The rewilding of leadership

Dr Chris Dalton

At the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show in London this year, one garden caught the eye of the judges, the imagination of the public and the headlines in the press like no other. The Rewilding Garden, co-engineered by landscape designers Urquhart and Hunt and (we’re told) some beavers, won Gold Medal and Best Show Garden awards. The garden represented the effects and benefits of rewilding as an approach, in this case on the likeness of a landscape from the southwest of England.

Rewilding means returning a habitat to its natural state. It is a contemporary reaction to the unintended consequences of a human obsession with looking after nature. We have looked after nature so much that our technological feats now trample it. In ecological terms, things are getting serious.

Hence the interest in changing our relationship with our environment and the idea of rewilding. The most notable aspect of rewilding is zero or minimal interference from us. And here is the tricky part; we are not used to that. If there is one thing that has defined modern civilisation, it is the ideal of control. Traditionally, control has meant creating order from chaos. Botanic gardens began as collections by vested interests looking to chart new worlds. As early maps of nature, they were places of study and understanding. Gardens then became shows of landowners’ ideals of order, design and social aspiration status, symbols of wealth and power. Contemporary gardens come in all shapes and styles; we tend to think of them as part of nature, but they too are maps, not the real thing. Gardening stands as a metaphor for the human management of nature. It is a metaphor of limit. Rewilding attempts to find the complete and self-sustaining biodiversity of nature once again. And it is also a strategy of belief in optimism, which has been in short supply amidst the accelerating loss of habitats and species.

All that got me thinking. Is gardening analogous to the cultivation of leadership as a concept? Could rewilding leadership be the analogue of rewilding in ecology?

Even in ecology, rewilding is a political and social movement that raises difficult questions. In leadership, rewilding would be no less controversial and difficult to implement because it critiques how we define leadership now. For a start, it will feel counter-intuitive to let things be what they are, to leave the organisation alone, and yet still make decisions. Can a leader interfere without interference? I’m sure someone will come up with new ways of defining what leaders are and how they should behave this way. But it may be condemned to generate change only superficially. More profound and more difficult would be to debate what kind of thing an organisation is. With nature as our metaphor, is leadership about encouraging wilderness (pristine territories for markets) or wildness (complete autonomy of all the actors to behave as they see fit)?

If rewilding is a successful strategy for allowing reconnection of relationships in a natural and self-sustaining whole, and if this produces reciprocal and virtuous feedback loops for the health of those parts, then I think it is worth going there. If rewilding can only be another hijackable good intention, just a new placeholder for the old consumption and growth paradigm that has been leadership’s default purpose for decades, then let’s say it now.

Can you as a leader trust yourself and your organisation enough to keep your hands off it?

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