Holism and Making Connections

An Emergent Framework for Cultivating Resilient Communities in the 21st Century 2012 series: excerpts from SAGE 2012 publication.

Restorative leadership embraces a holistic, systems-oriented understanding of the world. Those practicing restorative leadership grasp the interdependence and interconnectedness of life that can be articulated with great clarity, whether grounded in an intuitive sense or based in scientific knowledge. Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai’s statement in the Green Belt Movement (GBM) 2010 Annual Report  is a cogent example: “If you destroy the forest then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation.” The GBM inspired the planting of over fifty-one million trees across Africa.

Holism, or recognizing “that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, [and] that reductionist analysis never tells the whole story” (Daly, H. in Dobson, 1991, p. 145) is a core value that informs the restorative leadership practices of seeking understanding and conducting root cause analyses to discern the nuance of interconnections. With an organization like Tostan International, recipient of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, seeking to understand harmful practices does not mean excusing them. Rather the practice empowers critically thoughtful dialogue, self-authorizing and self-organizing in a nonjudgmental space consistent with core human values. Root cause analysis is key to enabling systemic change and system-wide impacts at the levels demonstrated by Tostan and the GBM, case studies in restorative leadership. Both Molly Melching of Tostan and Wangari give illuminating examples.


You start with why people are doing what they are doing, and see that the social constructs were decided upon and then became an integral part of the society over two hundred, three hundred, in the case of female genital cutting, two thousand years ago. It became an integral part of that system in order for a respected woman to have that status, in order to prove that you were worthy of marriage, . . . Then we look at the end result and ask, ‘Why do we do this? Why is this necessary?’ Let’s look at this now in terms of, ‘What are our real values?’”


For many years our main thing was to try to make people understand the linkage between good governance and conservation—how an environment that is well managed helps to sustain a good quality of life. It was easy to say, ‘What are your problems?

Well, our problems are many. . . . ’

Where do you think these problems come from? . . . You also play a part. You do not demand a better government. You do not stand up for what you strongly believe and tell your government to provide that. Also, you have your land but you’re not protecting that. You're allowing soil erosion to take place and you could do something about it. You are hungry but you are not growing food. You have opted for exotic food crops that don’t grow very well in your soil and may not even be very nutritious. So you need to do something. You may not be able to do much about the government, but you can do something about what is in your power.

That is what produced the tree planting campaign. And a collective responsibility gradually developed towards the management of the environment.

These examples illustrate the importance of understanding interconnections, recognizing the role that one plays in them, and seeing the risk of harming others otherwise. The experience of seeing and placing oneself and one’s community or group in the web of interconnectedness fosters personal and collective responsibility. As a result of being informed and seeing the relationships among choices and consequences, community members are empowered to act from expanded awareness.

Read more about holism and making connections in our recent SAGE publication