Grounding Adaptive Leadership into Systems Thinking
Today’s conservation projects deal with complex adaptive social and ecological challenges that must be addressed holistically if one is to re-establish the harmony that has been broken between communities and their natural environments. Adaptive leaders must be able to embrace and make sense of the whole complexity of their projects.
Understand dynamic relationships
A systems thinking approach can help them understand the dynamic relationships between elements of their projects and how patterns form. In contrast, reductionist methods that focus on analyzing parts of a system independently of one another can only address symptoms but not root causes.
Consider the case of the rehabilitation of a degraded watershed in China’s Loess Plateau: for years, various ministries and departments of the Chinese government worked independently of one another to address two related issues of the highly degraded Loess plateau: soil erosion, and poverty of millions of people struggling to feed their families. The uncoordinated interventions, however, often worked at cross-purposes. For example, farmers were distributed livestock, but the livestock ate the seedling trees provided by reforestation programs, further aggravating erosion and forcing farmers to plant crops on higher slopes. However, the tree varieties that were planted were chosen for their capacity to stabilize the soil, not to bear fruit, and thus did not generate a source of income. It was not until the problem was reframed through an understanding of the dynamic of the whole system, and the connection was established between the need to first improve farmer livelihoods and then address the ecological degradation, that the whole socio-ecological problem could effectively be addressed and Loess plateau regenerated in only six years.
Another reason for adaptive leaders to become systems thinkers relates to the importance of seeing patterns. The pattern of behavior of a complex system is the emergent outcome of the dynamic interactions between the elements in that system. While dynamic interactions that operate over time are often hard to understand, patterns, in contrast, are easily observable. Uncovering a pattern can provide many clues of what is going on in a complex system and might launch a leader on a fruitful inquiry path. For the team of experts who were tasked to find a solution to rehabilitate the Loess Plateau, the moment of insight came when asking a village chief why, in his particular village, agriculture was flourishing (an uncommon pattern in the area). The chief replied: it is green down there because of the walnut trees up here. The village had chosen to plant walnut trees and had banned grazing. The team realized that if things could grow in that area, nature could perhaps re-grow on the Loess plateau, assuming people could give it a chance by changing their behavior and value system, which leads to the third reason.
Check assumptions, values, and belief systems
A critical skill for adaptive leaders is the ability to uncover and check stakeholders assumptions, values, and belief systems. In her well-known article, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” systems thinker Donella Meadows explains that the most effective leverage point in a system is our mindsets or paradigms, out of which the structures of our systems are designed. I often use the Sufi tale of The Blind Men and the Elephant to show that, faced with a complex socio-ecological challenge, each stakeholder has a narrow and often imperfect understanding of the issues at hand due to deeply held beliefs. To uncover what the elephant really looks like (i.e., the adaptive challenge), an adaptive leader needs to help stakeholders work with one another, using a process of simultaneous inquiry and deep listening, to challenge each other’s assumptions and mental models until the beast shows its true face. When this happens, it’s like the blinders have been removed and people are able to see a situation with new eyes - a transformative change.
About the Author
Beatrice Benne, Ph.D., is the Founder and Principal of Soma Integral Consulting, which facilitates the resolution of adaptive challenges within the context of socio-ecological environments. Beatrice brings to her clients a broad range of skills and expertise including a whole systems approach to organizational management, strategy, and change; transformative leadership capacity development; and creative approaches to addressing complex situations. Beatrice also delivers regenerative design and development services to urban communities that want to become more sustainable.
Over the past 15 plus years working in diverse organizational settings--from large corporations to startups--Beatrice has gained experience in facilitating change, leading process improvement projects, and creatively combining ideas from different fields for the design of strategic business solutions. With her unique ability to combine rational analysis and perceptive intuition, Beatrice is able to successfully navigate the intricacy of highly complex organizational environments, while maintaining a sharp focus on the expected outcomes and performance of the projects and initiatives she leads.
Beatrice holds a M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the Department of Architecture at the University of Berkeley, California, USA, and a Diploma of Architect from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. She is a Kinship Conservation Fellows Faculty member.
It was not until the problem was reframed through an understanding of the dynamic of the whole system, and the connection was established between the need to first improve farmer livelihoods and then address the ecological degradation, that the whole socio-ecological problem could effectively be addressed and Loess plateau regenerated in only six years.