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The Dawn of System Leadership

This month’s Gifted Leaders e-Newsletter features an article by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania from the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Today’s problems and challenges require a unique type of leader – the system leader – a person who catalyzes collective leadership.

Highlights from the Article

Though they differ widely in personality and style, genuine system leaders have a remarkably similar impact. Over time, their profound commitment to the health of the whole radiates to nurture similar commitment in others. Their ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.

There are three core capabilities that system leaders develop in order to foster collective leadership:

  1. The first is the ability to see the larger system. In any complex setting, people typically focus their attention on the parts of the system most visible from their own vantage point. This usually results in arguments about who has the right perspective on the problem. Helping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces.

  2. The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us. Deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually “hear” a point of view different from their own, and to appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other’s reality. This is an essential doorway for building trust where distrust had prevailed and for fostering collective creativity.

  3. The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.

Becoming a system leader requires a strong commitment and a developmental journey that begins with several key “gateways” including a realization that …

  1. Continuing to do what we are currently doing but doing it harder or smarter is not likely to produce very different outcomes. Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. In their book Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer describe three “openings” needed to transform systems: opening the mind (to challenge our assumptions), opening the heart (to be vulnerable and to truly hear one another), and opening the will (to let go of pre-set goals and agendas and see what is really needed and possible). These three openings match the blind spots of most change efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas and fail to see that transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.

  2. Ineffective leaders try to make change happen. System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining. We are all on a steep learning curve in understanding this gateway of creating space for change, but it seems to be crucial not only in initiating collaborative efforts but in what ultimately can arise from them. Today as we research and observe effective collective impact initiatives, what stands out is the collective intelligence that emerges over time through a disciplined stakeholder engagement process – the nature of which could never have been predicted in advance.

  3. System leaders understand that collective wisdom cannot be manufactured or built into a plan created in advance. And it is not likely to come from leaders who seek to “drive” their predetermined change agenda. Instead, system leaders work to create the space where people living with the problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time. Knowing that there are no easy answers to truly complex problems, system leaders cultivate the conditions wherein collective wisdom emerges over time through a ripening process that gradually brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being. The conscious acts of creating space, of engaging people in genuine questions, and of convening around a clear intention with no hidden agenda, creates a very different type of energy from that which arises from seeking to get people committed to your plan.

Read the article here.

The Gifted Perspective

Most of the leaders we work with face the same challenge – trying to cultivate collective leadership when the business and cultural contexts around us remain firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic individual leader. As the authors of this month’s article note, “we are at the beginning of the beginning in learning how to catalyze and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of problems we face, and all of us see but dimly.”

But, on the bright side (no pun intended), the shift from bureaucratic to collective or distributed leadership is well underway and we at Gifted Leaders want to help you accelerate that shift within your organization, business, or team! Regardless of whether you hold a formal title or leadership role, you can make a difference and contribute as a system leader.

As the article mentions, the Indo-European root of “to lead,” leith, literally means to step across a threshold – and to let go of whatever might limit stepping forward. Becoming a system leader who catalyzes collective leadership isn’t easy work but we can help you “step forward” and create the roadmap you need for your journey.

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