Ecological Intelligence

Ecological Intelligence By Steve Ryman

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Ecological intelligence is a relatively new term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book by the same name. The ability to see systems and to make decisions with an awareness of systems consequences is key to ecological intelligence and to sustainable leadership. Systems’ thinking involves both horizontal skills and vertical qualities of sustainable leadership.

We live and work in an interconnected web of relationships. The old Newtonian models of physics that imagine organizations and systems to be machine-like and predictable have been replaced by models from biology and complexity theory that emphasize interconnectedness. That effect of a butterfly’s wings upon weather has become a classic illustration of complexity and interconnectedness. In our global economy this interconnectedness is seen throughout business and financial systems. The ability to see systems and to recognize interconnectedness is an essential skill even in the smallest and simplest organizations. Noted business consultant and thinker Richard David Hames has said that “leaders need an understanding of business ecosystems but we tend not to be eco-literate.”

Models of healthy ecosystems or of a healthy body provide more useful ways of looking at modern systems. In these natural systems, changes occur continually through adaptation and evolution. Healthy systems constantly adapt to changing conditions without anyone in charge of the process and without reliance upon elaborate plans and time lines. Effective change happens when there are clear communication and feedback systems and a clear purpose and when there is encouragement for innovation and self-correction.

The role of a leader changes when systems are seen as self-organizing, living ecosystems rather than machines that need prediction and control. Leaders in sustainable organizations need the horizontal skills and the vertical attributes of ecological intelligence. Fortunately, these are skills and attributes that can be developed. Specifically, leader needs the horizontal skills of developing group intelligence and of strategic navigation. She or he also needs the vertical attributes of courage, mindfulness and a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

Hames says that global leadership is a “collective phenomenon” and Goleman says “… the ecological abilities we need in order to survive today must be a collective intelligence, one that we learn and master as a species, and that resides in a distributed fashion among far flung networks” (Ecological Intelligence p. 48). An ecologically intelligent leader needs a whole set of related skills for developing group intelligence. These skills include the ability to create a culture of learning, the ability to host conversations that allow group wisdom to emerge and not to be stifled by the opinions of someone in charge, and the ability to develop systems for harvesting the wisdom of the group and transforming it into tangible business systems. A couple of resources for developing skills in group intelligence include the “Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter” and the book, “The Tao of Democracy” by Tom Atlee.

A second set of skills for ecological intelligence concerns decision making. A Newtonian organization that relies upon systems of prediction and control has a need to eliminate all uncertainty and deviation. Natural systems, however, rely upon diversity and a more natural or organic process of adapting to changing conditions. For example, no one needs to tell a plant to reduce its surface area to conserve water during a drought. Similarly, an ecologically intelligent leader will facilitate the development of systems that encourage everyone’s voice and input into decision making that adapts naturally to changing conditions. These systems will encourage innovation and they need to be supported by metrics and feedback systems to recognize consequences and to correct the course as needed. One such approach to decision making, “dynamic steering”, is a key component of the business approach called “holacracy”. 

The vertical axis skills of group intelligence and strategic navigation must be balanced by horizontal leadership characteristics. An ecologically intelligent leader must have a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Peter Senge refers to this as being a “learner” rather than a “knower”. Hames calls strategic navigation that “acceptance of uncertainty rather than creating systems to try and create certainty”. Traditionally leaders have been expected to have the answers and this has often been how they were evaluated and rewarded. Today, leaders who have the answers can be a barrier to the development of a collective intelligence so new leaders need to be willing to live in the place of unknowing and to embrace ambiguity. For some leaders this will mean letting go of old and deeply held ways of being including a belief in black and white or right and wrong ways of looking at issues. Many of the practices of mindfulness and emotional intelligence will support a leader in learning to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

Another basic attribute of an ecologically intelligent leader is the ability to be still, to be present and to listen deeply for emergent group intelligence. This requires an ability to tolerate silence and to ask reflective questions such as “what is it that we have learned from this failed attempt”. This requires an ability to see beyond the immediate situation and to sense larger systems and the longer term implications. This also requires the courage to be present and to mindfully consider a situation rather than impulsively reacting with a desire to fix or control it. Such responses are grounded in a mood of curiosity and wonder rather than fear and control. Like the comfort with uncertainty, these abilities of an ecologically intelligent leader to have personal practices that nurture these ways of being.

In summary, one of the basic intelligences of a sustainable leader is ecological intelligence. Like the other intelligences of a sustainable leader, the horizontal leadership skills can be developed and will need to be supported by personal work on the vertical axis.