From Leaders of Mankind to Custodians of Livingkind

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Home > Articles > From Leaders of Mankind to Custodians of Livingkind

 From Leaders of Mankind to Custodians of Livingkind

Susan Goldsworthy OLY | Today's Manager
September 1, 2020

Time to heal the fractures to protect our future in this magical, more-than-human world.

Our world is broken. In the words of Hong Kong-based senior executive, Paul Wright, we are experiencing a monumental fracture. The coronavirus pandemic is not an exception but rather an indicator of our unhealthy relationship with nature. In the past few years we have seen an increase in floods, forest fires, plastic pollution, deforestation, air and water pollution, even plagues of locusts, and a substantial decrease in the numbers of insects, animals, and plants. The IPBES report in 2019 warned that almost one million animal and plant species are facing extinction. 1

What has this got to do with business? Everything, actually. Without a healthy ecosystem, all our business and activity is irrelevant. We are seeing how much suffering is caused by the collapse of our economic model during the Covid-19 lockdown. The linear economy is not fit for purpose if that purpose is the wellbeing of humanity. Its ‘take, make, waste’ philosophy is dramatically accelerating the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. For decades, scientists and environmentalists have been warning that our way of life is not sustainable. However, most of us were either in denial or too distracted by our day-to-day lives, caught up in the ‘busyness of business.’ Our leadership model favours short-term, materialistic, ‘power over’ existence over a long-term, holistic, ‘power with’ existence.

Our greatest leadership challenge is to break free from the confines of our conditioned thinking and awaken to accept and then act on the real issues we face.

In the words of Professor GianPiero Petriglieri: “A subtle dehumanisation is built into the fabric of the leadership industrial complex, a sprawling global collection of outfits that promote models of “leadership” whose end goal, under an enlightened surface, is far too often just personal power, profit, or both.” 2

We are living in a global emergency. A WWF report, published in June 2020, warns: “The risk of a new [wildlife-to-human] disease emerging in the future is higher than ever, with the potential to wreak havoc on health, economies, and global security.” 3

The cracks in the system are more visible and people are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for change to address the discrimination, injustice, and dominance of the positivist, western capitalist system.

In this time of fragmentation, there are lessons we can learn from the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi.

You have a favourite bowl. It has been with you for years and, as well as food, it holds a lot of sentimental value. One day, as you take it from the drawer, your hand loosens its grip and the bowl falls to the floor and breaks. What do you do? Do you throw away the pieces holding the memory in your heart? Or do you gather the pieces, and glue it back together, seeing it as somehow less than it was? Or do you gather the pieces and glue it back together and treasure it all the more?

Meaning golden joinery, Kintsugi refers to the mending of broken pottery or glass or other objects using a golden glue that makes the repaired object more valuable and appreciated than before.

We are all broken in some way. Many of us live fragmented lives; separating our professional, personal, and ecological selves to conform to both our own as well as societal expectations. We have lost connection to not only ourselves but also to the world in which we live and we are suffering in the process. When we divide, separate, or exclude living others, be they human or more than human, we are dividing, separating, and excluding ourselves. Hope is like the golden glue that binds the fragments back together and honours the history of the whole. By working together and putting aside our egos, we can use our ingenuity to make a difference for ourselves and the other species with whom we share this magical, magnificent more-than-human world.

Now is perhaps the last chance we have to change. Leadership must change. Business must change. The language we use must change. More of us need to seek to be custodians rather than leaders. A custodian is a person who has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something. What more precious, more important, more essential than looking after our ecosystem? The natural world is essential to our health, our livelihoods, and our survival. We are all inextricably interconnected.

Let us cease using the word mankind, and even humankind as it encourages a focus solely on ourselves outside of or on top of the system which we rely upon for our survival. Instead, we can refer to livingkind. The double meaning is intentional: livingkind covers all living things and, at the same time, points to how we could live more kindly. We respect what we care about. For the sake of our future generations, we need as many of us as possible to become custodians of livingkind.

In the adapted words of John Donne: 
          “Any living being’s death diminishes me, 
          Because I am involved in livingkind. Because I am involved in livingkind. 
          And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,
          IIt tolls for thee.”

1 Goals, 6 May 2019, UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Accessed via,

2 Gianpiero P, Fastcompany, 06 May 2020, To fight systemic racism, protest ‘leadership’—not just leaders. Accessed via,

3 WWF, For Nature For Us. Accessed via,

Affiliate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Change at IMD, and a former Olympic finalist, Susan is passionate about working with people to turn knowledge into behaviour and to increase consciousness about our interconnectivity in this magical, more-than-human world.

She is co-author of three award-winning leadership books, Care to Dare, Choosing Change, and the recently released Where the Wild Things Were, for people of all ages to raise awareness of biodiversity loss and the need to protect what we still can in our magical, more-than-human world.



Copyright © 2020 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 3, 2020

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