12/21 — Towards a Planetary, Deliberately Developmental, Regenerative Culture: The Butterfly Civilization

Eric Reynolds

Eric Reynolds

Eric Reynolds

I came across a short 2017 article from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It relates how the winter solstice marks the beginning of a season of storytelling and ceremony. I would like to honor that, with a bit of storytelling of my own, to be offered as a reflection of what has come, where we are, and what might come to be.

2020 has been a long year, I am sure we can all agree on that. In reflecting on my 2020, I have also found myself reflecting on my path from being the owner of a house painting franchise, to my current position as Co-Owner and Executive Editor of Integral Leadership Review. These past 8 years have been, by far, the most difficult years of my life, and mine has not been an easy one. At the same time, these past 8 years have held space for more magic and miraculous transformation than a person could possibly hope for, and not just for me! I would like to share a tiny bit of my journey and my scholarship, as it has become intertwined with that of ILR, and is germane to the issue at hand.

When I met Russ Volckmann, founder of Integral Leadership Review, in 2012, I was completing a MA in Transformative Leadership at the California Institute of Integral Studies. I have had, and still do have, the blessing and honor of learning from some of the most amazing teachers. At that time, I was taking a class with the late Phillip Slater, author of the Chrysalis Effect. I would like to offer a little twist on his butterfly metaphor. 

The transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly is a magical transition. The unwitting caterpillar grows and grows, eating voraciously until it can no longer eat. Once it has eaten as much as it can, the caterpillar attaches itself to a leaf, and begins to transform within its cocoon. Inside the caterpillar are imaginal cells, which hold the genetic code for the butterfly. Life this far has not been easy for those imaginal cells, as thus far the caterpillar’s immune system has treated them as foreign objects. The ones that remain are survivors. I bet many of us have been in those cells’ proverbial shows, holding a piece of the pattern of a beautiful transformation that will only be good for all, and yet the system wants to hunt you down and tear you apart. In the end, the imaginal cells have their day. They reach out and connect with one another, linking up and becoming the connectome of a different creature. The old systems fall away, and what was once caterpillar mush, becomes a beautiful butterfly. 

One of the many things I find interesting about this, is that like the imaginal cells, the caterpillar already has a cocoon inside. All it needs is to find a nice safe spot and shed its skin. Nature takes care of the rest. 

Now, consider this metaphor in contexts of individual humans, as well as that of all of human civilization. If left unchecked, the caterpillar would devastate its environment. In no time, all the plants the caterpillar rely on would be dead, and then there would be no more caterpillars. Instead, they eat just the right amount to prune the plants, which then flower. Just in time for the butterflies to take flight and pollinate, returning the favor and helping to propagate their favorite plants.

It is no great stretch to imagine humans as individual caterpillars, as humanity takes notice of what those imaginal cells have been shouting all along. “It’s time to transform, or we are all going to die!” 

Taken to its extreme, it would seem we all need to stop eating, take a nap, and we will wake up as butterflies. Unfortunately, that is not how the human transformation works. So, who are the imaginal cells, and what are they supposed to do? 

Imaginal cells are people and organizations who are on the path, doing the hard, but gratifying work of waking up, growing up, cleaning up, and showing up (DiPerna, 2014). They are waking up to the understanding that human civilization as we know it, is disconnected from the deeper realities of the cosmos, and sleepwalking itself off the cliff of existence. They are growing up, doing the work to expand the facility and scope of the perspectives that they hold. They are cleaning up, doing the deep shadow work of rooting out unconscious, familial, and generational pattens of thinking, being, doing, and perceiving. And they are showing up, doing the work of bringing themselves fully, heart and soul, to sharing the gifts they have received on this journey with others. 

From an adult development perspective, we are talking about post-formal developmental people and organizations. “A postformal organization is continuously prototyping collective evolution by looking for a better way to be of service and care for others in the community. To do so, it is important to honor all stakeholders and work with compassion and in community and partnership, prototyping self-management and self-organization while transmuting tension by learning healthy relating and engaging actively in adult development as hierarchies of actualization come to replace hierarchies of domination” (Reynolds, 2019, 133-134). 

In other words, these imaginal cells are also Deliberately Developmental (Kegan) and Regenerative (Sanford). Deliberately Developmental means that systems for healing and developing people are built into how organizations work. Regardless of product or service, developing people is part of what they do. Regenerative means not only do they develop people, but regenerative people and organizations look to add value in everything that they do, to all stakeholders, as best they can, with a commitment to keep getting better. They are working together to design regenerative cultures (Wahl), and perhaps point the way to thriving (Wood), regenerative civilizations, just as humans begin reaching for the stars. 

The beauty of the metaphor is that the answers really are inside of us, and humanity has a path forward. We may not have direct solutions to every one of the existential threats facing our species, but we have enough to get started. And now, Covid 19 has caused us all to find a safe spot to shed our own skins. The world has been given a chance for a reboot, and a reality tv show of a year to remind us how urgent it actually is. 

With that, dear readers, I leave you with a request. I ask each of us, as 2020 comes to a close, to envision 2021, as the year in which a Planetary, Deliberately Developmental, Regenerative Culture fully takes root on planet Earth. Envision 2021 as the year that humans collectively decide to grow up and become human butterflies. I ask you to see yourself, alone for so long, connecting with all the other imaginal cells on the planet. I ask you to hold this vision with all your heart and soul. And when 2021 comes, let it out with all you have. Do your part, and do not look back!


Sanford, Carol. The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, and Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017.

Slater, Philip. The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture. Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2010

See Reynolds, Eric. “Collective Evolution and Next-Stage Organizations.” Collective Enlightenment. Accessed December 21, 2020.

Wood, Robin Lincoln. The Momentous Leap: Thriveable Transformation in the 21 Century: Healing Ourselves, Healing our Planet. 2018.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Axminster: Triarchy Press, 2016.

Zotigh, Dennis. “The Winter Solstice Begins a Season of Storytelling and Ceremony.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed December 21, 2020.


  1. Dave Pendle on February 13, 2021 at 1:11 pm

    Hey Keith. I too have resonated with this emergent archetype, you might enjoy reading my deep dive into this phenomena as corresponds deeply with the title of this article!!

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