Reciprocity and why we still have much to learn from mother nature

There is a small island that sits in the north of the Great Barrier Reef and it is one of the most richly biodiverse places on the planet. Lizard Island, amidst this undulating tapestry of underwater colour, movement and wonder is, among many things, a safe haven for young sea life. In glittery schools young fish swarm through the mangroves which protect them from predators and allow fish to safely breed and populate, growing to a size that’s safe for exit. For smaller fish it’s a precarious path, but the clownfish has found a partner in crime, one where mutual benefit keeps both species alive.

The anemone in these mangroves are blanketed with stingers to repel predators, but the clown fish have a mucous over their entire body that protects against the sting, other fish species would be left to die. The clown fish help this particular stinging anemone by clearing away micro parasites, that would otherwise kill the anemone eventually. They glide in and out of the mangroves, nibbling away at the anemone, hiding and thriving as they are free to grow. This deep mutual benefit, this reciprocity protects and helps each to not only survive but to thrive in the world. To watch this interaction is truly awe inspiring.

The living world has much to teach us about reciprocity, adaptation, resilience, cooperation, and networked systems that thrive functioning together. The sum is always greater than the parts. What if your business could distribute leadership the way a beehive does, with no central command and control, but instead, simple rules that guide and coordinate individuals to achieve collective goals? Or, what if governments and non-profits could function more like a forest, connecting diverse community members, and sharing information and nutrients - all part of an intimate and interdependent culture and eco-system of well-being?

The bedrock of the shared value movement in business is reciprocity. Shared value is actually a clunky jargonistic term we’ve developed to describe something that since the beginning of time has existed and served every living thing on the planet, including human beings. Reciprocity is the foundation of our humanity and our very existence on this planet. To live is to give and take. To lead is to give and take. Where the magic happens is where the giving and taking centre around an outcome that’s good for both giver and taker. And call it karma, call it the law of reciprocity, but what goes around does indeed come around.

Our reading of late includes some juicy articles and books that speak to reciprocity and how mimicking nature boosts our innovation potential and social outcomes. Wendell Berry’s The World-Ending Fire speaks out to defend the land we live on. With his usual poetic grace he shows that we simply cannot afford to continue on in life and business as we have - the natural world won’t stand for it. Yet he also shares with us a vision of consolation and of hope. “We may be locked in an uneven struggle, but we can and must begin to treat our land, our neighbours, and ourselves with respect and care. We must, as Berry urges, abandon arrogance and stand in awe”.

Our friend Tim Leberecht’s House of Beautiful Business is growing at pace and we are following contributors’ musings, thinking, themes and questions with uber enthusiasm - do yourself a favour and sign up to the House’s Book, Letters, and Journal here - and if you can make it to Lisbon in November, you won’t be disappointed.

Finally, for a local dose of reciprocity leadership and learning, the annual Shared Value Summit exploring the theme of ‘Business on Purpose’. Amidst a global climate of rapid change and uncertainty, in the Asia Pacific - the world’s fastest growing region - Business on Purpose conveys optimism and intention. Business on Purpose also underscores the potential power and role of business as a key influencer and leader in transforming industries and society to meet the complex and pressing challenges we face today. Have a look at the program here and register - be quick, it’s next week! We are proud to support the Summit, and thrilled as such to be able to offer you a 10% discount to your registration by entering the code IMPACTINVESTING at the checkout.

Melanie Greblo