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How Leaders Can Do The Essential Work Of Our Time, Rescue Their Companies And Revitalize Themselves

Our planet is sick. People are sick.

We can ignore the evidence, but we would be suffering the kind of ignore-ance that leads to even greater suffering, as the facts roll in like breaking waves: the Washington Post reports 85% of the world’s population has already experienced damaging effects from climate change. An international panel of scientists report that more than a million species, critical to the long food chain on which we depend, are threatened with extinction. CNBC reports that nearly half of young people worldwide say that anxiety related to the climate crisis affects their daily life.

More leaders are waking up to the awareness that business cannot continue as usual. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have moved from being a UN wish list to being investor requirements for many companies. Sustainable practices have shifted from being “greenwashing” to core strategy. From burning out employees, to drying up resources, to driving away the next generation of customers, companies are realizing that they themselves are unsustainable using extractive practices. Beyond sustainability, which is sometimes characterized as “doing less harm”, regenerative businesses are emerging that are committed to “doing more good” by restoring thriving to people, places and the planet. Leaders are increasingly learning about circular supply chains, permaculture principles, and how to design regenerative organizations. The shifts of bio-leadership, for example, from maximization to optimization or from controlling to connecting, are not only a framework for nature-inspired leadership, but a roadmap to the future. A different, more regenerative way of creating value that puts us in right relationship with people and the planet is the essential work of our time. Massive as this task may be, in undertaking it we will find it is also the way to rescue our companies and revitalize ourselves.

This essential work has both inner and outer aspects. Certainly, we have to shift outer behaviors and business practices. But it’s the inner reframe in how we regard ourselves that fuels this process with authenticity and stamina. This inner reframe is supported to its fullest in Zen Leadership, because it takes the strong medicine of Zen (or comparable intensive training) to blast through the delusion of separateness that gets in the way of right relationships. In other words, Zen training gives us a genuine experience of our inter-penetrating connectedness: “I am that,” in the awakening words of Gautama Buddha. Yes, we also experience ourselves as a differentiated self-in-a skin, but that is not our full story. We are this and that and beyond this and that, we are particular and universal, we are both sides of every relationship. When that becomes our lived experience, being in right relationship is as natural as clapping our own hands.

For guidance in the outer aspect of the regenerative work of our time, we can look to the ethics of permaculture: care for the planet, care for people and fair share. Feel for a moment how utterly obvious these ethics become once we truly experience ourselves as both sides of our relationships. Of course, we would care for ourselves. Of course, we would be fair. Now, imagine a world in which these ethics became a north star for leaders and their organizations. How would healthcare be different if it valued people over profits? How would cities revitalize if care for the planet were incorporated into how they cared for people? How would valuing companies be different if we measured what value they added to the world, rather than what money they made for themselves, while dismissing social and ecological costs as “externalities”? What if, experiencing ourselves as the whole picture, we knew there were no “externalities” and that we were fully, deeply and incomprehensibly in this together? And finally, what if people and companies understood what enough is and did not let greed beyond enough-ness be their guiding light?

What a realignment of priorities these simple ethics would generate! Why they may even seem counter to human nature. What about all the fear, greed and racism and divisions that are tearing at our social fabric—are we to pretend all those would disappear? No, they won’t disappear overnight, but they don’t have to be the habits that define us. We can be guided in realigning our ethics true to nature by looking to the nature of our nervous system and the way we build new habits. Even once we sense the need for change, we don’t start by making the old way disappear, but rather by creating a new way, similar to how we build new highways in the external world. In building new habits, we lay down a new pathway, a new set of connections between sensing and acting, between how we resonate with energy and what we do it. Early on, the new way feels awkward, and we may not be very good at it, but through repetition and refinement, it gains efficacy. As the new way gains strength and shows its advantages—which it will have since it arose in response to the changing environment—we learn to trust it more and use the old way less.

Likewise, we can introduce regenerative practices alongside their extractive “business-as-usual” predecessors and increasingly show their advantages. Those advantages may not be apparent if we look from only one point of view (favoring “our” side) or too short term. Since suffering is rooted in ignorance, if we ignore everything outside our own near-term interest, that leaves enormous space for suffering to grow, both our own and others’. Conversely, if we do the inner work of experiencing our connectedness, we can look at what we’re doing from all sides; we can become the other, become the earth, become future generations, and from this connectedness a wisdom arises that generates thriving for the whole. Weighing an important decision from these multiple perspectives is one of the practices of Zen Leadership and it results in bigger, more inclusive decision-making that more naturally accords the whole picture. Moreover, leaders themselves feel a sense of bigness, rightness and generosity in reaching decisions this way. Joy is a pretty reliable guide as to when we’re getting it right.

So, as we consider our own essential work to do, we can approach it as we would building a new habit. We find one worthy example of regeneration in our life that truly matters to us: one project, one experiment we could live into that models care for the planet, care for people and fair share. We pour energy into this way, repeating behaviors that reinforce it, and we start obtaining a yield. We might feel the bigness of reconnecting with the earth, the joy of reclaiming a part of our self in caring for another, the freedom of breaking out of the greed cycle. Once we experience positive results from the new way, we trust it a little more and add another habit, another project, embracing this way.

Likewise, we can apply this process to our company, much as we would introduce any innovation. We find one part of the business, one worthy experiment or project, that could manifest care for the planet, care for people, and fair share. Through cycles of feedback and learning, we evolve the project toward greater efficacy and obtain a yield. We may notice this is the project our best and brightest young people want to work on because it matches their ethics. It may be the part of our business that attracts the next generation of customers or brings us partners who are as invested in our success as we are in theirs. As we experience the rightness of these new relationships, we trust this way further and do another piece of business this way. Eventually these nature-inspired practices move from fringe to edge to mainstream. They are, after all, the principles by which living systems thrive.

Many resources are emerging to support leaders in uncovering more regenerative opportunities in their companies. Books like Carol Sanford’s, The Regenerative Business or Navi Radjou’s Frugal Innovation  are rich in the methods and stories of companies that thrive through regenerative practices that match the ethics of care and fairness. Groups like the Bio-Leadership Project or the Presencing Institute provide consultancy and programs to help leaders shift their companies to be more attuned with nature and connected consciousness. Organizations like The Immersion Lab give leaders a chance to meet with people engaged in eco-restoration projects or be inspired by urban revitalization projects and make connections to their own businesses. The business of thriving is becoming a thriving business.

Even as the momentum behind regenerative work grows, it will still fall to each of us to accept that this is part of our own essential work and discover inner and outer ways to do it. On the inside, the more we can experience our intrinsic interconnectedness the more creative we will be on the outside in building practices, projects and companies that honor it. The more we act in service of both sides of our relationships, the more those relationships will nourish us. Leaning into the essential work of our time, we’ll touch a greater truth, help our companies do greater work, and be revitalized by our greater nature at play.

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