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.