Posted on April 25, 2019

Growing Your Organization With Ecological Leadership

You know the old saying: if your organization isn’t growing, it’s dying. In fact, research shows that one in three businesses in the US will cease to exist in the next five years and that organizational longevity should be much higher on the agenda than it currently is. However, as a systemic leader, you understand the importance of longevity and that it takes a persistent push towards growth and progress to ensure. One of the best ways to promote organizational growth is through ecological leadership.

What is Ecological Leadership?

To find out more about ecological leadership and how systemic leaders can implement it into their organizations, I asked Peter Robertson to speak with me at the Systemic Leadership Summit. Mr. Robertson is an executive lecturer at Nijenrode Business University in the Netherlands, a thought leader, an organizational ecologist, and a specialist in leadership issues and corporate transformation. He’s written extensively on the subject and is a visiting professor at several universities around the world.

He explained to me that “a healthy organization is about the very same as a healthy ecosystem. And in healthy ecosystems, there is a lot of coherence, strength, complexity, and interactions, and, at the same time, it’s all self-organizing, and there’s always a certain lovely kind of sloppiness, messiness, and unpredictability, and still the pattern remains consistent.”

He explains that ecological leaders are responsible for making sure that this ecosystem continues to function and produce results by keeping it at equilibrium, making sure it keeps growing, and balancing the human elements with the natural elements. We can use analogies from nature to better understand this concept.

The S-Curve

One of the key points for Mr. Robertson is using the S-curve to figure out where our organization stands and shape our actions accordingly. “The S curve is a very simple way of thinking; you can think of it as winter,spring, summer, autumn or fall, and then back to the winter again. It runs like like an S. It starts slowly, and then it grows faster, and then it’s at the growth diminution. It stops, like everything in life that goes this way.”

Our organizations are constantly going through this cycle as well. At the beginning of the process, we are like a start-up: full of new ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out or structured. At this point on the curve, we need to add controls and structures so that we can bring those ideas to bear and flesh them out during the ‘summer.’ Then, during the ‘fall,’ our efforts come to full fruition and we maximize profits. However, we cannot indefinitely reap the rewards just as we cannot continually harvest fruits from a tree; we need to let it rest, go through the ‘winter period,’ and begin the cycle anew.

Mr. Robertson uses the lovely example of an apple tree to explain the importance of this last part of the process: “If you see an apple tree in the fall, it has loads of apples… We prize them, we sell them, but nobody looks to the tree itself. The tree’s self is ill. The tree needs a winter. Look to the leaves; they are worn out. The tree itself is a small ecosystem… You cannot have apples in September, and then again in October, and again in November, and again in December. It’s impossible.” Some organizations may want to continue to reap endless profits without scaling back, resting, or reflecting, but this is a recipe for disaster.

The Three C’s

When organizations neglect their natural rhythms and ecology, it can lead to what Mr. Robertson calls “the three C’s.” They go in sequential order, from “corrosion to corruption and then criminality.” This is how organizations die.

The key is catching it while it’s in the corrosion stage so that we can fix it. We can repair things when they break, just like in a car, before the entire system breaks down. He bids organizations to “go in the winters,stop this maximizing profit, turn down a little bit, maybe stretch existing stuff, but do it prudently, and think clearly about a new S-curve.”

Becoming an Ecological Leader

So how do we ensure that we take the time to go into winter? How do we balance our needs to innovate with our need to remain financially feasible? Well, that’s where becoming an ecological leader comes into play.

Ecological leadership is all about strategy diversity. Just like a natural ecosystem relies on a diverse collection of organisms to survive, including animals, plants, fungus, bacteria, and more, a human organization needs a diverse group of people to address different needs. This isn’t necessarily social, gender, or cultural diversity, but rather a diversity of strengths and weaknesses. You want to bring in people who are great innovators to help in the springtime as well as people who are more reflective for the winter. Essentially, you want some people for each portion of the S-curve.


Ultimately, it’s your job to make sure that your organizational ecosystem remains healthy and balanced while also making sure that it grows. Natural ecosystems evolve so slowly that their changes are often imperceptible, whereas human systems grow much faster. This is the paradox that you must navigate as an ecological leader.

As Mr. Robertson puts it, “an ecological leader is a leader who accepts that we human beings are putting a strain, maybe even destroying the ecosystems a little bit, but who is aware that, if we stay, we have the ecosystems to ourselves… We have to play that game prudently…that’s what I mean about ecological leadership; it’s managing this paradox.”


Do you use ecological leadership concepts in your own leadership? I’d love to hear more about it in the comments below. Of course, many of these issues are complex, deeply-rooted issues that aren’t easy to understand because they are addressing wicked challanges. If you’re ready to learn more about systemic leadership and how you can grow your organization to meet tomorrow’s challenges, contact me at


The Systemic Leadership Summit 2019

Peter Robertson at Nijenrode Business University article featuring Peter Robertson and Jennifer Campbell (a.o.) – Systemic Leadership: How To Leverage The Power Of A Strategic Approach To Diversity