The logic is straightforward. Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage. But if all you do is sustain your culture, your relative advantage erodes over time. The strongest teams restore themselves after losses or injury and create new growth. Thus, culture is indeed a sustainable advantage — but only if it’s regenerative. Oddly enough, the ethics and principles of Permaculture can help you make that happen by meeting people where they are, redirecting momentum and building in self-regeneration.

Insights often hit you when you least expect them. I was enjoying the early morning sunshine in the jungle in Panama at HATCH Latin America when some kid with a colorful tattoo on his arm asked me if I was attending the Permaculture class.

I was not.

Wasn’t there to go to class. Had never heard of Permaculture. And when the kid explained it was “a system of agriculture based on harmonious integration of plants and their surrounding,” I was even less interested. But I felt sorry for him because it looked like I might be his only student.

What a mistake!

Not in attending the class, but in failing to be open to new perspectives and ideas. I did attend and it turned out the “kids,” Matt Duffy and Robbie Love, were knowledgeable, informative and gave me new way to look at team leadership. They co-lead agriculture at the Kalu Yala institute, “the world’s most sustainable community,” hosting students from around the world.

First they took us through the core ethics of Permaculture: Care of Earth; Care of People; Fair Share; Transition – meeting things where they are. Then they took us through 12 principles like seeking first to understand, moving from patterns to detail, integrating step by step as you manage constraints and resources, waste and yield while paying particular attention to what’s happening in the margins, at the edges and intersections of diverse things so you can creatively use and respond to change.

Those interested in growing crops should spend time at Kalu Yala with Matt and Robbie. My interest is in applying their ideas to growing organizational cultures as sustainable competitive advantages. In particular:

1. Meet people where they are.

2. Redirect momentum.

3. Build in self-regeneration.


Meet People Where They Are

Matt explained that you shouldn’t build anything for a year, taking time to engage with nature so you can design solutions that suit your particular situation.

Way too many leaders onboarding into organizations try to mold those organizations to fit their leadership style. These leaders have it backwards. No one will follow anyone, anywhere, anytime until they have earned the right to lead. This requires taking the time to observe and interact so you can meet the organization where it is and converge into its ecosystem before trying to evolve it from the inside.


Redirect Momentum

Aikido is a martial art in which you redirect the momentum of your opponent’s attack. Having met your followers where they are you can leverage some of the Permaculture ideas to redirect their momentum in positive ways:

• Start by getting bigger picture things vaguely right and building on already existing patterns.

• Put people with complementary strengths together in interdependent teams.

• Move step by step to build positive momentum over time.

• Manage constraints and resources, waste and yield so solutions are sustainable.

• Pay attention to what’s happening in the margins, at the edges and intersections of diverse things to find connective creative innovations and respond to change.


Build In Self-Regeneration

Poor leaders leave behind a wake filled with the debris of broken and disillusioned people that never recover from getting run over by them as they plow through the organization.

Good leaders instill the confidence required for their followers to form high-performing teams.

The best leaders inspire and enable others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. These teams outgrow their leaders and regenerate on their own, continuing to perform and evolve long after those leaders have moved on.