Recently a couple of leaders in the company (EILEEN FISHER) asked me to share my insights. I responded, I’m not sure if what I’ll say will solve anything but hopefully it will get us closer to the right questions. A dear friend, Katie Stubley, one of the leaders of the Presencing Institute’s Ecosystem Leadership Program often reminds me, “we grow in the direction of the questions we ask.”
In 2004, I walked into an International Relations class (at this point I had decided this was my major because I couldn’t major in learning about India and I really wanted to understand my place in the world as a person of mixed heritage… Anyway, back to the class…) and I started listening to the professor. He said, International Relations was (I’m obviously paraphrasing) basically a bunch of old men who had drawn lines of separation on the land and were, over time, making decisions for the people within those lines about whether or not to go to war, with a very limited understanding of what was actually happening on the ground in their own nations or their neighbors’. Almost immediately, I realized this was not for me, but it took me a few years to understand why (and to change my major).
Leadership is often visualized with someone at the front of a crowd, a team or a nation; a glorified superhero on the big screen, born to fulfill their destiny, ready to save the day. Even when we have a full fledged movement, we find a ‘leader’ to put on the front page, the ‘someone’ who can symbolize the moment.
I recently shared with someone that I would be heading to Berlin for one of the three modules of an Ecosystem Leadership Program (ELP). She responded saying, “Oh, it’s so important to think about the environment and work with climate change.” I smiled and nodded but I didn’t have the time (or the words) to really capture what this 50+ person group has been doing in Germany this year; hence, this article.
Ecosystem Leadership is not only about the biological functions of a place — it can apply to any system we want to look at, a circle of an education system, a company, a family, an individual. Ecosystem Leadership is about moving from ‘Ego’ to ‘Eco’ system, a term articulated by Otto Scharmer most notably in his book Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. The book goes in depth to look at our many overlapping systems (economy, governance, education etc) and how all of us who are actively engaging in these systems have the capacity to shift our awareness from a singular focused mindset, to being able to see and understand the whole — as Stubley reminds us, our job as humans is to “care for everything.”
Ecosystem leadership and Theory U is about letting go of old patterns of thought and action, and operating from a place of curiosity, compassion and courage. It requires leading from the edges, having a sense of our impact on the whole, and letting go of the glorified idea of what statue might be raised in our honor when we reach the finish line.
I know what you’re thinking. Leading from the edges. WHAT DID SHE TAKE IN BERLIN?!?!…. Hear me out. You know that feeling in yoga or meditation when someone says, ‘have a soft gaze’? The idea of ecosystem leadership is multi-fold but, part of it is just like that soft gaze, it’s seeing and sensing beyond a singular experience — it’s getting out of our own way and pulling in additional perception and perspective with a soft focus. On an individual level, one might literally soften their gaze, practice meditation and move out into the world in a way that is not aggressively pushing an agenda. Another aspect is to quite literally pull in voices from the margins. This could mean a lot of different things in different contexts but the basic idea is to ask people you wouldn’t normally ask to share their perspective, putting their voices at the center and framing the decision based on a wider view, including their opinions and not only your own.
What does that look like; pulling in voices from the margins? A few years ago, a handful of us in the Eileen Fisher Foundation and the EILEEN FISHER Social Consciousness team, started the Handloom project. A couple of our team members had found a vulnerable area of the supply chain. While workers in factories have regulations and support systems for health and wellbeing, workers who work in villages and largely in their own homes, may be subject to a variety of working conditions that may or may not be best suited for their health and wellbeing. One way of handling this situation could be to say: we know what’s best and we are going to give you a solution that’s worked for us.
Pulling voices in from the margins means sitting with the weavers, having conversations to hear what they are feeling and dealing with each day, and then crafting solutions with those who are affected by the decisions. It means moving from “I’m doing this for you” to, “I’m doing this with you.” Now, the Handloom project is run by SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association. SEWA ignites small groups of women leaders (Agyavans) to share knowledge and bring together community groups to hear the needs and develop ideas for ways to engage in making change.
Ecosystem Leadership is what is needed now in our world. It’s an invitation to go beyond these limited, singular world views to a space of understanding what’s needed on a collective level — not just for one country, but for our world (the only one we have).
Recently, I wrote an article about Black Holes in Leadership. On module two of the Ecosystem Leadership Program, we went to the ‘bottom of the U’ in which we explored what it means to operate from ‘source,’ a place in which I’m aligned with my highest, capital ‘S,’ Self and able to do my capital ‘W,’ Work. Basically, I had to take a minute to connect back in with what I’m really here on the planet to do, not just what spreadsheet someone asked me to make recently, but what, based on the gifts I have and the experience I’ve gained, am I really called to do in the world? But the thing is, all these great insta-inspo-quotes don’t really cover the fullness of what it takes to do that (find your calling, ignite your passion, follow your BLISS, #thankyounext).
Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities, role models, and space to do work I really care about. Recently, as the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, the organization and community I’ve had the joy of co-creating, begins its tenth summer, I’ve had to question and look at, what’s really important? What is it that I’m called to do next? How do I keep focusing on what matters? The truth is, no matter if it’s a daily, monthly, five or ten year question, there’s a lot that comes with it: fear, frustration, anxiety, and sadness.
During the second module of the ELP, we explored the notion of ‘staying with’ and having courage, even in times of uncertainty. We explored how to have resilience in the face of the tiniest and gravest injustices. We explored what Otto calls, ‘engaging with Absencing’ to be able to see and sense the emerging future, a notion he calls, ‘Presencing.’ We noticed that Absencing is not necessarily a polar opposite of Presencing. It can be a kind of falling out of (disconnecting) Presence, or it can be a falling back on our old patterns (judgement, fear, cynicism). More specifically, coming back to a moment of seeing a vulnerable area of the supply chain, one could look at that situation and have a few different responses: 1) be incredibly angry and frustrated, 2) pull out of the supply chain immediately, or 3) stay with the anger, open to possibility and have courage that sitting down together and facing the problem could somehow open up new solutions.
The important part is that we come back to focusing on what matters, that we do our daily and moment by moment practice to come back to our Selves, get perspective, care for everything and do our Work. When we soften our edges, we might find new places for growth, new entry points for configurations we may never have imagined that give us a completely new possibility.
We also practice this with our bodies too. It’s not enough to merely ‘know’ something in our minds — we need to feel it in our bones. Our minds don’t live out our daily experience of the world, our bodies do.
At the end of the day, Ecosystem Leadership means:
- Having the vulnerability to say, “I don’t know” and working together to make sure we’re asking the right questions
- Softening our gaze and sensing into the periphery. That could mean on a personal level or a collective level
- “Staying with” and having courage to find the new possibilities
I’ll be back in Berlin in November for Module 3. Stay tuned…