How to Be a System Leader

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The Challenge

Building a business? Planning a community? Tackling a tough economic, social, or environmental issue? Whenever we deal with complexity we face a sobering truth. We can’t work in silos anymore. In her landmark paper “Dancing with Systems” Dartmouth College professor Donella Meadows encouraged us to engage freely with complexity instead of struggling to control it. Complex systems don’t respond well to a top-down style of leadership.

“For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?

“Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however – waiting, shining, obvious as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of ‘doing.’ … We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

We need a new kind of leadership.

System Leadership

The term ‘system leader’ has been around for a while. David Hopkins, professor emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London, used it in his book Every School a Great School: Realizing the Potential of System Leadership (2007) and in other writing on educational reform. MIT lecturer Peter Senge and co-authors Hal Hamilton and John Kania used it as a theme for their article “The Dawn of System Leadership,” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (2015). It has since been widely adopted.

When they can’t control a system, leaders need to work differently in a number of significant ways.

Acting with a higher purpose

Little is achieved without purpose. System leaders communicate a compelling call to action. They inspire people to be ambitious and reach for a goal that is worthy of real effort. When we pursue something we believe in deeply, anything is possible. System leaders help people aspire to create a ‘desired future.’

Embracing turbulence

Complex systems are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – choppy and turbulent like a wilderness rapid. Like agile whitewater paddlers, we need to read changing conditions and react in the moment. System leaders embrace turbulence and build skill and confidence in their organizations to deal with whatever comes up.

Engaging the entire system

Actors in a complex system are deeply linked. A small intervention in one place can cascade quickly to others, triggering unexpected consequences. Coordinated action is needed to create transformative change. System leaders see the whole system, and understand that every stakeholder makes a vital contribution.

Supporting distributed leadership

System leaders are not seduced by the illusion of control. They embrace distributed leadership, encouraging self-managing teams with the authority to make decisions that have real consequences. They trust collaboration to produce good outcomes, and create favorable conditions for teams to be successful.

Empowering people

System leaders acknowledge and respect people for who they are. People commit their hearts and minds to an organization when they’re not treated as objects but as real people, with their own hopes, gifts, and dreams. When we feel valued we engage deeply – taking ownership and being accountable for our own contributions.

Creating a generative space

System leaders help organizations build trust based on authenticity and meaningful collaboration. They encourage dialogue and deep listening, and create spaces where people can safely challenge the status quo. They encourage creative play and promote a culture that positively embraces failure and is open to trying new ideas.

Leading by example

System leaders lead by example. They acknowledge they are human, and demonstrate humility, integrity, and authenticity. They are reflective and self-aware, understanding that how who they are impacts what they do, and determines their effectiveness as a leader. They are resilient in the face of unexpected shocks and inevitable defeats.

Being generous

System leaders work for the greater good. They practice generosity. They are open with information to improve system-wide collaboration. They share learning so others can benefit from their experience – good and bad. They contribute resources to share the burden with others and accelerate progress.

Sharing the story

Stories are viral. They help us internalize purpose in a way that is deeply personal. When stories resonate with our deepest hopes and aspirations, we commit to change at a visceral level. System leaders are master storytellers. Their stories bring values to life, and affirm individual contributions to meaningful change in the world.

Mentoring others

System leaders increase the capacity of their organizations by mentoring others. They understand that it’s not about them. They help people learn to work this way. When they find others who share these leadership values, they support them. They communicate these principles to everyone and continually celebrate the successes of other people.

Collective Impact

We need system leadership now more than ever to tackle our most daunting challenges — but this isn’t something we can afford to leave to others. Each of us needs to be a system leader, honoring these principles in how we work in the world. When we work like this we magnify our impact and accomplish far more together than we would ever be able to achieve on our own.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on October 17, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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