Crossing the threshold of sustainabilty and leading from the front


Crossing the threshold of sustainabilty and leading from the front

How can we persuade the world to operate more sustainably? We need strong leadership to bring winds of change


Giles Hutchins

Guardian Professional, Tuesday 12 February 2013 10.00 GMT

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It is only when the old trees fall that space comes for new ones to grow. Photograph: Steven Mccaig/Getty Images

“At times of great winds, some build bunkers, while others build windmills,” goes the ancient Chinese proverb. We are in the midst of the “great winds” of economic instability, social upheaval and environmental non-sustainability. Will it be bunkers or windmills that we build?

Change happens for two fundamental reasons:
1 We have enough information about the situation to make us want to change
2 We are experiencing so much pain that we have to change

We know enough about the unsustainability of our current paradigm to know we ought change and we are experiencing more than enough pain for us to have to change.

Many experts now point to an imminent paradigm shift: a transformation in the way we conduct our business, engage with each other and relate to life itself. In John Elkington’s 2012 report – The Phoenix Economy – he notes that “the time is ripe for a true paradigm shift to a more sustainable economy.” So here we are in 2013; there is no time like the present. The paradigm shift is not going to happen five or 10 years from now, it is happening as we speak.

The challenge with any paradigm shift is that it requires us to both let go of the old, tried-and-tested ways that are ingrained in our collective psyche and embrace novel, as yet unproven ways of being. There is a threshold across which individuals, organisations and communities need to cross. It is a chasm that can sometimes look like an abyss especially when we are all too engrossed in frantically patching up the current way of doing things just to keep the wheels from falling off. There is inherent inertia in crossing the threshold. Our feelings of security in the known and sense of safety in numbers by staying in the herd keeps us fearfully clinging to old ways.

As Morpheus in The Matrix said: “You have to understand, most people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

In other words – old habits die hard. Paradoxically it is through the release of old ways that innovation and new growth comes. The old has to die off for the new to emerge, just as in nature old trees fall to the ground whereupon fungi and bacteria break them down and release their nutrients into the soil for new growth. Death before birth is just as vital to the health of natural systems as the more socially acceptable pattern of innovation, growth and conservation. The same applies for economic and social systems. Transformational times of destruction and re-construction inevitably invoke fear. It takes great courage to break rank from business as usual. It takes real leadership to transform a business in such volatile times. Incidentally, the root of the word leadership is “leith” which means to go forth and cross the threshold, to die and be reborn.

In his book, Theory U, Dr Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, explores how leadership itself needs to transform in order to be able to lead us across this threshold.

Leadership, he finds, is about facilitating the process of letting go of old ways and allowing the new to take root. Leaders first transform themselves and then guide and coach others, creating a safe passage for the followers to cross the threshold. Vital to this leadership is a healthy foundation to ground the transformation in, what Scharmer refers to as the soil of the being (the psyche of the self) and the soil of the organisation (the culture of the organisation). It is this soil that allows the old ways to die and yield nutrients for new growth at a personal and organisational level; much like healthy soil breaks down decaying matter in winter to provide vital nutrients for new growth in spring. The soil of us is our inner being, this is where we can start to envision the future on the other side of the abyss and so contemplate crossing the threshold.

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