Good stewards - RSA Journal - RSA

Good stewards


  • Picture of Andy Thornton
    Andy Thornton
    Head of Regenerative Design, RSA
  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Economy

How can we see the forest for the trees when it comes to nurturing regenerative business?

As businesses continue the much-needed shift towards valuing a more diverse range of capitals beyond the exclusivity of financial profit, we also need to consider the qualities and characteristics this will demand of those expected to navigate this complex transition. 

With traditional 20th-century management models coming under increasing scrutiny, as much for the values they don’t espouse as those they do, a more humane and adaptable form of regenerative leadership will be required. What would it mean to lead more authentically in this moment of change?

Our regenerative business coalition is convening soon, seeking to answer exactly this and similar provocations: what maturity of value, and values, should a more adaptive enterprise be striving for in such a future? What if everyone at work was empowered as an innovator, delivering outcomes and impact towards a thriving future? 

We believe workforce capabilities will be critical for any meaningful transformation. Softer skills and attitudinal characteristics, such as flexibility, self-awareness, collaboration and empathy, are increasingly in demand, while role-specific skills tend to be more rigid and perishable by comparison.

This is because in our uncertain, yet more purposeful, times, the question inevitably becomes: which deep-seated values, mindsets and worldviews do we lean on to help us decide what course of action to take, especially when there is no established playbook to guide us?

Courageous leadership will demand patience and dedication to think in longer time horizons than the typical quarterly reporting cycle.

Head of Regenerative Design, RSA Andy Thornton

The forest ecosystem as metaphor 

Imagine the ecosystem of a forest. From the tree canopy above, to the foraging wildlife throughout the understory and, finally, the mycelial fabric of fungi hidden from sight below ground, all elements work in harmony to intuitively maintain a healthy whole.

We need leaders who recognise and appreciate the diverse and complex needs of their respective context. Seeking self-interested, extractive profit at the expense of other forms of broader prosperity across the wider terrain cannot be sustained without cost. Void of the right balance, landscapes become stagnant monocultures over time, particularly those touched by unsophisticated human intervention. Tree plantations change the very soil, flora and fauna of their environment. A similar clumsiness exists in our incumbent status quo of GDP growth at any cost.

Plantations of fast-growing, and rapidly cut, timber can curtail the rich potential of an emergent habitat that is encouraged to flourish over longer lifespans. Courageous leadership will demand patience and dedication to think in longer time horizons than the typical quarterly reporting cycle or five-year plan. Instead, we must act in accordance with what is vital to leave behind as ancestral inheritance for future generations. Ideally, a legacy that is more abundant than the one our current children will inherit from us.

Finally, a systems-level understanding of harmony requires mutual appreciation, awareness and cooperation. To acknowledge that together we are greater than the sum of our parts. The ‘dog-eat-dog’ and ‘rat-race’ paradigms of recent history are far from appropriate metaphors to describe how nature imprints her patterning essence onto all life – where abundance flourishes not through predatory domination but interdependence. Collaborative advantage trumps competitive advantage every time.

Stewarding the new economy

Responding to such impetus, progressive business leaders are already looking beyond their silos to unite. Coming together across sectors to shape this new regenerative economy is no easy task. Too many established woodland giants can cast a dominant shadow from the canopy, stifling the light needed to nurture new saplings. Similarly, the understory of a virgin forest is stunted by the incessant pruning of grazing wildlife. Such metaphors are informative of the need for careful curation and custodianship.

As a membership organisation of 30,000 global Fellows, with diverse perspectives and deep experience on these topics, the RSA is well-equipped to support such an ecological revolution. Our role, with its 260+-year history of bringing together the best and brightest minds the arts, manufactures and commerce have to offer, will be to coppice such woodlands. 

Stewarding the space that lets the light in, so the nascent understory can thrive. 

To find out more, visit

Andy Thornton is Head of Regenerative Design at the RSA

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.

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