Regenerative leadership and change in tourism


Now more than ever leadership matters in tourism


As we emerge from Covid-19, good strong leadership will separate out those places, destinations, organisations, communities and businesses who will lead out. So what is leadership in tourism and is it time to change the way we think about it?


Leadership has received much attention in the academic literature, in blogs, and in professional development courses. While there is much research and much advice about leadership, for the most part it reflects business-as-usual objectives and a scientific management approach. It reinforces what we have been trained to think is 'good' leadership. It does this by reinforcing built in assumptions and not engaging in critical and creative questioning about what is good leadership. In this view, leadership is all about optimising a competitive edge, growth, profit and investment.


But what if we could re-assess the concept of leadership within the context of the increasingly complex, interconnected challenges we face on this planet? What would good leadership look like if leaders were to confront climate change, biodiversity loss, impacts to ecosystem health, the restructuring of work, leisure and travel, and so on?


Leadership is broadly conceptualised as the mobilising of human, intellectual and social capital and resources to achieve a sustainable, inclusive, equitable and healthy future for all. Under the scientific paradigm that has dominated thinking about leadership for most of the twentieth century (and which has a tendency to oversimplify things), leadership has four dimensions: leaders, followers, power and communication. The objectives of leadership, the perspective or worldview adopted, and the framing of leadership (over scale and time) is missing from the equation.


In this old view, leadership was conceptualised as the instrumental transfer of information between leaders and followers. The power vested in leaders, and their ability to communicate their ideas shaped the level of business success a leader could achieve. 'Success' was usually measured in terms of profitability, market dominance, growth and other such metrics.


The rise of transformational leadership in the 1990s and 2000s challenged this old way of thinking. A leader also needs to influence and inspire those around her/him into both individual and collective action. The sum of this collective action creates a synergy, or social movement, the impact of which is greater than the sum of individuals acting alone. Transformational leadership has been described as a form of leadership that inspires action, ignites passion and leads to transformation of both the organisation and its people. But the missing piece of the leadership puzzle is perspective.


The rise of regenerative leadership


Recently, regenerative leadership has started to emerge. It represents a significant shift because it asks us to engage with a larger and more holistic perspective and our responsibilities to act for a greater good. The trouble with transformational leadership was that it was still tied to traditional business values including growth, profit, competitiveness and reputation in the marketplace. By the early 2000s, increasing challenges associated with living in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) meant that we needed to create a new conversation about what leadership meant in a more holistic and connected way.


Leadership should not just be confined to business or politics. If we are to confront the complex global challenges of our time, including climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline, the changing nature of work, economic restructuring, equality, poverty and access to healthcare, then this is a much larger and more complex challenge beyond the scope of business leadership. Re-evaluating our assumptions about leadership and paying more attention to ethics, responsibility and perspective were needed.


Some businesses are leading the way by taking on a wider range of environmental and social responsibilities. Corporations like Unilever and Ben and Jerry's engage with social and environmental responsibilities, and a holistic set of values underpins their approach to conscious leadership.


In tourism, organisations such as Intrepid Travel and G-Adventures also see that delivering a higher purpose beyond profit makes good business sense. They understand their responsibilities extend to the wider social, environmental and economic ecosystem they operate within, and the need to care for relationships and interdependencies and do no harm. The rise of purpose-led business models, impact investing and blended value mapping, for example, are tools that this new breed of leaders has pioneered.


What is regenerative leadership in the context of tourism?

At the risk of paraphrasing and oversimplifying the body of writing on all things regenerative, I summarise the main features of regenerative tourism leadership here, with the remainder of this post unpacking the characteristics, skills and mindset of the regenerative leader in tourism:

  • Regenerative leaders acknowledge their place in an intricate, dynamic living system and that they must give back more than they take from the system.

  • Regenerative leaders re-envision our relationship with capitalism through new business models and types of exchange where economic gain is balanced with social and environmental goals.

  • Regenerative leaders reject business-as-usual values and the ‘old’ tourism operating systems, and seek to pioneer new models and tools.

  • Regenerative leaders value the life-sustaining value of Nature, communities, connections and commerce equally.

  • Regenerative leaders pursue place-based actions grounded in deep understandings of local conditions, people, places and environments.

  • Regenerative leaders are inclusive, consultative, and empower local voices.

  • Regenerative leaders insist on holistic multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder facing approaches. Anyone or thing that generates value deserves 'a seat at the table'.

  • Regenerative leaders respect the equality of all sentient lifeforms.

  • Regenerative leaders know that leadership is a responsibility to care for the planet, for people and for the relationships that sustain healthy interdependencies.

There are many paths to being a regenerative leader, helping to re-envision a caring and more responsible forms of tourism and a tourism system that balances people, communities, places and Nature. It's important not to get hung up on the language, the terminology, or the tribes but to embrace the values, the ethics of care, and commit to design the future with Nature for the good of all. There are many disciplinary pathways and different kinds of knowledge that will get us there. Historical contributions in various disciplines including ecology, planning, natural resource management, business, organisational studies, and anthropology are relevant. We need to curb our tendency to re-invent the language game and to claim ideas that are older than we are. Our most important challenge is to focus more on weaving together diverse understandings, and to embrace the ethos and intentionality of designing regenerative futures.



Regenerative leaders understand value differently


Regenerative leaders take a critical and creative lens when it comes to value creation by addressing three key questions:

  • What value is created?

  • How is value created?

  • Who benefits from the value created?

Value creation is no longer viewed as income, net profit or share price. Different kinds of value may be generated and this value may not always be measurable in economic terms. For instance, a visitor enjoying a walk in a natural setting may benefit from the social connections made while walking; they may benefit from the physical and emotional, and psychological effects of exercise; they may learn something which they will share with others; they may have an 'insta-moment' that adds value to their social network and beyond by building awareness of an environmental issue; they may also contribute to the employment of guides which sustains their families; and their park fees might be invested in maintaining interpretative resources and environmental management.


Regenerative leaders think differently and can be labelled 'difficult'


Regenerative leaders are creative, systems thinkers, they connect dots and see patterns beyond their own expertise. They are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. They work on the parts but see the whole. They are aware of their blindspots and strive to look beyond taken-for-granted assumptions to reveal new ways of understanding. They are often not comfortable with maintaining the status quo, especially when evidence is mounting that the current tourism operating system is broken. The dark side is that where regenerative transformational leaders are not located in an organisation that supports and cares about this next generation of leadership, there is often a price to pay. They can be labelled disruptive, difficult, and even bullied into giving up on their vision. Nurturing these these creative thinking regenerative leaders, and giving them space to innovate, is important for the future of regenerative tourism.


Regenerative leaders are co-creating and re-wiring our economic system


A creative and critical understanding of value, how it is created and who benefits can inform the design of visitor experiences so that a balance between social, environmental and economic outcomes can be achieved. Understanding and making use of these insights to improve outcomes and deliver on a higher purpose means that regenerative leaders are actively and creatively re-wiring our capitalist system.


Regenerative leaders understand how value flows


Counter-intuitive thinking is also a key skill of the regenerative leader. Value can be both created and destroyed, and a regenerative leader will understand this. In Venice or Cinque Terra, the creation of economic value for the cruise industry has destroyed other kinds of value. Overcrowding destroys value by diminishing the quality of life of residents, increasing the cost of housing and impacting employment opportunities, for example.


But tourism, as part of the human condition, can also bring powerful positive value to destinations, and communities. Regenerative leaders will understand the light and shade of value creation. Tourism can help to value Nature and the role it plays in sustaining quality of life (e.g. ecosystem services). In most destinations, the value of Nature and its fundamental role in enabling travel, and its contribution to transformational visitor experiences are undervalued. Regenerative leaders in tourism need to work outside the narrow mandate afforded by an outdated tourism operating system. They need to work outside the silos they are familiar with, engaging planners, environmental managers, community engagement specialists and the like. They are committed to valuing the contributions of various stakeholders (including Nature), and to understand the creation, distribution and accumulation of value created by tourism.


Regenerative leaders understand the journey is not linear or defined


Leading change, especially difficult change involving many stakeholders, is not a unidirectional journey from one lesser state to a better state. Leaders encounter contextual challenges, some of these can be controlled and managed, and others require creativity, adaptation and agility. As a result, leading change is uneven, it involves twists, turns, and roundabouts, and is often energised by different people and events. Regenerative leaders work with this dynamic context, acknowledging that leadership is a journey and not vested in a plan, a strategy, or a ribbon cutting celebration.



Regenerative leaders take risks, experiment and grow


Regenerative leaders understand and are comfortable with uncertainty and complexity. They rise to the challenge when volatility emerges, and they use critical and creative questioning and diverse knowledge, data and evidence to understand ambiguity. Nowhere is this more evident than during the Pandemic. Leaders, rising to a regenerative mindset, took the time to think, evaluate, learn, reflect and repeat. Unprecedented times call for new ways of thinking and working. These leaders looked to the edges of the system, where innovation usually occurs, to understand the magnitude of the challenge and the change that is required. Those businesses and destinations with the courage to lean in to identifying blind spots and to learn will be the ones to lead out.

Regenerative leaders might steer but the journey is co-created


Plato uses the Ship of the State parable to visualise the complex self-interests that play out in a boat of marauding sailors. That boat is full of self-interested sailors all working independently, and producing a range of negative impacts that affect them all. Yet they do not realise it until it's too late. The metaphor rings true to the complex VUCA world we live in. Our current economic system shaped by capitalism can be likened to a ship of marauding sailors, self-interest and little attention to the pressing planetary challenges confronting us. A regenerative leader, on the other hand, uses knowledge, communication, care ethics, inspiration and instinct. They are humble and generous in the pursuit of collective action.


A ship of disciplined, collaborative and caring sailors all working together can read the wind, the stars and seas. Steering collectively through the winds of change reflects a culture and a style of leadership that is distributed, transformational and regenerative. The pilot may ultimately be responsible but may take advice from those who possess knowledge about matters of navigation or how to read the elements (e.g. the skies, the wind and the waves). 


For new solutions to unfold, old practices need to be reviewed


New knowledge, approaches, values and practices may be needed, but in the process, old ways may be destroyed. In our 'Ship of Tourism', navigating the unprecedented storm created by Covid-19 has meant listening, learning, reflecting and thinking. The challenge of steering out of the storm requires new skills, an open mind, creativity and grit. The pressure from industry to stay the same, and to bounce back to business as usual, must be met with new thinking, evidence, inclusive conversations, and diverse knowledge inputs, We should not rely on the old skills and practices that got us here in the first place! For new ways to unfold, old ways of doing things, established hierarchies and power structures need to be reviewed. We should put aside fear and aversion to risk, and embrace innovative, creative thinking.


Put simply, it's time to review and re-work established destination management practices and old business models. It's time to re-assess what matters in the face of a VUCA world. It's time to give Nature a seat at the table, and all those who add value, directly or indirectly, to tourism. This requires strong leadership, transformative and regenerative leadership.


Concluding remarks


I have been fortunate enough to play a leadership role from international to local levels, in diverse communities and addressing very different challenges for almost 30 years. From this experience I have learned that:


It's possible to change hearts and minds by working with hands.


It's important to nurture co-learning opportunities and authentic dialogue.


It's important to role model kindness, generosity and gratitude as a leader.


It's important to nurture cognitive diversity and the role in plays in creative problem-solving.


It's necessary to work on the parts in the hope of scaling the regenerative tourism design.


In writing this post, I have channelled almost 30 years of insights and more academic articles and books than I care to count. 'Regenerative leadership' has not been part of the vernacular language of my professional circles although the values, the ethos and the commitment to designing with Nature and with the community have always been part of my professional core.


Now that you have got to the end of this post, I ask readers to channel their own insights and ask themselves where their understanding of leadership comes from. There are ways of knowing about tourism that combine knowledge of the head, heart, instinct/gut and hands. Knowledge, practice and wisdom cannot be separated, but flow together in a deep understanding which is informed by (but not limited to) science, creativity, mindfulness, multidisciplinary, systems thinking, and lived-experience. How can you unlock this knowledge and exercise leadership?

We needed leaders from all walks of life to step up, activate their own agency to channel change, to share knowledge, unlock creativity, and to co-create the initiatives and actions we need to transform tourism.


Finally, I end with a paraphrased comment that keeps resonating through every conversation I have had lately about regenerative leadership, change and tourism. The comment emerged in a conversation with a student while we were ruminating about the value of intentional design and regenerative practices represented in the 'white scientific management literature:


"Imagine if we could design regenerative tourism, not for the next 5 years, but for the next 40,000 years. What would that look like?... Isn't that what the Indigenous people of Australia, our first travellers, resource managers, mobile dwellers have been doing all along?"


About the Tourism CoLab

At the Tourism CoLab, we believe that tourism and travel can be transformational, purposeful and regenerative. However, in order to deliver these benefits, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and pivot our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working 'Regenerative Tourism by Design' and we're pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.


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