This blog post is a companion to an Interview with Cynthia Cherrey, the President and CEO of the International Leadership association and internationally acclaimed leadership scholar, speaker and practitioner. During the interview, Cynthia discusses the importance of international leadership along with recommendations for important qualities successful international leaders need to demonstrate.  

Alexander von Humboldt was a preeminent scientist and, arguably, the father of environmentalism, born in Germany and spent the majority of his life in Europe and the Americas. His travels, exploration, and ecological discoveries were in the Americas.  He trekked the rain forest in Venezuela, climbed the Andes from Columbia to Lima, Perú, and traveled through Mexico up through western North America and points east. He wrote a prodigious number of volumes describing his great journeys throughout the Americas — a chronicle that blended science with poetry.

As early as 1800, while his peers were classifying the world into smaller taxonomic units, he was searching for global patterns. The insight for which he is renowned — and which was nearly two centuries ahead of its time —was that the world is a single web-like interconnected system.

Today, we readily recognize that we are each part of a complex, web-like interconnected system of information and relationships. But for over 300 years Western scientists operated from a worldview based on the industrial era and a Newtonian (machine-like) way of thinking. Leadership under that paradigm is characterized by, associated with, and embedded in a command and control, fixed hierarchical structure, anchored by positional authority.  

In thinking of leadership through the paradigm of natural systems, the leading edge is characterized through the exchange of information, evolution, learning, and adaptive fit. Nature readily illustrates that a living system actively cultivates others — an isolated system is destined to die. Nature seeks diversity. New relationships open up new possibilities. It is not a question of survival of the fittest. It is system diversity that increases survival of all system components. In fact, diversity moves a living system from surviving to thriving. Natural systems need many “agents of leadership” throughout the system because the system is constantly adapting and changing to meet the needs of its members. Instead of one positional leader there are many leaders dispersed throughout the system.

The field of leadership benefits from the insights and methods of study from many different disciplines and perspectives. This new paradigm is used as a framework to study, teach, and practice leadership by many leadership scholars, educators, and practitioners.
Within the ILA, scholars are studying leadership from the perspective of natural eco-systems because they reflect leadership models that could help human systems thrive. Practitioners are delving into how leadership practices could benefit from what nature can tell us about the power of diverse relationships.  Educators teaching leadership are using natural eco-systems to explore the concepts of adaptation, self-organizing, and evolution as an expression of organic change and leadership.

Humboldt’s view of nature as a single web-like interconnected system — an ecosystem — led him to cross disciplines to gain deeper insights. Arguably a great synthesizer across many disciplines, he explored nature through scientific methods, but also through art, history, literature, geography, and economics. He was multidisciplinary and believed in fostering communication across disciplines.

The field of leadership is also an ecosystem, if you will. It is interconnected systems of people, places, and things that work in concert to produce this epiphenomenon we call leadership. The ILA’s network reflects the models Humboldt researched, its members reflect a diverse population and its activities create the synthesis he referenced and provided through his work. The ILA encompasses people located in widely varied disciplines, sectors, cultures, countries, and viewpoints. It is the diversity of this ecosystem that allows it to thrive as we find our intersections with one another and together explore leadership as an ecosystem.

The preeminent leadership scholar and educator James MacGregor Burns, one of ILA’s founding members, frequently referred to himself as a mere “student of leadership.” As the consummate inquisitive learner, his example challenges us as leaders to ask: How do we, in our ongoing leadership journey, become perpetual learners with an intellectual curiosity that gives us greater insights, new knowledge, and effective leadership? While we may not, individually, be synthesizers like Humboldt, as long as we are engaged in learning from each other in our own diverse networks, we can meet Jim’s challenge and our collective work will continue to thrive.


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