“Leaders Of The New Era Are Being Asked To Hold Space In A Completely Different Way.”
Laura Storm is part of a new generation of sustainability professionals calling for a change in how we approach our planet, our work and ourselves.
Author and entrepreneur Laura Storm is part of a new generation of sustainability professionals advocating for a regenerative approach to business and leadership.
Whereas sustainability comes from the Latin ‘sustinere’, meaning to maintain, regeneration means to repair or renew. Drawing from deep ecology, adult developmental psychology and shamanic and indigenous perspectives, those in the regenerative movement advocate working with nature; using ecosystems as a teacher and a guide rather than imposing man-made techno-fixes.
Having spent years working with business leaders like Richard Branson in the field of climate change policy and sustainable development, Laura recognised the need for a different approach when she suffered a minor brain injury which overnight turned daily activities into excruciating tasks. Unable to join her colleagues at the Paris COP21 she sought solace outside, reconnecting with the love of nature that had inspired her to pursue a career in sustainability in the first place. In her TEDx talk from 2017 she explains how over a period of months she started to ‘detox' from constantly striving for the next big goal. “I realised that my body was not a machine that I could order around," she says.
For two years I could do nothing but surrender into uncertainty, not knowing if I would ever fully heal and be able to get back to my mission in life.
As she regained her ability to read, she began diving into theories around nature connection and regeneration. The regenerative movement recognises that the ability to create sustainable, regenerative societies starts with how well we use or abuse our own internal resources. “I realised that in my field most people have no clue how nature actually works,” she says. “It dawned on me that what we need is not just a sustainability transition, but a transition of all fields and a more holistic, regenerative approach to the transformation of our societies.”
In 2019 Laura and co-author Giles Hutchinson published Regenerative Leadership as a manual for business leaders looking to create more ‘life-affirming’ organisations fit for the 21st century. Rather than focusing on material progress and technological innovations, they say, regenerative leaders must transform the DNA of their organisations and institutions. On an operational level, this means abandoning the idea of the organisation as a machine that can be measured and controlled, instead recognising that it is part of an interconnected web of relationships, materials and resources.
Emerge editor Tarn spoke to Laura from the CO Project Permaculture farm in Portugal, where Laura currently lives with her family.
Tarn: Can you share one of your earliest taste or smell memories?
Laura: I grew up in the city of Copenhagen, Denmark but all the smells I remember vividly from my childhood are from nature - Pine forests, bonfires. My earliest taste memory is of grass. I have an 11 month year old son and he’s currently putting everything into his mouth. Babies have this instinct to sense into their environment and create an inner library of their own habitat, that’s why you can intuitively know how something would feel on your tongue even though you haven’t tasted it since you were a baby. It’s part of our evolutionary journey to put everything in our mouths, to taste it, to know danger from nourishment.
I realised that in the field of sustainability most people have no clue how nature actually works.
Tarn: When did things start to shift for you, and how did the idea of regenerative leadership come into being?
Laura: In 2015 I had a major accident which meant I suffered a minor traumatic brain injury. For two years I could do nothing but surrender into uncertainty, not knowing if I would ever fully heal and be able to get back to my mission in life. I was a very driven ‘Type A’ person back then and I didn’t sit with it easily, to say the least. I had to learn to really cherish silence, stillness and solitude. That’s when I began spending more time in nature, and realised how I was at my best when I was outside. This started a series of epiphanies, and a journey to explore nature’s intelligence and learning about natural systems. I realised that in the field of sustainability most people have no clue how nature actually works. There is no curiosity to sense into the natural world around us and to actually think about ourselves as a species, and nature as our natural habitat. As soon as I was able to read and write again I went on a long, self designed education journey. It dawned on me that what we need is not just a sustainability transition, but a transition of all fields and a more holistic, regenerative approach to the transformation of our societies.
Nature has been around for 3.8 billion years, and we can learn from the intelligence of nature to redesign thriving cultures and societies. Through studying things like biomimicry, circular economy, deep ecology, shamanism and indigenous wisdoms I learnt about different ways of viewing nature, working with natural cycles and working with plants. In this process I also started to explore adult development psychology and began realising how our own shadows and our own blind spots are one of the major elements standing in our own way when it comes to transitioning to a thriving more regenerative world. We have so many blind spots that are constantly getting in the way of the ability to collaborate and lead properly. On this journey I began to put together pieces of a greater puzzle, so I could put together a new approach to redesigning organisations and leadership.
On this journey I met Giles Hutchins, a friend and the co-author of Regenerative Leadership. He is a former KPMG consultant who had his own breakdown almost 10 years ago and started a similar, parallel journey to mine. We met at a critical point in time and started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The book covers a very broad field from seasonal and menstrual cycles to circular economy, biomimicry and developmental psychology. One aspect we write about is regenerative leadership styles - for example how regenerative leaders can host and design meetings differently. This is part of what we call the ‘Regenerative Business DNA’.
Tarn: Thank you, that’s such a rich story and there’s a lot to process there. Last summer I did a Vision Quest in England and spent a lot of time observing nature and creatures like ants and sheep, thinking about what lessons I could take from them. I’m interested in what you were saying about being forced to slow down and actually get in touch with nature and natural cycles in this sensuous, direct way, even after so many years of already working in the field of sustainability.
Laura: It’s a very personal, exploratory journey that more and more people are going on. It’s like there’s a collective longing and sadness about this separation from nature. Depression and anxiety levels have never been higher than they are today, and many people are intuitively fleeing to nature to heal from burnout, stress and depression. If we were to step back and look at our species from afar in this moment I think it would be possible to detect a slow but sure transition into reclaiming our connection to nature. That’s why things like forest therapy and vision quests have really gained traction in the past five years. More and more people in the field of sustainability are recognizing that we need to learn from natural ecosystems, that we need to understand how ecosystems work to be able to redesign cities, organisations and societies in a more sustainable way. I see a growing deeper respect and humble attitude towards our planet’s ecosystems.
Collectively, we are not comfortable with stillness, solitude and silence because that depth requires inner work from us.
Tarn: In your TED talk you talk about the cycles of life and so I thought it was very poetic that you were very pregnant at the time. One of the things you talk about in the book is the importance of organisations to recognise that the planet is cyclical, but also the human body and life generally is cyclical. I wondered, in light of what you were just saying, how do you see the world adjusting to this reality and also reintegrating the feminine, which is something else you talk about in the book?
Laura: I think we are seeing a growing interest and awareness around natural cycles. I see women learning more about their menstrual cycles and how they feel going through the different seasons of their cycles, for example, which is one of nature’s many cycles. When I teach, I talk to both men and women about the need for the energy of all four seasons in our daily lives. It’s not enough to only pay attention to the changing seasonal cycles when we look out of the office window. We need to cultivate a curiosity and interest in our own inner emotional rhythms, making sure we allow our inner ecosystems the benefit of surrendering to all seasons. What does this mean? It means cultivating and being curious about the energy of winter. We are so programmed to rush through winter, to be constantly moving and producing and not respect our need for a restorative night's sleep. Collectively, we are not comfortable with stillness, solitude and silence because that depth requires inner work from us. Winter is a restorative and regenerative time for nature.
When it comes to organisations, the only way an organisation is able to go through the intensity of spring and summer - where new innovations are conceived and new projects are being launched - is through allowing for those restorative phases. We need to make room for the energy of autumn, the energy of winter, instead of going full on through spring and summer cycles. That is what is making us depressed and burnt out, it’s simply physically not possible.
Tarn: We were talking about menstrual cycles and this connection between cyclical approach to life and the reintegration of the feminine. By this I guess you are talking about something beyond the limitations of biological sex. What do you mean when you talk about masculine and feminine?
Laura: One aspect of the book is talking about how the European witch hunts of the Middle Ages have created a collective wound. In the Christian worldview it was the role of humans to be the dominators and controllers of nature because if it wasn’t tamed or controlled, it would take over. People who had knowledge about nature’s wisdoms, about plants, cycles and seasons were seen as suspicious. Women in particular were the keepers of this knowledge. This has resulted in a chasm in our collective psyche. Corporate culture today is incredibly masculine. Both the feminine and the masculine are incredibly rich in wisdom and we have both of them inside all of us, but they also have toxic elements and if you don’t have a balance between the two energies then both can take over in a very destructive way. For decades the controlling, rational, analytical, masculine energy has dominated our societies.
Tarn: What kind of responses do you get when you speak about this in a business context?
Both women and men have suppressed their deeper feminine essence because the masculine has been favoured by society for so long.
Laura: When I speak to women about this there is often a lot of resonance and relief, and also sadness. If I talk about this in a business context I can often feel a defensive energy in the room if I don’t have time to unpack it, but when we start talking about masculine and feminine qualities everyone - regardless of their gender identity - can start to explore their own feminine qualities that they are longing to integrate. Both women and men have suppressed their deeper feminine essence because the masculine has been favoured by society for so long. In the workplace, feminine qualities are things like thinking in whole systems whereas the masculine is more the rational-analytical abilities of reducing into elements and components. The ability to think in whole interconnected systems is something that is deeply missing from the business world.
It’s not about women vs men, it’s about healing and forging a new path forward where we can reclaim the elements that we have lost on our collective journey so far - including a deep connection to nature, intuition and the feminine.
Tarn: I was interested in this concept you mention in the book called ‘core shamanism’ to describe the commonalities between indigenous practises. Something you were touching on there when talking about the witch hunts was the indigenous wisdom of Europe, and how this knowledge was repressed in this period. I’m interested in this idea of reclaiming all land as sacred land, even in Europe where this hasn’t been a common way of thinking about our environment for hundreds of years. Not least because so-called ‘spiritual tourism’ can have such a dark shadow.
Laura: We sometimes have this idea that indigenous wisdom is stored within the Amazon, but we all have ancestors and a history. You and I had ancestors who lived in the UK and Denmark respectively who would have cultivated the land, had a connection to the land and worshipped sacred gods that were connected to the land. All of our ancestors once worshipped nature and the earth, seeing it as a ‘great Goddess’ or feminine force, although they may have called their Gods different names and had different ways of celebrating seasons and holding ceremonies. God was in everything, and through this spirit world everything was interconnected to everything else.
Tarn: Yes so when we talk about interconnectedness and thinking in terms of ecosystems, we’re also talking about a re-spiritualisation of our natural environment. I think when we say these things have been lost we’re neglecting the fact that it’s inherent to us, we need to look inside ourselves for it.
Laura: Yes it’s about learning new ways of interacting with everything around you and nurturing different qualities. When we’re working with leaders we ask them to sense into the organisation as a living system, learning to trust emotional intelligence, somatic intelligence, intuitive intelligence. Trusting that gut feeling and sensing into the organisation as a living, breathing system that is constantly changing. Your role as leader is to be ‘chief ecosystem facilitator’ who has the emotional skills to sense and detect friction, or where there is unleashed potential. Setting the organisation free so that the energy isn’t trapped in rigid hierarchies and organisational structures that lock in potential and suppress creativity and innovation. The role of the leader is to ensure vitality in the system, not to be the chief controller of everything. If you’re born and raised in a culture where the perception of a great leader is one who has all the answers, then that prohibits the ability to be vulnerable and creates blocks in the system.
I think one of the things that the leaders of the new era are being asked to do is sit with the uncomfortable unknown and learn to hold space in a completely different way.
Tarn: Can you explain a bit more about how leaders and organisations can learn from nature?
Laura: One of the elements of the ‘logic of life’ principles that we outline in the book is diversity. Many leaders employ people from the same backgrounds as them because it feels safer to employ people that remind you of yourself, but nature needs diversity to thrive. Diversity in organisations can bring in friction as different life experiences mean different opinions, but if we learn to unpack this with compassion and healthy vulnerability then so much wisdom and innovation can be unleashed.
Another element of the logic of life is relationship building and creating win-win-win situations, instead of having this rigid zero-sum competitive mindset. Even if we are competitors we are stronger when we stand together.
Another element is natural breakdown. Not all companies that are alive today will be alive in five years. We are going through a tumultuous period of history and there will be massive breakdowns and breakthroughs. That’s not an easy thing to communicate to business leaders who just want to know how to survive.
Tarn: Thank you. I love the connection you make in the book between un-diverse organisations and monocultures, and about listening and tuning into the organisation as a living system. Can you expand on that?
Laura: I think one of the things that the leaders of the new era are being asked to do is sit with the uncomfortable unknown and learn to hold space in a completely different way. Learning that it’s not up to them to have all of the answers, but to hold space for emergence and knowing what kind of stakeholders and people to bring together for the right kind of emergence to happen.
Traditional organisations can have a borderline toxic and competitive atmosphere where everyone is fighting to be seen, heard, and celebrated. When you look at this behaviour through the lens of developmental psychology you realise that we are all small, wounded children who just want to be seen, heard and celebrated. The role of a regenerative leader is to shift the culture, create safe spaces for their employees to show up fully, learn how to respectfully give feedback, use non-violent communication, listen deeply and speak from the heart rather than just being in the mind all the time. This is something with powerful potential and impact if you start to roll it out in your organisations.
We need to understand more about inner regeneration and inner sustainability.
Tarn: What are some of the limitations you see in the current conversations around climate collapse and sustainability, you mentioned earlier that the field of sustainability doesn’t really understand how nature works.
Laura: I say this with a smile because if someone had said this to me five years ago I would have been deeply annoyed, but the biggest barrier to sustainable transition is that sustainability practitioners and leaders often have no idea that it has to start with an inner transition. We need to understand more about inner regeneration and inner sustainability. Five years ago I would have pushed back and said that what we need to create a more sustainable world is to scale the right technologies, put the right policies in place and find the right financial mechanisms. That’s all true, of course, but what we are seeing time and time again is that human messiness and unhealed wounds and shadows are getting in our way and stopping great collaborations from flourishing.
So many people want to 'save the world' but no one person can save the world alone, we need to work together or else we are all doomed. By cultivating a rich inner connection and healing our own inner ecosystems first then we are all playing a role in the great transition to a more sustainable society.
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the lead editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Paula Ferreira Marferrá
Paula is a Brazilian photographer, based in Lisbon.