Review – Leading from the roots
Ah, nature! A term that instantly generates positive emotions, ideas of wholesomeness and a feeling of belonging. And yet it is a thoroughly undefined expression that can mean anything you want, if you add some context. Some of its inferred meanings include
- literally everything in existence
- everything not explicitly created by humans
- everything that exists outside of human settlements
- everything that exists outside of human settlements but restricted to our planet earth
- the biosphere (all living things)
- the biosphere, plus viruses
- the biosphere, excluding humans
- the biosphere, plus rivers and mountains
- only static components of a habitat (trees and rivers and mountains and stuff)
- plants only
The list goes on. The questions what is and what isn’t natural are actually quite interesting from a scientific and philosophical point of view. I spent five years in a lab to create bacteria that produce a protein containing a building block that is no other protein in the world has. All the components I used exist naturally, including the building block (it is just not used as a building block anywhere else). Does that make the resulting bacteria a part of nature? I say yes, but others may have different opinions
The true nature of nature
Nature is vast and diverse and thus lends itself to all kinds of metaphors. And Leading from the Roots falls right into this trap, listing one misunderstood or misappropriated analogy after the next.
Somewhere in India, trees are forming bridges by tangling their roots, which help humans and animals to get across wild waters. That is a good metaphor for utilizing natural abundance of free solutions to improve human lives.
Bed bugs practice something called “traumatic insemination”, where the male pierces the outer shell of the female to inject its sperm directly into the hemolymph stream. Luckily, the females have developed a special weak point on their belly for the male to target, which helps them survive the assault most of the time. That is a completely different metaphor.
Right at the beginning of Leading from the Roots, author Kathleen Allen speaks about the principle of abundance, which apparently reigns nature. It is true that nature runs on sunlight, which is a free and abundant source of energy. But down the line, nothing is free anymore. Plants produce nectar and fruits, but only because they need to recruit bees for sex and birds to eat and poop out their seeds, preferably far away. Vampire bats that have recently fed sometimes vomit up some blood for their hungry neighbors, presumably as part of a social contract that demands for the receivers to reciprocate later. Snails sometimes freely present themselves to be consumed by birds, but only because a parasite in their eyestalk needs a bird as new host and changes the snail’s brain chemistry to reach that goal. And whoever said the Lilies of the Field don’t have to work should be trialed for slander, as lilies work super hard to grow and survive and make themselves pretty so bees will like them. So, nature does run on sunlight, but scarcity is more common than abundance
Evolution is another one of those concepts that sound too easy to look up, but are in fact too complex to understand without guidance. To make the point that in nature form follows function, Allen presents three examples from nature: a tree grows over time, kangaroos have pouches so their young don’t get lost when they hop around, and a body of water changes its shape to fit the ground profile. If you are unsure in what ways these are wildly disparate concepts, stop here and continue reading only after you’ve read the wikipedia articles on evolution, ontogeny and liquid. A marble statue, an electric car and a pot of onion soup have a lot incommon (e.g. they are “made” by a “human creator” from “source materials”,…), but nobody would list them as similar concepts to make a point. At least not again.
According to Allen, the phases of an organization or company are mirrored by the phases of plant population in a new habitat: a non-sustainable, consumption based start-up phase (grasses) is followed by a transition phase with increasing sustainability (shrubs), and then culminating to the fully sustainable, “generous” organization that gives more than it takes (mature woodland). That’s just not how it works. How can the early colonization phase be focused on consumption when there is literally nothing to consume? Early species that settle in a new habitat are lichen, moss and grass, which can hardly be described as short-lived. Also, contrary to Allens statements, the transition phase of a natural habitat usually has a much higher natural diversity than the final phase. Just think of how a clearing in a woodland is home to more species than the main body, where dense tree population takes the sunlight away from smaller plants. In that way, a developed woodland could be a better metaphor for huge monopolist megacorporations that aggressively suppress smaller competitors. By the way, the term for this naturally occurring sequence of vegetation is Ecological Succession
Oh, and it is completely true that ant colonies and bee hives are spectacular examples of self-organizational forces of nature, that create complex and efficient societies. But when we exercise the metaphor we should not forget that worker ants and bees spend their lives as a sexless slave caste mindlessly toiling to serve the needs of a distant supreme ruler.
Whenever someone invokes nature in a business context, it is usually to manipulate emotions and soften up the audience for a big lie. Something that specifically ticks me off is the recurring notion that nature is beautiful, serene and good. The truth is that nature is wildly interesting, but if we look at it with humanizing eyes, we find the most pure and beautiful virtues next to the most appalling atrocities. Rhesus monkey refuse to hurt a companion for food until they are literally starving (link to publication). Bottlenose dolphins form gangs to isolate and coerce a female into mating, battering her when she tries to escape (link to publication). Those gangs might also try to drown newborn dolphin calfs to have a go at the mother later. And that is good, because nature works only because it doesn’t care about human sensitivities
What can we learn?
So if we leave all the faulty metaphors aside, what can we learn from Leading from the Roots? Companies should respect, engage and develop people, communities and the society as a hole, foster diversity and change, and be ready to adapt. Simple, almost commonsense advice that is pretty hard to actually follow when you have a huge burden of legacy policies and processes on your back. The buzzword du jour is “generous”, which basically means the same as “kind” or “regenerative”. Unfortunately, Allen mostly talks about abstract organizations without real-world examples, making Leading from the Roots more of a philosophical treatise than an advisory book.
Each chapter of the book is divided into three parts, first some interpreted observation from nature, then a call to action part and finally some questions to consider. Repeating content can be great for learning. But when the observation is that “nature thrives on diversity”, the call to action “we need to see how we thrive on diversity” and the question “how can we implement structures that enable ourselves to see how we thrive on diversity”, it becomes dull and patronizing.
I enjoyed the final Chapter of Leading from the Roots, though. It fully recaps every aspect and finally brings some examples of actual decisions and results from real organizations.
Does Leading from the Roots teach you how to make a generous organization? I don’t think it does. The essential statement is valid and important, as many companies fail to engage their people, employees and customers alike. Here should be a big demand for rules and methods to become more “generous”. But the necessary transformation process is presented too abstract, devoid of true guidance or instructions. And the questions in the end of each chapter simply add nothing to the thinking process, and do (in my opinion) not offer a good starting point. Yes, leading from the Roots seamlessly fits into the long line of books that tell you that you do something wrong, but not how to make it better. Consulting services are available from the author.
Remember: some ants grow and eat fungi, creating mutual benefit. Some fungi control ant’s brain chemistry to force the animal to attach to the underside of a leaf. There, the fungus will grow out of the ant’s skull, killing its host. After all, nature IS full of metaphors.
- Develop your people
- Serve your community
- Embrace change
- Have a purpose
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is a leadership and organizational consultant with her own company. She is also an active speaker and writer on the same topics.
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MORGAN JAMES PUB (4. September 2018)
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Business & Economics
September 4, 2018