What is your contribution?

A couple of years ago I had a visitor staying in my home in South Africa. He was a businessman from India who for most of his career was very successfully involved in the construction industry in India. He himself meditated and taught in his tradition in India and other parts of the world. When he sat in my living room he explained to me:

“The first half of your life you spend exploring the world and yourself. You take in and take in; the world serves your own growth. The second half of your life you spend giving back and you do this for the rest of your life. You serve the world and you serve people. It is important not to miss that turning point. So what is your contribution? What do you serve?”

I did not have an instant answer to his question and it took a few moments before I realized that he did not expect one.

When we begin to sense that our leadership contribution needs to be reconsidered, a question like this strikes us like a sudden uncomfortable memory. We are pushed beyond our comfort zone. We have enough demands placed on us; we do not need more.


The question remained in my mind for years. As with all questions that aim directly at the heart, it became a constant reminder of my journey. It took a year or two before I was finally prepared to grow slowly into an answer.

 If we allow that to happen, such questions reach our heart. We know when we set out on our journey that this is what we intuitively wanted to do – serve the world. We might have become far more realistic, much more sensible, and slightly more cynical. But we sense the underlying quest. And it is important to revive the quest: we’ll discover the treasure we have always been looking for. The purpose of our early intention was to do something for the benefit of humankind.

This blog post looks at the dimension of WHOLENESS and zooms into the aspect of CONTRIBUTION in the Collective Leadership Compass at the level of individuals. For more insights on leading collectively with the Compass, subscribe to my blog or read more in my book: Mind and Heart, Mapping Your Personal Journey towards Leadership for Sustainability, 2008


When is the goal big enough?

If what we serve is not big enough, not really aligned with our heart or too short-sighted for our heart’s intuition, we will perform well, possibly commit, but our hearts won’t be in it.

Real service needs the engagement of the heart.

As we walk through life, we may at times feel inspired and full of energy, at other times we feel a lack of direction. Most often the latter happens when we have lost the meaning of what we do, we don’t feel we can make a difference.

Many change programs in companies are based on aligning people with a goal that is made worth achieving. They tap into this natural desire to make a difference. It is known that people who see meaning in their organizational endeavors work and lead with more inner resourcefulness. Being part of something larger and working towards it together with others, is what gives us energy. But what, if the goal is not big enough? If it does not touch our heart?

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The future of leadership is collective

No matter, if we think about a world with renewable energy, secure water or intelligent democracy, it is no longer a question of whether working towards sustainability needs to become the mainstream focus of local and global leaders, but rather how to face the challenge of making this happen. The leadership of many individuals towards a similar goal on a collective scale is needed. In our globalized world, innovation for sustainability is based on people’s ability to think together and to cooperate across sectors, nations and cultures.

Wherever I work with teams across institutions who are committed to a cause, irrespective of whether it is about creating responsible supply chains, innovative technology for climate adaptation, stakeholder engagement for water resource management or sustainable city development, it is about making collaboration effective.

It means

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Engaging with future possibilities is a way of life

What would you expect, if you read a book written by a 95 year old lady? If you are like me, you would expect that she looks back at her life. What if you read her book and, apart from a few analyses on what she had learned from life, she is actually looking forward, inspiring you to engage with a future full of possibilities?

The book I am talking about is “The Next American Revolution”, by Grace Lee Boggs. A fascinating account of a person who has seen it all – born just after the World War I, a social activist deeply engaged in community work and political change at an age most of us expect ourselves to wind down. She always loved engaging with a revolutionary future.

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Creating a paradigm shift

The other day a colleague of mine sent me an inspiring reminder, a timeless contribution that I believe needs to be unearthed again. It was Donella Meadows’ article: Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System. If we look at the state of the world, humankind’s many attempts and mediocre results to take us on the road to sustainability, this is an article that makes you think – and hopefully act. You will recognize how many aspects of sustainability initiatives are stuck in regulatory approaches that – according to her – are very low on the list of effectiveness of leverage points. The second highest effective leverage point, she suggests, is the power to create a paradigm shift. This is what she says about how to create a paradigm shift:

“You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures of the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

And with that she challenges each of us – the most powerful leverage point for sustainability is our own mind. Starting from there, we can get structures in place, ensure information flow for positive and negative feedback loops and get regulations set-up.

It is not too difficult to think us into a future state in which global common goods are managed well; governments serve their people; economies are lively and at service of people and planet, and everybody can live their potential. It is more difficult to imagine how we could get there from where we are today. That is where the global learning journey starts – an exciting one, as no one country, one actor, one societal group knows the answer, but each of them may hold a piece of a great puzzle. I believe, it is the art of leading collectively that will make a difference.

What are elements of a paradigm shift towards sustainability? And how do they relate to the Collective Leadership Compass?

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Fostering commitment for change is an art one can learn

Collective action for sustainability must be guided by a leadership paradigm that is inspirational, fosters commitment by various actors and acknowledges the role of collective contributions to decision-making. Leading, here, can be seen as a co-creative process that often begins with a small group of people and aims at profound collective change.

Overcoming the challenges that lie ahead of us requires building teams within our organization, action groups across several institutions or even networks for change. We need to integrate different organizational cultures into joint initiatives and foster collaboration between actors that are often not even used to communicating with each other.

“Only dedicated circles can give birth to something new”.

This saying by a circle of African wise women captures an important learning in sustainability leadership: Engagement often starts small, not big, and it requires a team of committed people. I call this: building containers for change.

The term ‘Container’ refers to such a committed team of actors and describes its function and relational quality. A good ‘container’ exists if

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Invigorating the quality of collaborative change initiatives

In my last blog I wrote about the importance to shift from focusing on events to processes. With such shifting attention, events become milestones in a process and are carefully designed to serve a larger purpose – only then can we create a spirit of collective leadership. Events need to be seen in the context of good process architecture (e.g. for better water management, energy efficiency, or responsible supply chains) where it is the ability of differing stakeholders to think together and lead collectively that counts.

How can we use the Compass as a check for the quality of change processes?

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