SAGE author Simon Western has written a guide to eco-leadership, a new leadership paradigm for organizations in the climate emergency. For Academic Book Week, we asked him to present a short guide to its principles.
What Is Eco-Leadership?
Eco-leadership is the latest leadership discourse dominating organizational practice. The term was coined by Dr. Simon Western in the first edition of Leadership: A Critical Text to describe a new leadership paradigm for organizations in the networked and inter-dependent global environment.
What Are Eco-Leaders?
Eco-leaders conceptualize organizations as ‘ecosystems within wider ecosystems.’ Their focus is on networks, connectivity and interdependence, breaking down silos and distributing leadership widely. They make strong connections with external eco-systems, e.g. with stakeholders, customers, regulators and wider society.
Commercial eco-leadership describes how companies can utilize new technology and platform economics to exploit the power of networks. Ethical eco-leadership aligns technological, people and environmental networks. These leaders see the connections between utilizing digital platforms, distributing leadership and placing environmental values at the heart of their leadership task. The task of eco-leadership today is to ‘adapt and belong,’ to co-create organizations that are adaptive to change, and also belong to the social and natural world.
The Four Discourses of Leadership
The four main leadership discourses that emerged in the past century in the West, as described in Leadership: A Critical Text, are summarized below:
- The Controller Leadership discourse: ‘Controlling resources to maximize efficiency’
- The Therapist Leadership discourse: ‘Happy workers are more productive workers’
- The Messiah Leadership discourse: ‘Vision and strong cultures’
- The Eco-Leadership discourse: ‘Connectivity, networks, and (ethics)’
Why Does Eco-Leadership Take a Meta-Leadership Position?
Eco-leadership transcends individual leadership approaches, taking a meta-leadership position that addresses the disruptions, opportunities and challenges of our networked age. It recognizes the diversity of leadership that is required in each specific context. Taking a meta-view ensures the right balance of different leadership approaches, that work in harmony to create a dynamic whole. Eco-leaders radically transform their organizations, distributing leadership to the edges making them more agile, responsive and able to self-manage.
How Does Eco-Leadership Work in Practice?
- An Eco-Leadership Case Study – Global High-Tech Company
Consulting to global leadership function
- Distribute leadership more widely
- Change from top-down culture
- Enable leaders to become more connected, less siloed
- Improve employee engagement
- Enhance adaptive culture
- Provide thought leadership
- Key-note to company leadership and key influencers
- Discuss the four discourses and how Eco-Leadership embraces rather than replaces other leadership approaches, providing a network of leadership and followership across the organisation.
Eco-Leadership Addresses a Paradigm Change, Rather Than Fixes a Problem
Eco-leadership means renegotiating purpose: re-imagining what is valued and what success means. This challenges the purpose of companies — from being closed systems that make profits to being open-systems where success is inevitably contingent on a healthy society and healthy environment.
Eco-leaders see organizations as interconnected living networks, with virtual and physical flows between humans, nature and technologies. The task of eco-leaders is to think spatially, to see patterns and connections, and create a network of leaders distributed throughout the organization. Eco-Leadership is to develop ‘webs of work’ and then connect these to the ‘webs of life’.
Four Reasons Why Eco-Leadership Emerged Now
- Digital Age – Technological changes mean we live in an increasingly networked society, which demands networked, eco-leadership approaches. Top-down and individualistic leadership models are passé. A paradigm shift requires a radical leadership rethink.
- Hyper-Globalization – In global markets supply chains, partners, customers and regulators are international, creating complex eco-systems and inter-dependencies. These demand holistic eco-leadership responses.
- Environmental challenges – Local pollution and global climate changes impact on business in many ways. Ethical and innovative eco-leadership approaches are urgently required to address these issues, not only from politicians but also from business leaders. Eco-leadership benefits their business and society as a whole.
- Business Success – Visionary leaders realize that running a successful business depends on these key factors:
- nurturing the internal organizational eco-system, to get the very best from employees and technologies
- leveraging success from the external eco-systems in which the organization operates
- re-imaging value and purpose to demonstrate inspirational leadership, which has secondary unexpected benefits, such as new innovations, attracting talent and the retention of committed employees.