This story was first published in Open Forum in 2017.
Too much has been written about leadership. Too many books, Too many articles. So much has been written that we now risk submergence below the sheer weight of printed material.
Sure, the literature on leadership has succeeded in identifying particular types of leadership — leadership from behind, leadership by example, leadership by position — and that is useful and I will talk about examples later.
It is understandable that much leadership literature is directed at business. Business has to respond to and survive in a world beset by new technologies, a flowing stream of new ideas, dodgy economic trends, confused political leadership and changing social expectations. It looks for security in an environment in which there is no resource security, no market security, no security that is lasting in a world increasingly churned by change.
The cult of the entrepreneur
Once, we had business leadership heroes. IBM in the latter years of the Twentieth Century. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. They have gone or faded. Now, we have clumsy, sometimes-malfunctioning and deceptive corporations and institutions in which there is declining public trust.
The likes of Gates and Jobs were entrepreneurs. They took calculated chances that sometimes failed but for the most part worked. We still have entrepreneurs and they are held up as glaring examples of leadership. All too often they bloom then fade like one-day daisies in a garden.
I don't know if it is correct to talk of the cult of the entrepreneur, but we hear so much about it that to has started to sound like a cult. Hopeful young people flood to workshops yet few succeed in applying whatever knowledge they gain. Small businesses in Australia are frequently short-lived, though this might have to do with the churn in ideas, technology and economics as much as with entrepreneurs not succeeding or burning out.
Most of us cannot be entrepreneurs because we can't afford the financial and other risks involved. Or the long, tiring hours. After attending a workshop on entrepreneuralism, a friend told me that he did not want to become an entrepreneur because of the demands of doing that would entail. Yet, he is a person of knowledge and ideas.
A different entrepreneurship
Through working in small business, government and the community sector I have come to realise that although entrepreneuralism is commonly associated with business, there are people out there working the chancy world of social entrepreneurship. They do this voluntarily or for little money, yet it involves leadership qualities as much as does any business.
Permaculture is a platform of ethics, design principles and characteristics upon which its practitioners develop useful applications.
One rainy morning I sat in Cafe Nero, my local caffeine filling station, and asked myself who were these people, these social entrepreneurs? I didn't set out to list those I know working in the permaculture design system, but theirs’ were the names that appeared on my page.
Permaculture is commonly explained as a system of design for creating resilient communities. I prefer to think of permaculture as a platform of ethics, design principles and characteristics upon which its practitioners develop useful applications. Those might include urban agriculture, food security, energy and water efficient building design, community work, small scale international development, education and more. Application is broad, and when it comes to the business side of it I think immediately of a landscape architect I know with his own small business, an architect specialising in passive and active solar design, someone who started a food distribution business, a young woman working in community exchange systems and a couple magazine publishers.
So, how did those names that came to mind that wet morning in Cafe Nero, and how do they demonstrate leadership?
With Bill Mollison, David Holmgren co-invented the permaculture design system.
His approach is an intellectual one. David is a thinker. An author. An educator. He is a leader through being one of the two originators of the design system — what we call ‘first starters’ advantage’. It is this, combined with his work, that lends him his intellectual and leadership authority.
Through writing books and articles, through public talks at conferences and maintaining an authoritative website, David built a credibility few if any in the field would challenge. Interestingly, he eschews participation in discussions on social media, preferring to remain aloof.
David's, then, is leadership through being a public intellectual atop his first starter advantage in developing the design system.
Rosemary Morrow is different. Not for this woman now somewhere in her seventies the intellectual approach of David. Instead, Rosemary has built her leadership by doing, by her experience in the world.
That experience includes decades of teaching permaculture design. Perhaps more importantly, her leadership is built on her work in small-scale international development and working with her local community in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia.
We might call her's 'leadership-by-doing'. She is down-to-earth, approachable and modest, illustrating the importance of personality to leadership.
For the past few years Rosemary has been passing on her extensive life experience in permaculture by teaching her own approach to community education to others.
Rosemary's, then, is leadership by experience applied through an open, friendly personality.
I like to think of Hannah Moloney's style of leadership as leading-through-exuberance.
Hannah is a young Hobart woman who, with husband Anton, set up the aptly-named Good Life Permaculture, a name that suits Hannah's outgoing personality. Hannah's style, her language and her personal presentation attracts a primarily young cohort of students to her courses and to the other enterprises she engages in.
Of all mentioned so far, Hannah and Anton come closest to the conventional model of the entrepreneur as someone building their own small business.
Hannah's, then, is leadership by exuberance and personal style.
As one of the permaculture design system's pioneers, Robyn Francis' story is one of persistence. She not only persisted in teaching permaculture design through the decades, she persisted in developing her Djanbung Gardens permaculture centre in Nimbin. Since the mid-1990s it has been her educational base that she has turned it into something of a cultural centre in the town, a centre that attracts people from across Australia and that is visited by permaculture practitioners from other counties.
In doing these things and more Robyn faced substantial challenges. In meeting those challenges she helped establish a place for women in the worldwide leadership of permaculture. In doing this she was not alone and the success of herself and other women is suggested by the number of them in this short and inadequate article.
Robyn has also broadened the application of the permaculture design system, taking it into planning, international development and the teaching of specialist skills. I must add to this list of accomplishments her work in permaculture education, not only in teaching the permaculture design course but her role in developing Australia's nationally accredited permaculture education program, Accredited Permaculture Training.
Robyn, then, leads through persistence and innovation in permaculture.
Cecilia Macaulay leads by a personality different to that of many other women in permaculture. They tend to present as earthy, practical woman whereas Cecilia, with her stylish clothing and through regularly visiting a hairdresser, comes across with a feminine presence that is extraverted, light and gentle.
As well as being an illustrator Cecilia is something of a domestic decluttering maven who applies the principles of permaculture design to home organisation. In doing this she brings a strong dose of the Japanese design ethic, having spent some time in the country. There can be an almost zen-like look to her work.
Whereas Hannah Moloney leads through her practical, can-do, exuberant personality, Cecilia leads through a feminine personality but one with a quiet exuberance.
Steve Batley is a Sydney-based landscape architect, horticulture and permaculture educator with his own small business, Sydney Organic Gardens. His approach to leadership is in some ways similar to Cecilia McCauley's in that it is quiet, calm and considered. Steve doesn’t get fazed. It is also based on extensive knowledge of landscape design supplemented by a good working knowledge of horticulture.
As with many others in this article, Steve's personality counts for much of his popularity as an educator at the Randwick Sustainabilty Hub and elsewhere. His leadership style could perhaps be described as conciliatory, with a soft masculinity and an ability to communicate permaculture and design concepts clearly in simple language.
Robert and Emma-Kate
Once a dairy farmer, Robert and partner, Emma Kate Rose, set up the successful, hybrid community supported agriculture business, Brisbane Food Connect, a social enterprise. Emma-Kate is a director and focuses mainly on marketing. The service links Brisbane region family and small scale farmers with eaters in the city to provide fresh, mainly organic foods. The couple are acknowledged as pioneers in this new approach to food and are called upon to advise start-ups across the country. With others, they created the Food Connect Foundation to assist social enterprise in the fair food business.
The couple are also active in the impact investment and community economics scene and led workshops at the 2017 conference of the New Economy Network Australia.
Robert and Emma Kate’s is a practical approach to developing business, based on the ethics and design principles of permaculture.
The late Bill Mollison's leadership was different again. As co-inventor of the permaculture design system Bill, like David, fell into the natural leadership of first-starter. But his leadership stemmed from far more than that. It came out of a career that included scientific field research and, later, an academia about which he was critical.
Bill's was also an intellectual leadership though his expression of that was different to David Holmgren's style. That's because Bill combined the intellectual and the practical. He was the sort of person who could discuss the theory of farm dam construction, design a farm dam and go out and build it. This is what people found attractive in him, this blend of the intellect and the practical combined with common sense.
Bill was something else, however. He was an iconoclast. A challenger of fixed, entrenched ideas whether those of academics, government or society. He would challenge these in a way that was designed to shake people out of their fixed views. That could put people off but it helped those ready for change to make that mental leap into a new way of seeing things and acting. In doing this Bill was a motivator.
Bill formulated his ideas in a number of books and a TV series called The Global Gardener that was broadcast on Australia's ABC TV in the nineties.
His leadership, then, was that of first-starter combined with an assertive personality that was dismissive of pretentiousness and bad ideas. It was the challenging attitude of the iconoclast.
A crucible of leadership
The permaculture design system has turned out to be something of a crucible of informal leadership in civil society. Informality has been important because there is no leadership-by-appointed-position in permaculture. The design system self-structures as a distributed network. There is no head office. There is no CEO.
This makes it different to leadership in business or the leadeship of the go-it-alone entrepreneur. It calls upon the skills of the social entrepreneur in the way it works with people. Sure, there are small businesses built around permaculture and small business entrepreneurship has played a role in those. For the most part, though, leadership in permaculture has been based on personality, extensive knowledge and on daring to just get out there and do something. Taking action is much admired in permaculture circles.
Training for leadership
Just as in other fields of endeavour there is a need for training in permaculture to bring out sometimes latent leadership qualities.
People like Robina McCurdy in Aotearoa-New Zealand; Robyn Clayfield from Crystal Waters Permaculture Village; Erin Young with her sociocracy education for group decision making; and local government sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, with her community resilience and community leadership course offer training in different aspects of leadership and entrepreneurialism.
Permaculture educators, too, are leaders and are too numerous to fully list here. Suffice to mention the Milkwood duo, Nick Ritar and Kirsten Bradley, who came later to permaculture and who for some years now have offered a range of training options to build the leadership skills of permaculture educators. For the past few years, Rosemary Morrow has been passing on her educational knowledge to others.
Now, thanks to this training, we see new leaders emerging: horticultural educators, Emma Daniell and Jon Kingston, an agricultural scientist; Annette Loudon, now a catalyst assisting people set up community exchange systems for cashless trading; Julian Lee with his science education program for young children.
Those mentioned are just a few. There are so many more.