Cultivating Earth-Shaped Leadership Ecological Imagination in Organizational Life

As humanity grapples ever more deeply with the realities of a climate-changed world, scientists, activists, and others have begun to realize that the core issues at stake are greater than a policy-and-technology analysis can capture. The answers to the challenges facing us are about more than technology or politics; they are about the values and systems that lie at the roots of the challenges we face.

If we understand climate chaos as the symptom of a deeper set of systemic cultural crises, then anything we do to transform the industrial-capitalist, mechanistic, imperialist systems that are the roots of this crisis is inherently climate work. Furthermore, if the climate crisis was precipitated, at least in part, by our alienation from the Earth, then turning back to the more-than-human community as teacher helps ensure that we are not simply replicating the same destructive systems that we are attempting to transform.

With this thesis in mind, The BTS Center began to ask the question: How would organizations act differently today if they embodied an ecological imagination?

In 2021, The BTS Center convened a Research Collaborative that engaged seven cross-sector organizations, drawn from Northern New England and the Quebec province of Canada, representing fields from agriculture to immigration to higher education; together they comprised a Co-Learning Community that collaboratively explored this question.

Very early in the design process, we decided that we would not try to define ecological imagination. Rather, we wanted to explore what happens when leaders enter into conversation with ecological imagination as the framing and then attempt to practice it in their settings.

We tried to embody ecological imagination in our learning process. We intentionally decided to open space for the dynamics of emergence and consciously chose not to plan too far ahead, allowing the community’s energy to shape the content; even as we also held to the constants of our group’s geographic proximity and to a consistent three-month rhythm of gatherings.

This process was nested within a rigorous qualitative research framework. Along with extensive documentation and field noting, we gathered a circle of researchers and practitioners, with terminal degrees and expertise in ecology, sociology, religious studies and theology in global contexts, to support this project, check the lead researcher’s perceptions, and offer their own insights.

We also invited the participants of the Co-Learning Community to be engaged in their own reflective process through surveys, focus groups, and regular questions throughout.

From this research, several patterns emerged that characterize what happens when leaders attempt to integrate ecological imagination into their organizations.

First, we learned that space is the most necessary precursor for transformation. Participants engaged the research process within the context of intense pressure and busyness at their workplaces. This relentless pace functioned to fortify cultural stasis within their organizations.

It is impossible to enact cultural change, such as moving to ecologically-imagined values, when there is not time for deep, open-ended conversations that do not bear a one-to-one relationship to leaders’ to-do lists.

As philosopher and essayist Bayo Akomolafe writes, “The time is very urgent — we must slow down.”

Even small practices of spaciousness yielded dramatic results. Five minutes for board members to share moments of gratitude, when framed as an act of resistance, resulted in meaningfully more thoughtful discussions afterwards. Ritual, which is a different way to inhabit time, became a way for a group to process an event when there wasn’t time for a long discussion. Pausing from programming led to leaps in strategic clarity for staff.

All of this led participants to ask, in the words of one leader, “Do we really need to have as much programming as we do? Or can we do things in a way that encourages broader collaboration, or more meaningful types of things?”

Secondly, we learned that organizations operate within the limits of the Spirit of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which has very specific ideas as to what it means to be a “good” leader or a “real” organization. These expectations center around endless productivity, success defined only in terms of dollars or growth, and structures that are both rigid and hierarchical. These expectations are enforced implicitly through social cues and norms; and explicitly through the expectations of funders, upon which many organizations depend abjectly for their continued existence.

It is impossible for most organizations simply to discard these expectations. Therefore, leaders began to imagine how they could be in more productive conversation with this Spirit in ways that did not compromise their integrity. They imagined a range of possible forward-looking approaches that included sharing their insights via a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion or Decolonizing lens, telling powerful stories, or finding detailed, even quantitative ways to describe their work’s impact in areas like relationship building.

Third, leaders developed a new theory of change. Typically, organizational leaders believe either in “Change your thinking, change your organization” or “Change your programs, change your organizations.” Participants came up with a new theory: “Change what you see, change your organization.”

We cannot change what we cannot see. However, when we see something that was invisible to us previously, change becomes possible. We expand our perception through the practice of imagination, by which we strengthen our ability to visualize and actualize possibilities that do not exist within our current reality. When this imaginative practice is shaped by the metaphor of ecological imagination, our imaginations naturally become more ecological.

These shifts in perception led to changes in how leaders looked at their organizations. Leaders began to see their organizations as ecologies, not machines. When leaders understood their organizations as ecologies, they noted how humanizing moments, such as celebrating birthdays, made a large difference in the health of the community, even if they were not valued by mechanistic metrics.

This shift expanded over time, as leaders also began to perceive their entire organizations as having a “collective soul” that needed tending to.

This means that leaders don’t manage a machine — they tend relationships. Ecological imagination is inherently relational. If machine thinking encourages leaders to look at their organization as a series of interlocking parts that need to run smoothly, then ecological imagination invites leaders to look at their organization as a web of relationships that need tending. This led leaders to dream of organizations that practiced a higher degree of reciprocity between each of its members and to ask themselves, “What type of hierarchy do we need to support the health of the whole?”

Next, ecological imagination invites leaders to measure success differently. Traditionally, metrics are seen as a particularly visible, quantifiable form of organizational self-perception. If we can’t see it, then we assume it doesn’t exist. Likewise, if we can’t measure it, then we assume it doesn’t matter.

Leaders noted how mechanistic metrics missed something important about what they did and imagined new ways of measuring their work: ones that often involved paying attention to bodily responses, looking at relationships, and tracking dynamics over the long term. They also wondered if there were funders who might be interested in reframing what they measured as well.

Finally, leaders understood that all organizations come from somewhere: a somewhere that is both about history and about place. All organizations have ancestors: a lineage that becomes both a source of caution, often through DEI or decolonizing work, and also a rich site to enter more deeply into ecological imagination. All organizations are also rooted in very particular communities and geographies, which creates identities that are both more fixed in identity and more fluid in their response to their environment. This means that leaders must engage in messy work with deep intention, rather than just striving for sterile excellence; which in turn requires that they must become comfortable with uncertainty, failure, and experimentation.

From beginning to end, leaders asked: Can an organization really “change the world?” In the end, the answer was no. Ecological imagination made leaders aware of the limits of their own moral agency: that their work was frequently a series of trade-offs that made it very hard always to do the “right thing.”

This is especially true for large institutions, in part because large institutions generally grow in co-dependence with the cultural conditions that made them large in the first place. This means that they are both less likely to see cultural transformation as necessary and more institutionally invested in keeping the status quo.

Answering “no” to this question brought grief and anxiety. However, leaders also articulated genuine relief and hope. The journey, in the words of one participant, was “going into despair and coming out through connection and action.” Naming these limits allowed participants to set down a burden that was never theirs to carry and provided them with new opportunities to find productive ways to engage the world as-it-is.

If larger institutions can be particularly ineffective in cultivating cultural transformation, then smaller organizations have a much higher degree of agency to affect meaningful cultural change, both for themselves and for their broader community. Within the Co-Learning Community, smaller organizations had an easier time making nimble cultural pivots, especially if decision makers were present.

This does not necessarily mean that large institutions are terminally locked in cultural stasis. Participants did identify one way that these types of institutions were able to culturally change: through collapse. While this may not sound like good news to leaders of large organizations, it is in leading organizations through a period of collapse within an intentional, ecological framework, that they can become something new.

After all, as several participants noticed, death and rebirth, rather than immortality, is the cycle present in nature. We should not be surprised when it is the natural cycle of institutions as well.

Reflections such as this demonstrate how participants have transformed the dominant metaphor behind the question “What does it mean to make a difference?” from one of power to one of ecology.

From this, we can begin to build a picture of ecologically-imagined leadership, asking “What are the perceptions, postures, and practices of leadership that embodies an ecological imagination?” These leaders see health before growth; they focus on the relationships between the different parts of their organizations; and they understand their work as connected to a larger story. They approach their work with grounded hope, approach people and possibilities with curiosity and adaptability, and engage it all as a unified person. They practice spaciousness and intentionally shift speeds when it comes to the pace of their organization’s work.

How would organizations act differently if they embodied an ecological imagination? We ended the Research Collaborative not with definitions, but with signposts that could lead toward new ways of being. Our research left us not only with new findings, but with new questions as well — ones that we hope will help lead into forms of leadership that can powerfully respond to our climate-changed world.

Photo credits, in order of appearance:

  1. Cover, left to right: Ashwood Waldorf School, Boston Food Forest Coalition, St. Joseph's College
  2. Ashwood Waldorf School
  3. Ramsha Asad via Unsplash
  4. Hour Exchange Portland
  5. Travis Leery via Unsplash
  6. Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition
  7. Ran Ding via Unsplash
  8. Allen Ewing-Merrill
  9. Waterville Creates
  10. Mark Olsen via Unsplash
  11. Montreal City Mission
  12. Ryo Chiba via Unsplash
  13. Montreal City Mission
  14. The BTS Center
  15. Spencer Imbrock via Unsplash
  16. Boston Food Forest Coalition
  17. Olena Shmahalo via Unsplash
  18. Kristian Seedorff via Unsplash
  19. Ashwood Waldorf School
  20. The BTS Center
  21. St. Joseph's College
  22. Waterville Creates
  23. Craig Thomas via Unsplash