Living Systems Leadership

– The Example of a Scotsman

Since I’m celebrating 90 years of the publication of ‘Holism and Evolution’ I’ve written much about the author, Jan Christian Smuts. Smuts’ great passion was botany. Botanising apparently gave him more joy than anything else in life. He discovered a species of grass was indeed recognised as an authority on grasses. He was able to see in nature the way all of life worked, the interdependencies that created ecologies, which could in turn function as coherent self-regulating ‘wholes’. He saw the same potential in the individual human being. But he was not only a theorist, he was also a man of action. Churchill said of him that he ‘…fought for his country, he thought for the world’.

Which brings to mind the term, ‘thinking globally – acting locally’. This is attributed to Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist, sociologist, philanthropist and pioneering town planner. He was also able to extrapolate natural living principles into human social systems. Holistic leadership, or ‘Living Systems Leadership’, will therefore need to become increasingly able to apply universal living systems principles to any local situation. Now we live in an extremely complex world – the density and speed of our interconnections seems almost incomprehensible to think through in terms of management and control. It has generated what has come to be identified as ‘wicked’ problems. Our temptation is to throw our hands up in despair and demand that ‘the authorities’ should do something about ‘whatever’. The trouble is they, the policy makers, are human being, just like you and me. and yes, they do have budget, but boy, do they have to fight for that.

Rhett Gayle, a philosopher colleague and complexity theorist, suggests that the task in dealing with such hard problems is always one of turning the complications of civilisation into humane complexity, the sort of complexity that humans are evolved to handle well. Think of it rather in terms of human responses rather than intractable ‘isms’. Now he suggests that centralisation has been one way of doing this, at least for decision makers. So, making new laws, forbidding and penalising, would be the immediate choice of centralism. But take the Panama leaks – it’s going to be very hard to call on the law to address that sort of problem. Take climate change, take the issue of refugees, the real problem is the needs, real or imagined, that drive people, and the disruptive situations in which they find themselves. Yes, we’ve got the Millennium Goals – but the goalposts somehow seem to be moving all the time. Our timelines and outcomes seem to be vectored in shifting sands.

According to Rhett now is the time to add to our thinking about policy-making and implementation the notion that communities themselves can be sites of creative action. And communities can also be creators of wealth. So we don’t have to blindly serve and be served by the mega-corporations. He predicts that the localisation of innovation will increase as high-end post-consumer tools become cheap enough – we’ll be able to manufacture and craft – creating value in new ways. He predicts that as new organisational forms and expertise spread, innovation will be more widely dispersed through peer-to-peer networks. He anticipates that we’ll see the self-organisation of complex commons (a name he proposes for a family of organisational types) that will receive and amplify the value that is created through both these processes.

Now to me that innovation is going to take a new form of social leadership – and this is not about the person as leader, but leadership as a quality of positive influence. Here we identify five qualities of mindfulness: presence, agility, engagement, resilience and creativity. Consider this: technology is increasingly turning to an exploration of how nature, living systems, work – and modelling those processes to imitate them. But the creators of technology will hopefully also come to recognise that living systems are responsive to their ecology, and built into the nature of living systems is the eradication of that which threatens the whole. So holism functions at the heart of living systems. Living Systems Leadership consequently wants to function from the perspective of holism. Ethics, said the great Albert Schweitzer, was reverence for life. You can’t do much better than that.

I like the statement by MIT researchers Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus, from their book, ‘Disclosing New Worlds – Cultivating Democracy, Solidarity and Entrepreneurship’. They say human beings are at their greatest, that is when they are making history, when they help change the ‘taken for granted’ everyday activities of their societies.’ This is the task, I believe, of Living Systems Leadership.

About Claudius Van Wyk:
Claudius van Wyk moved to the UK from South Africa in the belief that the UK and Europe are probably the most fertile environments to be able to shift to more holistic ways of working and living. These transformed approaches are intended to be more life-enhancing focused on living systems leadership. He works with individuals and organisations as a coach, educator and consultant to apply complexity based insights and applications to hard problems. He currently commutes between the UK and South Africa where he runs educational programmes and retreats for organisational and academic leaders. He is currently running a Leadership Wellness Programme for BMW in South Africa and hopes to do more work like this in the UK . Claudius set up and ran a holistic leadership programme at Schumacher College for transforming organisational practice and lectures on a complexity approach to economics. He is a Coach and Master NLP practitioner and a core member of the Civil Society Forum.
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