Regenerative Agriculture Principles Parallel Leadership Lessons for Engaging Complex Problems
I don't write much here these days because I'm immersed in my Leadership Coaching and Consulting business. If that sounds light years away from raising crops and hogs, it's not. I've discovered several parallels between practicing truly regenerative agriculture and helping sustainability leaders engage our most complex problems.
Here's the short list:
1. Think in Systems:
Weeds -both literal and metaphorical- tell you something. They’re a product of your environment, but also a product of how you interact with it. Killing them isn’t likely to change the conditions that brought them there in the first place. If you keep fighting the same problem year after year, it’s not your tools, techniques, or technology that need to change–it’s your understanding of the entire system.
Two quick rules for systems thinking:
A. The system isn’t broken. It’s doing what it’s designed to do. Systems give results. Want to know what the system does -look at the results -all of them.
B. There are no side-effects. The notion of a side effect is a flaw in your thinking -a failure to see the system for all that it does. There are only effects. Accept that. We are all part of the system and have to take responsibility for the results.
2. Let go.
We live in a culture that drives problem solving by adding one more process, policy, tool, technique, or technology. That’s probably not what’s holding us back from getting better. Sometimes, we have to let go of our own thinking (dysfunctional beliefs) to see the problem anew. Letting go is natures’ regenerative process. Some plants need to die and break down to become nutrients for the next crop. What can you take away or let go of that will help you see the world differently and get to the next level?
3. Immerse yourself in the environment:
All the reports, real-time metrics, and information you get on a screen (in your office or even the tractor cab) are just that -information. It’s not the big picture, but can easily delude you into thinking you understand the big picture. Get out in the field and experience the environment first hand. Boots on the ground. Get your hands dirty. Literally.
4. Observe without Judgement:
This is the difference between looking for something and looking at it with fresh eyes. Our minds filter information so we don’t suffer from overload, but those filters can create unintentional biases. Looking at something opens your mind up to discovering relationships in a system.
5. Build the soil/culture to promote flourishing:
Incentives and deterrents -like fertilizers and pesticides- are short-term tools that require regular application to work. Build the right culture and living things will flourish without constant inputs or deterrents. If your system still needs inputs -including regular cash injections -it’s not regenerative.
6. Practice Radical Collaboration:
You have to implement rules 1-4 to get here. Some of the greatest diversity in nature comes from “the edge effect” -the symbiotic relationships among species at the boundary of two micro-biomes. Stop fighting everything that doesn’t fit your version of “right” -it takes tremendous energy and creates resistance (whether it’s RoundUp resistance or an organization whose cause is to fight your cause).
When you're facing intractable problems where the usual leadership and problem solving aren't making enough headway, it's time to implement these principles. They help me see my farm and challenges differently.
How do I know they work in complex social problems? They apply almost perfectly to my own counterinsurgency experience in Iraq where we interacted with the local population, earned their trust, and then found ways to partner in order to go after Al Qaeda together.
We had to see the daily attacks and IEDs as symptoms of a larger problem (Systems Thinking).
We patrolled on foot around the clock and interviewed Iraqis on almost every patrol to learn what was going on in their village (Immersion).
We had to learn how the culture worked, how tribes functioned, and how what we thought of as corrupt or criminal were normalized and entrepreneurial in their shattered economy (Observe without Judgement, Let Go)
We had to learn how they would fight Al Qaeda and help them get better at their way and not force them into our way (Let Go)
I had to create a culture in my company where I trusted individual squad leaders to make independent life and death decisions and treated Iraqis with respect and dignity so we could do decentralized patrolling across the huge areas. (Build Culture)
We had to accept partnering with low level former insurgents who also hated Al Qaeda because neither of us had been successful on our own. This was the ultimate "frenemies" experience. (Radical Collaboration)
I look at so many issues today where people divide into two camps and decide they will each rally their base and fight for their cause until the other side sees the world their way. If the great American narrative is to fight for a cause, the second great American narrative is fighting back. Who wins?
It's time to look at our greatest challenges around climate, just economies, and equity from a regenerative leadership perspective.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
Odyssey Farm, LLC.
The Odyssey Farm Journal
Odyssey Farm, LLC
Dane County 2022 Climate Champion
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