven, or regenerative provide methods to lead others in a collaboration. A group can function more efficiently by having meaningful individual input to the task at hand. Looking to one person as the sole leader may be sufficient, but the use of every unique individuals aspect to a problem is more productive and grows everyone as a leader. If the group also practices regenerative leadership on the individual level, society will benefit as well as the welfare of the planet. Regenerative leadership calls upon people to not simply look for the most cost-effective solution to problems, but take into consideration the detrimental effect it could have on the environment or climate.

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  7. I believe at the rate at which the society is involving shared leadership is very essential to have a functional project without one dominating force or a lacking caused due to absence to leadership. When every individual sees their work as an opportunity to create something unique and not having the feeling of inferiority or lacking this can lead to more innovation and create amazing result. One of the example that comes to mind is that of the invention of the cotton machine. It was before it was told that before it became industrialized slaves were the one who came up with the innovation idea to help make work faster for them. This shows that everyone can contribute and participate to make the world a better place.

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  8. I loved this article because I agree with it 100%. As the world evolves, leaders must also evolve, especially this year. This has been a rough year so far with a plethora of changes happening and historical events occurring. The current pandemic we are in could ultimately be seen as a failure of leadership. During these troubling times, a fresh sense of leadership would not be a bad thing. As stated in the article, “leadership is therefore not determined by positions of authority but rather by an individual’s capacity to influence peers and by the needs of the team in any given moment.” I think that shared leadership would be a great change to aid our country during these troubled times during the pandemic.

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  9. What comes to mind when I read this and about regenerative leadership is the concept of teamwork and what I’ve learned from teamwork. When a team works together and functions as a whole with each person in the team being a leader in their own way, then they truly form a community. If the manager leads with the concept of “his way or the highway” or he chooses the same person to lead projects, training, meetings, etc then the workplace becomes focused on only one leader. If a team shares in leading then the team learns more, becomes better functioning, becomes more productive, and develops positive morale. All of this plays into each other and becomes critical for each members success. In this situation each person grows. What comes to mind is that the growth mindset is encouraged in a team and prevents the fixed mindset from becoming ingrained in their minds.
    Brene Brown summed it up well – “If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.” Her quote makes me think of regenerative leadership.

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    • Kari, I agree with your comment. It is essential for individuals of a group to have a voice in decision making and planning. Everyone can have a role and grow as a leader, and this will make the collective whole of the group better. It is almost like an evolving organism that adapts and grows through experience, and groups of people should be no different. It will lead to better organizations, societies, and better solutions for looming environmental issues. If everyone is a leader, than the group is responsible, not just one individual. We should all be responsible for making solutions to problems more efficient.

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  10. With the pandemic being the main thing orchestrating our daily lives it has become very clear the need for shared leadership. Both purpose driven and regenerative. How much better would things be if the federal government presented a unified front to all the states. Delegating with parameters and conditions on how they can collectively implement and share ideas to come up with a UNITED game plan.

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    • Mark, I love this thought. Like the article mentions, regenerative leadership goes a step further to look at the future and how todays solutions will benefit others in the future. A lot of the problem solving we’ve done has been very reactionary. Working to solve what’s wrong now. But implementing a plan that will be beneficial in a later time shows a very forward way of thinking

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  11. In an evergrowing and diversifying world, shared leadership needs to become normalcy. We have not been fighting coronavirus over the past few months and facing a lot of racial violence. It has become necessary that our leaders be just as diverse as their followers. This change can allow for a positive change in government policies and more acceptance in society for each other’s differences and similarities. It is up to the leaders and the people to allow those leaders to come forward with a fresh perspective towards leading the people. Shared leadership comes from the people. They should hold themselves responsible for educating themselves about the diversification of the world and people in their social circle. It can create a significant impact because we will see leaders who will want to work on issues like COVID-19 and climate change, not pointless matters like race and religion.

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  12. I really enjoyed this view on leadership. One person alone cannot lead because they only have so much to offer. They can only be good and have wisdom on so many things. Everyone has their own unique view points, ideals, and values. Leading in a group is a wonderful look a shared leadership. People can pick up the slack of what the other person may lack in. One person alone can’t be responsible for leading everyone. Some people respond better to certain people than another and vise versa. One situation may call for one person’s realm of knowledge and not the other. Everyone has some form of leadership in them, and it’s important that we all have a chance to let that shine.

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    • Hello Victoria,

      I enjoyed reading this perspective on leadership as well. I see how shared leadership can bring a more whole leadership because one leader does not have all the skills that they need. Especially during this time of isolation during a pandemic, do you think that we can use shared leadership as a way to bring our divide together? Personally, I think having a shared purpose is a good way to bring people together and work together to stop the spread, and civil unrest. Leaders from different backgrounds and cultures will allow people with the similar perspectives can connect and empathize with, and hopefully grow confidence in others to lead and change the world for the better.

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  13. The world is changing and so should our ways of dealing with certain problems. What we need right now more than ever is diversity, and to acknowledge and respect other people rather than blaming a single person or race for the problems that exist today. Shared leadership can empower diversity and a group of people with contrasting views bring more to a table than a single leader who expects everyone to follow his/her commands. What we need is a set of solutions that can lead to a successful outcome. A single person cannot lead every task, the same way a CEO does not deal with marketing and administrative issues. A company is not built upon the hard work of a single person, but a team that works towards the same goal, and while there could be a single person which leads the team to success, a shared leadership ensures a diverse approach.

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  14. I think shared leadership is the most effective way of approaching future leadership positions. As mentioned in the post “You don’t have to be a leader” by Eva Shang, being a follower is as important as being a leader. Shared leadership can be a way of combining the two roles and using them interchangeably. I think if individuals had interchangeable positions of being leaders and followers, it would help them be more well rounded individuals with a more fluid mentality about what it means to be a leader. Shared leadership is something that could changed the world and in my opinion should be applied to all leadership positions especially in politics for a bipartisan political system.

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    • Samin, I definitely agree with your post. I believe being a follower is just as important as being a leader. Followers are not inferior to their leaders, and leaders are not superior to their followers. Leaders don’t always have extra information or knowledge that their followers don’t have access to.

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  15. The words that resonated strongly with me and which I believe sums up this informative article are those from Peter Drucker; “In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil but in facing it with yesterday’s logic”. The dogmatic leadership excludes the follower and charges only the leader with the responsibilities. The followers are often left out in terms of accountability hence, the majority put in minimum efforts. The leader is a single person or a couple of people, therefore, followers should be empowered to contribute. Inclusion creates a sense of belonging and purpose, and this decentralizes the task into little chunks. The results is everyone leading their task, but towards achieving the ultimate goal. There must accountability on both sides only then can we truly practice regenerative leadership.

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  16. With the ways that we see the world is constantly (and quickly changing) I believe that it is important to constantly be changing the ways that we lead and our mindsets in order to do so; as stated in the article, it is important to keep regenerative leadership in mind. With that being said, one person cannot change the world, the approach of shared leadership is what it takes to create the necessary changes (following the purpose-driven leadership approach).

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    • Hi Janai,

      I personally agree that as the world changes, we too must adjust to those changes, especially when in a position of leadership. However, I do wonder, would this still hold if there is a negative change? Wouldn’t it be better to stick to what you already know from before the change? You also mention that one person cannot change the world, but I disagree. Whether good or bad, I feel that it is possible for one person to bring change. We can look at world leaders as an example. I think an alternative statement could be: while one person can change the world, shared leadership can help make that change easier and more effective. What do you think?

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      • Hello Kazi,

        Your outlook on whether one person can change the world or not was actually very insightful. I agree that in some circumstances, yes, one person can change the world. However, I’m not sure if I just overthink things, but wouldn’t it still take a team for them to even get into the position to do so? In reference to your point about negative changes, I believe that is also something that is circumstantial. It could be good to stick to what you know in some ways, but what you know could also have landed you in a negative trend. It might then be plausible to explore new ways to move back toward a positive direction, in my opinion.

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