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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Moving from events to high quality process architecture

I know many people who are determined to make the world a better place, by analysing the status quo, recommending and reminding of what needs to be done, or by pushing new agendas. But what startles me is how many of them tend to be locked in a strange paradigm – our habit of believing that it is events that change the world. Packed with key note speeches, panel discussions and so-called break-out sessions (breaking-out from what?) these publically noticeable events are built on the assumption that if the audience listens to new or convincing thoughts they get inspired and will do things differently. They usually don’t and why should they. These events probably create more pressure among certain circles of people, because it is all about who is allowed to speak to whom on the stage. Less emphasis is on having an effect on changing human behaviour. I seriously doubt that they make a difference to the state of the world, although they might occasionally inspire new perspectives. Most people I speak to say – it is not the speeches, this is just an old-fashioned ritual – it is the people I talk to during the coffee breaks. Harrison Owen has invented an entire new meeting technique built on the fact that it is more efficient to have constant coffee breaks nicely organized than the more traditional conference or event setting. Open space ( has found a huge number of followers with brilliant results.

But I suggest going beyond.

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Leading collectively means overcoming silos

We have built a world in which silos – nations, companies, people – compete with each other and world leaders and many of their followers act accordingly. But if we want to move the world towards a more sustainable future we need overcome our silo-mentality and explore the art of stakeholder collaboration. We need to see leadership as the capacity of a collective to catalyze and implement positive change for the common good, for a planet in ecological balance, an economy that serves humankind as whole and a global society where people support each other’s development. This can only be done in multi-actor collaboration – locally, nationally, regionally and globally.

Just imagine that – in such kind of future – a group of leaders (e.g. from business, government, NGO), influential people or even ordinary people jointly and collaboratively deliver their part for a more sustainable future – while putting high priority on the common good over their particular (national, organizational, business, personal) interest. In fact, this is already happening in many multi-stakeholder initiatives – for responsible supply chains, better resource management, adaptation to climate change, or social innovation.

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Managing you energy changes your path

In my last two blogs I described how watching our energy level contributes to more consciously leading our days and what we can do to raise the energy levels of our days. Now, life doesn’t always behave according to our daily energy ranking. So what do we do when things don’t work out the way we expect, when others pour negativity over us or when we experiences something that makes us angry, sad, doubtful or insecure?

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What is at the core of life enhancing leadership?

Leading has many faces. The history of humankind is witness to this. It is easy to determine what kind of leadership was not sustainable in the long run – though it might have been effective in the short term. It is much more difficult to identify the examples for leadership that centred on sustainability.

But this does not mean we should stop thinking about it. Leading for sustainability is not something we really know how to do yet. Not every admired leader has created sustainability. Not every person doing good in the world has been a good leader. There are no easy answers to questions like these, but there is an invitation to inquire into the world and into our future possibilities.

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