Pattern #45

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Holistic Leadership and Governance Dynamics

Fragmented, one-sided leadership and management of our collective affairs impedes the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole. So promote organizing modes that generate free abundance from the fractal, holonic, networked and self-organizing capacities of whole systems and their powers of synergy, participation, distributed functionality, life energy, resilience and more.

  • Does this way of doing things feel healthy? Wholesome? Sacred? If not, how would you describe it?
  • When you think of the word “holistic” in terms of how we treat each other and organize our collective affairs, what comes to mind?
  • What examples can you think of using the following in leadership and governance: inclusivity? synergy? empathy? integrity? participation? shared orientation? sustainability, resilience and regenerativity? spirit? interconnection? interdependence? vitality and aliveness? belonging? wisdom? big picture thinking? communion? self-organization? wholeness? balance? sharing? networks? fractals? nature? centeredness? consciousness?
  • What are signs that the whole and wholeness are not being seen, felt, considered, called upon, worked with and in?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

“Holistic leadership and governance dynamics”. That’s a mouthful!

This pattern as it’s expressed in the heart is a sort of catalog of things that would go under “holistic leadership and governance dynamics”.

But there is a fundamental thing going on here that I want to point out first. It underlies a lot of the items in the list given in the pattern’s heart: The main intention and function of wise leadership and governance is to liberate and develop the capacities of individual and collective life to serve individual and collective life. This is intimately related to the prime directive dynamic, of evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole of behalf of the whole.

This kind of leadership and governance operates in the context the well-being and evolution of larger living systems we’re part of. And there’s a funny way in which, if you really take wholeness seriously, there are free resources in and all around you. You don’t have to push or micromanage so much.

Perhaps the best and most familiar example of that is synergy. You put things together in ways that yield more – more production, more aliveness, more strength, more whatever – than when you put them together in another way. In other words, the same things in one arrangement deliver more than those things in another arrangement. The arrangement itself makes the difference. There’s nothing materially or energetically added, just the pattern.

So this is very interesting. A simple example of it is if you have three metal rods and you weld them together into a triangle, you get more strength than if you welded those same three rods into any other arrangement. You can build bridges based on that principle. The triangular form of three lines generates power that isn’t there in any other arrangement. The arrangement itself adds something that is free.

And life has many ways that serve life in that way. Another classic example of synergy is water. Hydrogen and oxygen are gases at room temperature. And they have certain characteristics in that state. But when you put them together in a particular configuration, you get water. What the hell is going on there? Water seems so different from hydrogen and oxygen as we usually think of them. And it’s just that arrangement of those same things that so radically changes how they show up.

And permaculture offers another archetypal model for holistic leadership and governance. You have a site that contains a bunch of particular plants, some stones, the lay of the land, the weather, whatever… – and you’re going to help them be more productive. So you put some ducks in the garden to eat the snails that are eating your lettuce, and so on.

There’s a story of a permaculture guy who built a house around a boulder. He had this big boulder on his property that was the size of a semi truck. There was no way he was going to be able to remove that boulder. So he build a house that had a big living room right over the boulder, which had south facing windows so the light from the window shined onto this boulder which then warmed up and became this free heater in the winter.

How do you arrange things together so that they generate more? Here you have one of the basic underlying principles of wise democracy and co-intelligence and other models of reality and guidances like that. You see people in conflict, people who are different, who have different needs, who have different assumptions, whatever. They’re involved in a situation or in an issue domain where things need to happen. And what we see when we look at them is they’re fighting, their life energy is invested in undermining each other. And all that caring, all that money, is going down the drain.

We watch that in politics, the way it’s set up. You know, people care about things, but they care about them differently, so they’re using their energy to stop each other. But what would happen if you could actually find ways to line up even parts of that energy so it was going in the same direction, you would have incredible resources to deal well with the whole realm.

There’s lots of the patterns that have to do with that. So we can be aware of these dynamics. Again, we can tap into the prime directive – evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole. You are trying to organize a community or trying to solve a conflict or you’re trying to make an organization that works well or you’re trying to solve a social problem. Each one of these is a “whole scene” with many players and factors going on in it – many parts of the organization, many different parties involved in the situation….

“Parties” is such a great word, so clarifying from a holistic perspective. We have “party” instead of “holy”. We have different “parties” (or parts) involved in a conflict, or in a political domain. And as a holistic leader or governor, your job isn’t to say what’s supposed to be done and get people to do it. Your job is to make things into more of a synergistic whole – to have the parties become “holy” – that is, to be conscious parts of the whole that are moving together so they can move together consciously and well. So then, how do you do that?

Well, for example, many conversational technologies like deliberation, Nonviolent Communication, World Café – these are all ways to bring diverse people together to deepen, to go to a deeper place and see where the common ground is. (The Groundedness and Generating Shared Orientation patterns fit in here.) Where are the the places where their life energy becomes aligned so that they can move ahead together?

And that potential capacity is there in all systems, all situations, all people, groups, communities, societies, crises… so holistic leadership and governance is tapping into the fact that the whole and wholeness is always present and there are ways to access it for wisdom and resources to deal with the situation.

And there’s another piece of this puzzle here: Because of the way our societies are set up, we tend to think of leadership as individual or, at best, exerted by teams. I want to suggest that we deconstruct leadership into a function and that function is to provide guidance or direction in moving in a particular direction. And from that perspective a road provides leadership. People don’t drive up on the sidewalk – at least they’re not supposed to; the road provides leadership. Stories lead people. For example, they go into careers… “Career”! That word – that meme – is a guideline about how you’re supposed to live your life. But notice that people in indigenous societies don’t have “careers”. That logic doesn’t fit their way of life; they have a different framework. But to know that the narratives we tell ourselves and the infrastructure that we have, the advertisements we see – these are all forms of leadership. And we can recognize when things are leading us astray and when things are providing us good leadership, to look at whether it is life-serving or not.

And there are individual leaders, some of whom micromanage and direct things – which is sometimes necessary but largely is a waste of time. Because things are going to change so fast that whatever you’re micromanaging and planning is likely to become irrelevant, and people are responding in different ways, usually not exactly on the same page as what you’re trying to micro-manage….

So you want to understand to what extent you can lead the system to lead itself. To what extent can you work yourself out of a job as an individual leader by transforming and building in the needed narratives, the infrastructure, the capacities that enable the system to lead itself? That’s an important inquiry for you as an individual leader. You can be inspiring, of course. That’s fine, too, as part of all these different modes of leadership. But there is a particular role of setting things up so that the system can lead itself. That’s your primary job from a holistic perspective.

It is like the ideal parent is there to enable their kid to become an adult who can lead themselves – and whatever direction you provide is, ideally, giving them that capacity. That’s the archetypal role of a parent.

Then there’s governance. We tend to assign governance to institutions. But there’s self-governance – you govern yourself, you control yourself. There’s a sense of control attached to governance. But with self-governance, collective self-governance, people are deciding how they are going to make things work out among themselves and as a collective seeking to fulfill their aspirations as a community or as a group – to what extent are you able to do that, or to help them do that?

Leadership and governance are presented here together in this pattern. They’re both forms of guidance. And to have “the whole” capable of rising up into its own leadership and governance, that’s what individual leadership (leaders and governors) and governing institutions are supposed do, according to this pattern.

We went from kings to democracies in order to get away from overly powerful leaders. The founders said that democracy is a government of laws, not people – that we are creating institutional authority to replace individual authority.

And now we are trying to replace all-powerful institutions with living systems and the interactions of living systems as the source of how living systems function.

There’s an interesting model by Jim Rough who created Dynamic Facilitation, which is one of our featured methodologies in this pattern language. He also created the Wisdom Council as a particular democratic or political application of that method. He has a theoretical model which consists of a triangle, a circle and a square. The triangle represents the leader on top telling everybody what to do. The square represents an institution we have set up to govern us: It can be the square of a government building or the square of the Constitution or a law on a piece of paper. It’s a sense of a box that we’re in and we can create that box or choose somebody else to create the box, but the box is leading us – it’s a Thing. And then there’s the circle, which Jim is using to represent conversation. So to what extent is the conversation leading us? To what extent is the constructed object of a law or institution leading us? And to what extent is some powerful individual leader leading us?

And this pattern is nudging us towards the circle as much as possible.

Now let’s look at these different things that are listed in the pattern heart:

Fractals are like different structures or patterns that show up at different levels over and over again. If you go to different levels of scale or different dimensions of an issue or system, you need to be aware that dynamics that show up at the top of an organization often show up all through the organization. That can be true of racism dynamics, assumptions about leadership and power, mutual support… all these things show up throughout. That’s a natural phenomenon

Networks relates to how this system or organization or community is made up of nodes that are connected to each other and interacting and doing stuff together and to each other. The web metaphor – that’s what’s going on. It can be useful to look in such networks for where to intervene that will ripple out through the networks rather trying to drop a big safe on the whole thing or blow it up or push it in a particular direction… It’s more like seeing a system or situation more in terms of acupuncture points, or like the nervous system of a situation, or like an ecosystem. You are intervening in particular points that will ripple out, that will have ripple effects.

Distributed functionality means many people doing many of the needed functions – lots of duplication and redundancy and complementarity. One of the principles of permaculture is having any function being covered by more than one entity and every entity able to do multiple functions. That’s a formula for resilience. If you have that distributed functionality and one piece a system goes down, other pieces can pick it up. They’ve found out that your brain is like that. Whole sections can be taken out or damaged and your brain can often regain most of its former functionality. There is a story of a kid that lost half his brain and one side of his brain was able to pick up all the functions that were lost from the other side. There’s lots of examples of that sort of thing in nature. So you as a holistic leader or governor – or a system that you are setting up – should enable the system, or group, or community, or situation your are dealing with to find its own way in a way that uses all of its diversity creatively. That’s the essence of holistic leadership and governance

So that’s holistic leadership and governance. We’re trying to show in the pattern’s picture different forms of conversation and individual leadership and taking leadership from natural systems – the dynamics of evolution and nature are great sources of insight about leadership and governance dynamics – and the middle is showing the larger population – people in a group, people a situation – who are The People and how are they woven together. And that’s all being sensed into by all these people who are doing this organizing, who you see around the edges.

Video Introduction (19 min)

After reading the 50-word pattern heart Tom Atlee will elaborate on the pattern.

Examples and Resources

There is a whole section on my co-intelligence site on leadership, that offers a breakdown of some of these different forms of leadership including the idea of systemic leadership.

The Presencing Institute offers Theory U, which is another approach to collectively deepening into the whole situation, into deeper and deeper levels of what’s going on, and then collectively lifting ourselves out of that and trying out new things that come out of the insights that we got from the deepening exercise.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation has a public engagement primer which offers guidance in the form of seven principles to support you if you want to legitimately and powerfully engage the community in talking together and coming up with things that make sense for them as a community

The idea of “choice work” – of people together wrestling with the complexity of an issue and making choices – there’s techniques to help people work on that together.

We can also understand that most public engagement is broken in a variety of ways and we can understand the ways it can be broken, particularly the ways in which habitual triangle and square forms of management, leadership, or governance break into what the conversation generates.