Denial is being challenged

In her wonderful paper, the renowned systems-thinker Donella Meadows (1999) explains how, on a housing estate in the US, where houses were more or less identical, the electricity consumption was 30% lower in a particular block, compared to the surrounding blocks. Whilst insulation, number of appliances, cost of electricity, etc., were all the same, the only difference was the positioning of the meter: in the entrance hall for those houses that used less electricity, but in the basement in the other houses. Passing in front of it and therefore having constant access to its information is what made the difference. Any unusually high activity could be noticed quickly, its root cause found, and corrective action taken. In that way, the positioning of the meter brings “information to places where it wasn’t going before, therefore causing people to behave differently”.

Today, humanity too has access to information that it never had before. Beyond the traditional media, we have new broadcasters of raw and unfiltered information: the IPCC for Climate Change, but also Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the Panama leaks, etc. Moreover, we now bathe in a platform that spreads and connects all this information in an instant: the Web.

In that context, we are flooded with evidence of the consequences of our actions, and of the interconnections between what we do here and the impact it has there—and in turn, back here.

This flood of information could exacerbate our individual and societal denial and disowning, or, as the electric meter does for those households, it could give us the impetus for transformative action.


From denial-based business to a regenerative economy

This transformative action would require us, to quote Lawrence again, to move into the depressive position, where we “shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends”. Whilst Lawrence refers here to an intra-psychic dynamic, we could extend his argument to the organisational and social levels: shifting our primary concern from the survival of our business to a concern for the objects upon which our business, and indeed ourselves, depend: the natural ecosystems, and the socio-systems they harbour.

It entails shedding the blind-spots that keep us in the “false world”, and mentally and wholeheartedly inhabiting the “true world”, where outcomes (and no longer just outputs) become our orienting principles, where the direct and indirect impacts of our activities are no longer relegated as externalities, but come back to the centre of our strategic decision-making.

This is what the regenerative economy is about: taking up roles in organisations that can generate personal prosperity, system prosperity, and, last but not least, ecosystem prosperity—all at the same time, without one being ignored at the expense of the other two. Figure 2 outlines what it would look like.

leadership trough purpose

Returning to the diagram that we presented earlier on in this article (Figure 1), this means entering the space of “leadership through purpose”: that is, a space in which I mobilise the System I work in to produce an impact in the world that is congruent with the world in which I want to live (and want my grandchildren to be able to live in).

For many, this may take the form, as it did for Michael, of quitting “the old” to foster “the new”, for instance, leaving a twentieth century organisation in order to set up a smaller company, organised from the outset around a clear purpose of having a positive impact in the world. We can’t know yet just how much this trend will spread, but given the level of unpredictability that is characteristic of our current era, we could imagine a future where big dinosaur companies crumble down and disappear, whilst alongside them, new, purpose-led organisations sprout and grow to replace this outdated business ecosystem.

However, for many this may not be an option, and the question can only be framed around: “how can I lead through purpose within my existing organisation?”.

In many organisations, this is possible through bringing more data from the field and engaging the key decision-makers around those data. However, in order to get them there, guilt and shame (that one will most likely feel in realising the part one has played) will need to be contained, so that it does not flood people and induce regression.

Our experience in working with businesses is that this requires a different approach to the one used in group relations conferences or in psychotherapy: for instance, since directly naming those feelings would likely drive more defence mechanisms around them, it would be more productive to enter the transitional space of play by setting up an offsite meeting exploring together possible futures.

Once the “sensing” (see Scharmer, 2013) of the Context and the System is achieved collectively, you can move to pointing together the limits of the current model, stressing what cannot continue into the future if we want to maintain the financial health of the company and, at the same time, contribute to a world that meets our needs, expectations, and requirements and those of the generations to come.

The time will then be ripe to engage the group in imagining desirable futures, accessing their playfulness, imagination, and creativity to solve the basic equation of the regenerative economy: what would it look like for our company to manage to boost its own prosperity, that of its employees, and at the same time contribute to the prosperity of our ecosystems? What would we stop doing, what would we start doing, and what would we do differently?

Fundamentally, rather than just pointing to what has been wrong in the past (which will only exacerbate guilt and shame, and its associated defence mechanisms), one has to bring those decision-makers to create stories of possible and desirable futures that will stimulate their desire to engage in the necessary transformation. This is the philosophical underpinning of the blockbuster documentary Demain in 201510: don’t engage people through guilt, shame, and fear about the state of the Earth, but rather with optimism, hope, imagination, and creativity.

Actions, therefore, will not be driven by a concern for reparation, that is, mending the broken for which we feel so guilty and ashamed. Rather, they will unfold in a spirit of regeneration, for instance, enabling life to push through and develop the conditions for more life11.

In some organisations, a different approach is possible, mainly because they have reached a new level of maturity, becoming what Frédéric Laloux (2014), in his groundbreaking book Reinventing Organizations, calls Teal organisations. According to Laloux, Teal organisations enact an emerging paradigm for the twenty-first century, and they thrive in terms of business, because of three pillars around which they function: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

In this particular conceptual framework, wholeness means the capacity (and the freedom) to bring the whole of yourself to work—something Michael could not do in his pharmaceuticals company. This in turn links with the concept of evolutionary purpose, that is, the impact an organisation is here to generate in its ecosystem. According to Laloux, companies thrive when people, who can be fully themselves at work, self-manage, to sense and respond to the opportunities and threats in their context according to the evolutionary purpose of the organisation that they are employed to enact. In doing so, Laloux notes, people naturally develop an awareness of the impact of their activities on the world around them, and a motivation to reduce negative impact and foster positive impact.

These new models of organisations, along with the whole movement of “liberating leadership” (Carney & Getz, 2009), are gaining a lot of traction in the business world. One way to engage your organisation in transformation could therefore be to start a process of transforming into a Teal/liberated organisation.



Owning our part can be daunting, as it requires facing the guilt and shame of having contributed to co-creating a world that is not so healthy to live in. For those of us who are used to holding a space for those feelings to be named, and worked through, a new approach may be required, if we want to help people past the fear of entering such a space.

In this new approach, imagination, and creativity, together with a commitment to working with the data from the field, can help first create a safe container called “desirable future”, that then serves to help us access our competent selves and navigate this transitional space. Only then, and at their own pace, will these feelings find a voice to be spoken, and our owning them will fuel the drive for regeneration.