Sustainable action, Systemic relationships and Multi-stakeholder initiatives

We constantly learn as we move toward sustainability. As we find solutions that work, these solutions create new problems, and subsequently we have to find new solutions. As a result, we need to acquire new competencies on a daily basis, at the local, national, and global level, in order to bring about collective change on a broad scale. Moreover, there are issues with new levels of complexity that surpasses the ability of an individual, a team or an organisation to solve them. Isolated instances of passion, intuition, or exceptional plans are no longer enough. Instead, we need to learn to operate and to deliver in multi-actor settings, together, across our institutional boundaries, mind-sets, and world-views. To do so, we need to find more systemic ways of understanding and managing multi-stakeholder relationship.

As seen in two previous posts – Biodiversity, Compecity and Collaboration and Multi Stakeholder Collaborations Functioning as Ecosystems – there is much to learn from ecosystems when facing complexity in multi-stakeholder collaborations. For example, an important feature of biological (including human) systems is that relationships, and the patterns in which they occur, are ordered in the form of networks with constant internal communication. Although such systems can appear to be organizationally closed (for example, institutions can have visible boundaries such as legal forms), when a closed system is viewed within a larger context, each boundary becomes a threshold to the next level of the larger system in which they are embedded.

waterWe often step out of our institutional eco-systems and into biological eco-systems with a sigh of relief. In our minds these two systems often appear closed, or only loosely related, to each other. Yet, if we take a moment to expand our awareness, while we are in either of the two systems, we are able to find the places where what is happening in one system impacts the other. To illustrate, when I swim in a river, forming part of a protected area, I experience a great peace in stepping away from my more institutionalized self and all the rules and regulations which govern this self.  Yet, the river forms part of a greater system called the Hydrosphere – made up out of all the water systems of the earth – which in turn is influenced by the very rules and regulations I want to step away from. For example, local and global environmental and industrial laws either protect or pollute the Hydrosphere. At the same time, the institutions which protects, the institutions which pollutes and all the individual body systems working in these institutions, need water, supplied by the Hydrosphere, in order to function. Decisions I make when buying products, or taking part in actions, which affect the quality of the Hydrosphere therefore indirectly affect the peace I find when immersing myself in a river which seems far removed from my institutionalized self.

When we start observing this systemic relationships between all the systems we are part of, be they social environmental, cultural or institutional, we realize that, because all systems are part of a greater system, all systems need to constantly balance their autonomy with the rules and relationship patterns of the larger systems in which they belong. Both self-assertion and integration are two vital aspects of such a balance. Self-interest, when balanced with, and modified by, dialogue with other systems allows a system to grow from complexity and diversity rather than becoming stagnant as a result of wanting to rigidly defend its boundaries and inner integrity against other systems. On the other hand, the ability to create healthy boundaries and enhance the autonomy of each system is also necessary for each system to flourish as a unique expression of itself. In biological systems, a key to a negotiated balance and resilient system is diversity, a crucial requirement for the resilience of a system. The greater the internal diversity, the more sustainable a system becomes in the long run. This principle also applies to multi-stakeholder collaboration initiatives. They are built on internal relationship patterns and a shared context of meaning which in turn is sustained by continuous conversations.

Multi-stakeholder collaborations offer a way of forming temporary goal-oriented systems of human interaction. Because of their temporary nature and – in comparison with institutions – their loose structure, they turn into catalysts for the change in behavior of the participating institutions and individuals. As examples of ecosystems, they offer us a unique opportunity to more closely observe the way in which internal relationship patterns and a shared context of meaning affects and is affected by the systems they interact with, and is part of. Viewed through the lens of chaos theory they become a fractal of the desired future as well as a model of Ghandi’s famous quote: “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

At the same time, we often forget that how we act individually or in a small team may have an impact on the entire organisation, that how we act as an organisation may have an impact on a greater multi-stakeholder project, on the entire human and non – human community, and on the entire world. Better co-creation can start small. It is not a waste of time to start with yourself, to improve your team, your organisation’s sustainability contribution, and your collaboration initiative. There is evidence that humankind can learn from the past. But the future does not just happen. We create it together. Every year. Every month. Every day. Every minute. Every second.

These insights are an integral part of the Collective Leadership Compass. Actions geared to balancing the six dimensions create a pattern of human competences that in turn enhance the effectiveness of collaboration on all levels of a system – be it as an individual a team, an organization or a multi-stakeholder collaboration. The combined actions then become a fractal of the resilience of the greater collaboration system.

This blog post by Petra Kuenke looks at the Collective Leadership Compass as a whole and here specifically at the level of Complex Challenges and Systems – how we can enhance a necessary paradigm shift in how we think and act in the world.

For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and  reviews on, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.

For more insights on leading collectively with the Compass, subscribe to my blog or read more in my book: Mind and Heart, Mapping Your Personal Journey towards Leadership for Sustainability, 2008.

More on navigating transformative change with the Collective Leadership Compass: my new book “The Art of Leading Collectively (Chelsea Green, US) will be released in February 2016. You can preorder from amazon.

More on navigating transformative change with the Collective Leadership Compass: my new book “The Art of Leading Collectively (Chelsea Green, US) will be released in February 2016. You can order from amazon.

Blog post by Petra Kuenkel: Reproduced from her website at

Leave a comment