The Ecology of Leadership: Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing World

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Traditional, mechanistic models of leadership are inadequate for dealing with the serious adaptive challenges facing the modern world. The complex, dynamic systems that result when these adaptive challenges interact requires that we draw upon ecological principles to understand the role that leadership processes can play in creating a sustainable, generative future. Ignoring the systemic nature of leadership processes creates an illusion that traditional positional leaders should be the focus of leadership studies. We propose that a more useful focus is the systemic processes out of which leadership emerges. A theory of leadership derived from principles of ecology calls for a radical shift in our perspectives of leadership. It emphasizes individual responsibility, a long term perspective, developing capacities of individuals within organizations, and harmony with nature, while showing the way toward sustainability for future generations.

What new understanding of leadership needs to be developed in order for us to create a sustainable, generative future, a future that is able to support and nourish life? The popular notion of leadership depicts one individual in an appointed, elected, or paid position making the decisions that direct an organization toward success. While highly publicized appointments are made, the recently elected take office, and major corporations hire new CEOs, we see the degradation of our environment, an increasing gap between rich and poor, businesses that go bankrupt, and ethical problems in those who hold public office--all signs of failed leadership. A sustainable world demands new values, attitudes, behaviors, and a greater commitment to cooperative solutions to current challenges. This paper articulates how leadership processes must adapt to a changing world and introduces a conceptualization of leadership based upon ecological principles, individual responsibility, and the development of human capacities.

We begin by making the case for change in the popular notions of leadership. Then, we propose a theory of leadership based upon ecological principles and describe the nature of systemic leadership processes. We discuss some major issues raised by the theory and end the paper with strategies for change derived from the theory.

The Case for Change

Leadership based on position and authority is inadequate for the challenges we face today. We need leadership which increases our capacity to learn new ways of understanding, defining, and solving the complex problems we are facing. Ron Heifetz (1994) calls these complex problems adaptive challenges. They demand leadership models that develop the capacity of organizations and people to respond to these challenges. Waiting for great individual leaders to guide and direct organizations as well as guarantee our safety and security is no longer possible.

Adaptive Challenges of a Changing World

Our world is faced with a series of adaptive challenges. These challenges are fundamental global issues with which communities must cope regardless of the nature of leadership in the next century. These challenges are not static. New ones always appear. In the following paragraphs we discuss five current adaptive challenges and how our conceptualization of leadership needs to change in order to cope with them.

Living and working with a global perspective. This adaptive challenge is to live, work, and learn with a global perspective. Mass communications and the global economy have brought us into relationship with the world. We are all united in a global web of economic, environmental, and cultural interdependence. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still like to think in terms of local or national boundaries. In doing so, we avoid difficult issues, like learning to work with the many different cultures in the world and the continuing tension between rich and poor on individual, national, and international levels. …

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