Great leadership is about relationships — not just with people, but with the land itself.
I’ve just returned from a visit to Hawaii, one of the few places I’ve visited where the land itself is a strong leader. Even most non-native Hawaiians recognize the power of the land, and talk about “malama aina” — respecting the land.
Sure, there are tourists who simply soak in the sun and go beach hopping, developers who dredge and fill to create space for new houses or hotels, and residents who are more concerned with personal survival than ecology. It is, after all, a place populated by people — and we’re a selfish bunch, as a whole, because we feel entitled to whatever resources are available.
But at the same time, living on an island forces people to recognize our limits and the limits of the land. Limits of space, arable land, food, fuel. Limits caused by the edges of the world being a little smaller, a lot more visible as you drive or walk around the island. And there is still, if muffled, a sense of the old ways, when Hawaiians lived more sustainably and with real aloha.
Leadership and followership in the old ways included human hierarchies with ecological restraints built into them — kapu (taboos) that maintained seasons for hunting and fishing, and a sense of sacredness in the ways humans used the fruits of the land, sea and air. Although many of the class distinctions and ali’i (royalty) kapu of old Hawaii seem fierce and a little nonsensical to my modern sensibilities, the rules that protected the land and its resources for future generations are woven into every relationship.
So, traveling through Hawaii, and talking with some of the traditionally trained native leaders, I thought a lot about a different quality of aloha leadership — not about human relationships alone, but about our relationships with the natural world. Modern, westernized, individualized values don’t always weave the two qualities together.
Our survival depends on treating the natural world with as much aloha and respect as we treat each other.
Ancient cultures offer important lessons. But they’re not the only places to find inspiration for earth centered leadership practices.
The Regenerative Design Institute, an organization dedicated to teaching and designing sites for permaculture, include a course called “the ecology of leadership.” Just as permaculture promotes sustainable agriculture, resource use and earth-connected human habits, the ecology of leadership offers “a practice rooted in deep nature connection, inner transformation and leadership skill development [to] revolutionize your life and service in the world.”
This leadership training offers a kind of westernized aloha experience — starting with the inner self, connecting with nature and community, and coming out with an idea of leadership that includes inner development as a part of a holistic sense of leadership in the world. We must learn to tread lightly, to create sustainable relationships, or — well, the dangers are already manifest in our deteriorating landscape and diminishing resources.
And universities like Portland State, Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center, and others emphasize the link between ecology, sustainability and cultural leadership. Portland State states this mission very clearly:
We see sustainability education as: developing the knowledge, perspectives, new ways of thinking, and skills needed to advocate for justice and equity, democratic participation, economic viability, and the regeneration and vitality of communities and ecosystems. We believe this requires a deep ethical understanding of living within the limits of natural systems, as well as personal and communal shifts to ways of being that create healthy and balanced solutions.”
As we grow, we depend on established leaders to show us ways we can collaborate and move forward with respect for the land.
Leaders can make a physical difference, by fiat and by collaboration. In his first year in office, President Obama signed an executive order promoting green building practices, energy-saving strategies, mandatory recycling and waste diversion development, and a commitment to clean water, clean air and clean land use. As we gradually (perhaps too gradually) develop new ways of being stewards of the earth and each other, leaders like Obama lay the groundwork for present and future collaboration.
In the end we all have to become leaders as well as followers, both at the same time. For me, the principles of aloha help me take a step back and think about my responsibility and my relationships. For others, permaculture, sustainability or crisis will the the inspiration for their leadership decisions.
Although it sometimes feels like small steps are too little too late, that’s simply not true. Treading lightly means personal choices, and that makes all the difference, when we malama aina.
What about you, the companies you work for, the way you live in your home and your community? What’s important to you, in terms of respecting the land? Who are the leaders you respect? How do you offer leadership?