Leadership Inspired by Nature
Denise DeLuca, Director & Co-Founder, BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation
You need not be a biologist to understand that nature reflects and is a result of continuous innovation. We have always looked to nature for beauty and inspiration, rest and recreation, well-being and, more recently, "ecosystem services" such as pollination or flood protection. Now we’ve developed frameworks and tools to look to nature for radical technical innovation (biomimicry, biomimetic design), as well as for transformational organizational learning and development, including leadership inspired by nature.
Leadership inspired by nature reflects and reinforces nature’s paradigm and principles. Where traditional leadership reflects assumptions that the "real world" is driven by individuals, scarcity, competition, greed, fear, and resistance, natural leadership emerges from a worldview based in systems thinking, a sense of abundance, synergies, trust, curiosity, and resilience.
By applying nature’s paradigms and principles to everything they do and throughout the organization, leaders inspired by nature build the capacity—in themselves and in their organizations—to catalyze creativity, choreograph change, and curate a culture of continuous innovation.
Leaders inspired by nature:
- Strive to dynamically optimize across the many and throughout the system rather than maximizing or minimizing for the few based on single parameters.
- Foster synergies, collaborations, and value-generating networks rather than focusing on competition and achievement of individual goals.
- Rely on collective intelligence rather than making and forcing top-down decisions.
- Leverage the value of transparency rather than secrecy.
- Seek return on engagement rather than return on investment.
- Create organizational structures that fit form to function rather than expecting people to function with and within rigid pre-set forms.
- Drive towards the very long-term while and by addressing the very short-term.
- Favor creativity and emergence over staying-the-course.
- Seek to be effective, not just efficient.
Abundance or Scarcity?
Much of this probably resonates with you, at least at a personal level. As human beings we’re very much a part and product of nature, and thus nature’s paradigm is our natural paradigm. But as a leader in an academic institution, you’ve likely experienced or seen instances of scarcity, competition, and greed. The reality you’ve experienced might challenge your sense of abundance, especially when everyone around you assumes that all of the important resources are limited and there's not quite enough to go around.
But I challenge you to reflect on that assumption for a moment. What are the most important resources at the UW? Are they raw materials, money, or even time? Of course you and your organization need those things and they can become scare at times; however, I would suggest that your most important resources are knowledge, curiosity, inspiration, creativity, joy of discovery, and sense of greater purpose. Rather than being scarce, these resources reflect abundance—the more you have, the more you can get; the more you give away, the more you get back. These form positive feedback loops, what some call positive virtuous cycles.
Granted, resources such as knowledge and curiosity are housed within people, and, due to budget restrictions, you may not have the level of staffing you desire. Leading with a sense of abundance means shifting your attention away from the question of how much is enough. Though that may be a pertinent question at times, it can be self-limiting and may pull you away from your department’s or the University’s mission. Focusing on the key resources that you do have in abundance may help positively shift your perspective and decision-making. In nature it is known as the power of limits.
Another lesson that we can learn from nature, as explained in a paper by my colleagues, is that "there are often high levels of plant diversity in areas of scarcity. The reason for this is that the selective pressures of the environment force more dramatic or innovative adaptations." It may seem "somewhat counter-intuitive to equate lack of resources with innovation, but in fact lack of resources—be it financial, technological, or simply variety of suppliers—can drive some of the most interesting innovations."
Take a Hike
So, what does leadership inspired by nature look like? Here’s a very simple bio-inspired tool that you can try right now, either by yourself or with a group. It’s called "Take a Hike." Next time you have a controversial challenge to solve, simply go for a walk, preferably in a beautiful natural area, which we are very fortunate to have readily accessible on most campuses. If you are by yourself, ponder the challenge while walking. If you are leading a group, send people out for a walk in pairs to discuss the challenge or some aspect of it. When you get back, share thoughts, ideas, and reflections generated while out on the walk. After the walk, you and/or the group will likely generate far more positive, creative, forward-thinking ideas shared in an engaging collegial and collaborative discussion.
Some of you may already, consciously or not, have a "take a hike" approach to problem-solving or thinking outside the box. For you, the next step is gaining a deeper understanding of how and why this works and then leveraging it more intentionally, and in concert with other tools, to drive cultural transformation.
Why does this work? Several things happen when you’re out for a walk. First, you engage your body. Your blood flows faster and your senses are heightened, which stimulates more and different parts of your brain. Second, you trigger your biophilia, your innate love of nature. This, too, stimulates different parts of your brain, including childhood memories and child-like curiosity, while gently flooding you with good feelings. Third, the outdoors is much bigger than the indoors, and being in big spaces provokes big thinking (being in smaller spaces is good for focused, detailed thinking). Also, when walking with another person, you are side-by-side (rather than head-to-head) sharing similar positive feelings and expansive thinking while literally moving ahead together, stride by stride.
Making the Shift
Shifting a paradigm may seem a daunting or even impossible task, but I hope that the "take a hike" example illustrates how easily you can adjust your perspective, escape your usual thinking habits, or slip into a new frame of mind. Taking a walk to think or to talk with a colleague may seem like a trivial act, but what we can learn from nature is that big changes are often accomplished through a series of small changes.
We tend to assume that striving for a different and better future requires short-term sacrifice or cost, and that the bigger the change the greater the cost (no pain, no gain—right?). However, big changes in nature often occur as a series of small steps, each of which are beneficial or somehow add value to the organism or to the system in which it lives. In evolution, for example, organisms can’t afford to get worse before they get better. In order to survive and eventually thrive, mutations must present some sort of short-term advantage, or they die out.
As a leader, you can begin to incorporate your own "mutations." For instance, just as nature thrives with diversity, so too is a diversity of viewpoints and experience beneficial within organizations. Rather than the norm of focusing on individual performance and individuals "managing up," you could try encouraging your staff members to operate from a "make each other look good" mindset. This mindset fosters variety over uniformity and also helps to ensure that everyone contributes at their optimum.
I think you’ll find that as you adopt more value-adding, bio-inspired tools and approaches, cultural norms will start to change and then paradigms can begin to shift. Practices, habits, and cultural norms based on competition, conflict, and control, for example, will become displaced by those based on synergies, emergent thinking, and collective intelligence. Why might we need leadership inspired by nature? Go for a walk and think about it!
Denise DeLuca is an experienced consultant, member of the University Consulting Alliance, and co-founder of BCI (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation). She’s interested in working with leaders and organizations to foster effective creative collaboration, examine the nature of change, leverage biomimicry for organizational transformation, and curate a culture of continuous innovation.