Humanity has reached a junction with two paths ahead, one degenerative, the other regenerative, but which will we take? Leadership psychologist Terence Sexton FRSA, says we urgently need a shift to ‘consciousness leadership’ from those who shape our society.
Since the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Industrial Revolution, we’ve fallen in love with the machine. It has become the dominant metaphor of our time, and we now perceive most things as operating like machines. This includes nature, communities, even our minds. But when living beings are seen as machines, they lose their psychological life, their consciousness, soul and spirit, and we become psychologically separated from those elements of ourselves.
At the same time, we see economics as obeying similar rules to Newtonian physics and engineering science, relying on questionable psychological assumptions, seeing people as self-interested homo economicus calculating machines, with little consideration of non-monetised ecological, social and personal wellbeing outcomes.
Separated from nature, we no longer feel its pain, nor the cost to us of letting industry extract and exploit resources. Separated from each other, we lose trust in other people, become too competitive, leading to increasing inequality, loneliness and loss of social cohesion. Separated from ourselves, we are losing contact with our spiritual self and our sense of meaning and purpose. That leaves our ego isolated, vulnerable and in need of constant reinforcement and defence. All reduce our mental wellbeing.
Businesses (even if unintentionally) exploit the fact we have reduced mental wellbeing, and that our egos require constant reinforcement and defence. Through PR and advertising, we are encouraged to buy products to feel good about ourselves or gain admiration. And it works. But the good feelings and admiration wane and we need our next fix. We have become addicted to consumerism.
So, we live out consumer lifestyles, serving the industrial-economic machine which was meant to serve us, knowingly ravaging the planet, our social dialogue dominated by discord, fed by fear and greed. We still have the consciousness needed to create and maintain an Industrial Revolution - but not to deal with its aftermath.
We urgently need to develop our consciousness beyond consumerism so we can embrace a regenerative lifestyle. Developing our consciousness is key to unlocking a better world, in greater harmony with nature, being kinder to each other and living happier lives. While we are deciding, we unwittingly continue down the centuries-old path of destruction.
As leaders’ collective decisions shape our society, we now need them to raise societal consciousness if we are to embrace a regenerative lifestyle. But are leaders across our society willing and able to perform this role?
How leaders respond to the environmental crises we face can be seen as a continuum from ‘business as usual’ at one end to ‘consciousness leadership’ at the other, and depends on their cognitive, emotional and behavioural capability. As leadership moves along the continuum, the need for cognitive complexity increases, to enable the leader to work with the interconnectedness of everything.
Emotional resilience and compassion must increase, to enable the leader to handle their own and other people’s anxiety. And the need for behavioural flexibility increases, to enable the leader to respond to emerging situations. Moving along the continuum requires leaders to let go of the machine metaphor and understand things in terms of ecosystems of emergence, unfolding, fluidity, wholeness and interdependence. It puts the psychological life back into living entities, recognising their consciousness, soul and spirit.
Business As Usual Leadership: Some leaders become emotionally and cognitively overwhelmed by the environmental problems we face and feel powerless to make a difference. This threatens their ego, and the most likely defence is to go into denial. Denial lets the leader continue to run the organisation as usual, with little regard to the environmental impact.
Sustainability Leadership: Others, not in denial, employ linear ‘cause and effect’ thinking; to identify their organisation’s activities which contribute to climate change and look for ways to increase ‘sustainability’. But these are likely to be implemented in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system. Sustainability becomes a bolt-on to ‘business as usual’.
Regenerative Leadership: Leaders with a higher level of psychological capability, who can apply more systems-thinking, see sustainability as an integrated part of their organisation’s purpose. So they ensure their organisation increases all types of capital alongside the financial – such as social, psychological and environmental. By increasing their range of capitals, the organisation becomes regenerative. They seek to regenerate the environment rather than just focusing on reducing harm.
Transformation Leadership: This decade will bring significant transformation to our society and organisations, whether we like it or not. To avert climate change, society must transform. If we don’t avert climate change, society will be transformed anyway. We need leaders who can lead us through this transformation either way. They will need to handle multiple systems colliding and see the patterns that emerge from the resultant chaos.
Consciousness Leadership: To adopt regenerative lifestyles, we need to develop leaders who can navigate the chaos of transformation and use their leadership to serve society. Only then can they lift the societal consciousness beyond consumerism and encourage a collective regenerative consciousness.
We need all leaders to climb this ladder of ability, but most of all, a growing core of leaders with the vision to lift societal consciousness away from our degenerative path – and toward a regenerative future.
Terence Sexton is a leadership psychologist and author of Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability. He has more than 20 years of experience consulting across a wide range of sectors, and in recent years has focused on Consciousness Leadership.
Become an RSA Fellow
The RSA Fellowship is a unique global network of changemakers enabling people, places and the planet to flourish. We invite you to be part of this change.
Join the discussion
Please login to post a comment or reply
Don't have an account? Click here to register.
Really good article Terence, thank you. With the awful news of war in Ukraine this week we are witnessing first hand the kind of degenerative leadership that can only bring heartbreak and suffering to the world at a time when only the other types of leadership you describe - particularly and specifically regenerative leadership - can address the issues of climate breakdown; attaining the UN's sustainable development goals; exponential reduction in biodiversity and degradation of the planet's life support systems; and the like.
Thank you, Mike. Yes, attacking one's neighbour can only be described as degenerative leadership. A friend of mine recently wrote an article in our village newsletter where she said "All life on earth is an interconnected and interdependent web of life: what damages one area, damages the whole." Humanity learnt the truth of these words during the pandemic. But leaders who haven't developed the cognitive complexity, emotional resilience and compassion necessary for regenerative leadership soon forget the truth of these words when they feel threatened.
The vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to over consumption and degeneration are so well articulated here. Reconnecting with nature, each other and ourselves I believe starts with the body, (re) developing body consciousness, reconnecting mind and body and our ability to self-regulate such that we're not so vulnerable to/available for serving the industrial economic machine.
Thank you for your comment, Liz. I think you've highlighted another important separation. I believe a significant factor in our separation from nature was Descartes' assertion that animals are without feelings, physical or emotional. His philosophy also included the Cartesian Divide which argued that the mind is wholly separate from the body. Therefore, the separations that make us susceptible to over consumption and degeneration may well include the separation of our mind and body. Reconnecting the mind and body could be the first step.
As a fairly newly 'retired' leader (unavoidably thanks to COVID !), I am interested in how we harness the experience of leaders who are no longer employed in a specific context. The public sector (where I worked ) in particular would seem to have little interest in and no mechanism for allowing this to happen eg via mentoring or an equivalent to the Emeritus status found in academia. One minute one is engaged in and encouraged by the issues of leadership, the next one is unable to contribute meaningfully. I wonder how the RSA might help Fellows like me ..in a modest way ..to support upcoming public sector leaders ?
Thank you for your comment, Mike. I agree, I think there is a role for retired leaders to support the upcoming leaders. Research in Adult Developmental Psychology has found that as we develop our consciousness, and hence increase our psychological ability, we go through stages of growth and plateaux. We experience growth when we face a challenge where our current view of the world will not provide a solution. After a period of anxiety, a new way of seeing the world emerges, we grow and we are able to find a solution. This growth enables us to reach the next plateau. So we don't crash and burn as we face the developmental challenge, we need to be supported. Retired leaders could be part of this support for up and coming leaders. This would help leaders to progress more quickly along the continuum I outlined in the article so that we have more leaders providing the type of leadership society now needs.
Great article. It strikes me that for all these styles of leadership to wirk for all, and for the planet we live on, we need an approach to leadership and a set of values that is based on ethics. Ethical leadership will encompass many if not all of the virtues mentioned in your article. Societal consciousness is ideally also closely aligned to ethical living and ethical leadership without which none of those ladders mentioned can be climbed safely.
Thank you, Jan. I think you've raised an important point. The problem is that, in business, leaders tend to be vulnerable to 'ethical drift' (a gradual and unconscious lowering of moral standards). Often leaders make decisions at work for business reasons, which would make them feel uncomfortable outside of work. This happens because all leaders need to work within the context of their organisation - serving their boss, customers, shareholders, etc. For me, this is another example of separation. As leaders, we can become separated from our spiritual self (giving us meaning and purpose) and become a cog buried deep in the business and economic machine. To counter this vulnerability, if we are to lead and progress up this ladder of ability, I believe we need to develop our moral reasoning (perhaps in line with Kohlberg's model). I like to describe moral reasoning as emotional intelligence over time and space.
The RSA’s Regenerative Futures paper, by Josie Warden, includes a section setting out how we need to “rethink leadership” including making leaders and change-makers across the system understand the need for, and potential of, regenerative thinking and to implement regenerative practices. Therefore, I am delighted to see this comment on “Leadership towards regenerative lifestyles” by a Fellow, with a background in Leadership psychology, outlining just how much rethinking is needed. As I read through the five levels, in the continuum of leadership styles that Terence Sexton identifies, I found myself reflecting on which types of organisation one might expect to find would be willing to adopt which styles. In business, it seems fairly obvious that those owned by purely financially focused shareholders will be at the stage of business as usual, with or without sustainability bolt-ons. Encouragingly, though, there is a small but definitely increasing number of businesses (for example those supporting the “Better Business Act” and/or becoming B-Corps or otherwise committing to be businesses for purpose) which could be expected to move towards adopting a triple bottom line culture along the lines of the "Regenerative Leadership" model. I am not sure which conventional businesses would yet be willing to go beyond that and engage with full "Consciousness Leadership" promoting the adoption of regenerative lifestyles, but I could see and hope that there will be peer-to-peer commons based businesses for which it would a good fit for their culture. When one turns to political, governmental and civil society organisations concerned with the wellbeing of their communities, I would, though, hope that they would all start with the question: Shouldn’t we be champions of Regenerative Futures and thus adopt full Consciousness Leadership towards regenerative lifestyles? I hope other Fellows, in positions of leadership across business, civil society, local and national government, will reflect upon such Leadership re-thinking and how to put Leadership towards regenerative lifestyles into practice.
Thank you, Dorian. I'm glad to hear you think this article contributes to the good work being done by Josie and her team. I appreciate your analysis of how different organisations may currently be aligned with the different types of leadership. Hopefully, this points to progress with some early pioneers showing the way. I think the lag is due to business leaders primarily evaluating decisions in terms of 'return on investment', financially. What if leaders also asked: Will this decision help to lift society onto a regenerative path or drive us further down the degenerative one? A simple question to ask, but a complex one to answer. But I feel asking this question would contribute significantly to addressing the existential crises we are facing today.