How Holonomic Thinking Can Help Us Upgrade Our Leadership Skills for the New Economy

This article is written by David Harding-Brown and first appeared on Sustainable Brands.

Sustainable Brands

Photo: Gayle Murphy

On the way into this workshop, I overheard a remark that this was a novel session, and involved working with clay … this turned out to be absolutely true, but more on that later.

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson are the co-authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. The obvious question is, what exactly is ‘Holonomics’? Simon explained that he and Maria had struggled to find a suitable term for the point where ‘wholeness’ and ‘economics’ converge, and decided to create Holonomics, shorthand to describe the way in which we view the outside world, and especially the naturally occurring but complex systems in nature.

Holonomics is about shifting consciousness in how and what we see around us, and the range of human responses that this generates. Holonomics urges us to make the shift towards adopting a different view of the world, then understand the way nature organizes itself through what was described as the ‘Holonomics Operating System,’ comprising Sensing, Feeling, Thinking and Intuition.

To illustrate the point, Simon then asked the audience to identify what was (at first glance) a completely random abstract illustration on screen. Several suggestions were made before it was revealed to be a graphic representation of a giraffe — the point being that once you knew what it was, it became much easier to recognize. Holonomics embraces this pursuit of connecting what may seem to be a series of abstracts into a recognizable picture, and as a metaphor it neatly captures the strong preconceptions people often have about the world we live in — as Henri Bergson wrote: ‘The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.’ And for those that struggle to make the leap from rigid and fixed thought patterns, Holonomics accuses them of ‘needing a new giraffe,’ which is a phrase we’re surely set to hear a lot more of in sustainability discussions.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

And so, to clay — the next exercise required everyone to create an expression of nature, sustainability, and the key things that matter from a personal perspective and translate these thoughts into clay. To make the experience even more sensorial, the entire audience was blindfolded. Despite cries from some that they weren’t at all creative or artistic, the results produced in the 15 minutes allowed were interesting and varied, and generated some debate. Although this was a very simple exercise, the blindfolds, the tactile and cold nature of the clay, and the task of translating thought into form drew a wide range of ideas and shapes from the audience, ranging from an abstract expression of the feeling of walking barefoot through grass, to interlocking globes representing the balance and interdependence of nature’s ecosystems.

In summary, Holonomics is an interesting attempt to draw on the world’s natural infrastructure, and apply those learning to new business models. It’s only through trying to understand these complex systems and connecting the pieces that we can make the leap from an abstract into a complete picture.

The second half of the workshop opened with a stunning video of hundreds of starlings in flight, creating amazing patterns and flowing shapes – yet seemingly in perfect harmony with their position, direction and flight direction.

The video amply illustrated the key values of trust, harmony and flow that Simon and Maria proposed for discussion. When the audience was asked which of the companies they worked for currently demonstrated these values in their business philosophy, there were few takers. But how does a business change this?

Arguably, the usual response would be to concentrate on strong leadership, a heavily structured approach to employee heirachy and rigid ways of working. However, Simon and Maria outlined an alternative approach — that of the Kyocera, pioneered by its founder Dr Kazuo Inamori in Japan in 1959.

This fluid approach can be likened to an ‘amoeba’ management system – every person has a view on the day-to-day running of the business rather than adopting the rigid structures often seen in other mature economies. It’s claimed that the amoeba system is a simple way to inspire self-motivation and encourages movement towards greater leadership skills.

Specific benefits of the system include:

  • Low overhead
  • Greater self-management and coordination
  • Better psychological performance and rewards, rather than monetary
  • Flexibility
  • More precise and open daily operating procedures planning and doing

It’s all about not imposing your own point of view. By concentrating on 5 basic human values (Peace, Truth, Love, Right action and Non-violence), it allows the twin targets of Strategy and Sustainability to converge and cascade down through the organization from Senior Management level.

This integrated and collaborative approach has seen clear benefits in Brazil, for example, where a hospital’s management was restructured into a series of ‘mini management boards,’ each representative of the overall hospital structure and disciplines, with the collective insight and experience of each ‘mini board’ allowing deeper understanding and meaning to emerge once the thought process was unshackled. By setting challenges and also creating the solutions, it defied the stereotype of top-down management.

To close, Simon gave a neat parallel to the Kyocera approach by citing an example of leadership through Brazil’s football team – during the 1970 World Cup, when they beat Italy 4-1, it included a goal that involved 8 players in the build-up. When asked who was the leader, the response (of course) was, “the one with the ball.”

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