The wicked leader is he whom the people despise.
The good leader is he whom the people revere.
The great leader is he of whom the people say, «We did it ourselves.»
2500 years ago Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu expressed the idea of individuals who catalyze collective leadership as above. In the article «The Dawn of System Leadership», Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania argue that we have never needed such system leaders more than we do today.
Systemic challenges that go beyond the reach of existing institutions and their authority structures are not hard to spot. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, scarcity of water and youth unemployment are just a some examples of problems that require unprecedented collaboration among individuals, organizations, sectors, and countries.
If collaborative initiatives are to avoid floundering however, they need to foster collective leadership.
System leaders have a similar impact
Senge and colleagues find that though system leaders differ widely in personality and style, they have a similar impact. Over time, their commitment to the health of the whole nurtures similar commitment in others. They build relationships based on deep listening, and they have an ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves. This allows others to be open as well, lets networks of trust and collaboration flourish and can turn situations of polarization and inertia to opportunities of innovation.
Senge et al. argue that our cultural context is firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic individual leader. Through working with system leadership they have met many «Nelson Mandelas» however, and they argue that though Mandela no doubt was a unique leader, he is still not a special kind of person. Although formal position and authority matter, people contribute as system leaders from many positions. Rather than being special, system leaders share some core capabilities that can be developed, Senge et al. argue.
The capabilities of system leaders
The first core capability of the system leader that Senge et al. find, is the ability to see the larger system. Usually people will focus their attention on the part of a system most visible from their own vantage point, and in complex settings this often leads to arguments about who has the right perspective. Building a shared understanding of complex problems is essential in enabling collaborators to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually.
The second capability is to foster reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection is to think about our thinking, and involves seeing the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how these can limit us.
The third core capability of system leaders is an ability to shift the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creation of the future. Artful system leaders help people move from simply reacting to undesirable conditions to building positive visions for the future. This involves not only building inspiring visions and facing difficult truths about the present reality, but also learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.
Practice, practice, practice
Senge et al. explain that through their meetings with many «Mandelas», they have noticed the depth of commitment it requires and the particular gateways through which budding system leaders begin their development.
The first gateway concerns a re-direction of attention: seeing that problems «out there» are «in here» as well, and how the two are connected. Real change starts when we shift the nature of the awareness and the thinking behind our actions, the authors argue.
The second gateway involves re-orienting strategy. While 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. System leaders understand that collective wisdom cannot be manufactured or built into a plan created in advance. Instead they cultivate conditions where collective wisdom emerges over time through a process which gradually brings new ways of thinking, acting and being.
Good intentions are not enough to be a system leader, however. The third gateway a budding system leader passes through is practice. You need skills, and these come only from practice, practice, practice. Everyone wants tools for systemic change, but too few are prepared to use these tools with the discipline needed to build their own and others´capabilities, Senge and colleagues argue.
Although becoming a system leader is a continuous and challenging process, Senge, Hamilton and Kania are optimistic. The widespread suspicion that our most difficult problems are met with superficial solutions can lead to a sense of fatalism. On the other hand it can also drive people to be more open to seeking new paths.
As the awareness that inner and outer dimensions of change are connected is growing, it might be time to start practicing. In the article The Dawn of System Leadership (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015) you can study a rich set of tools for practice and dig into examples of unique system leaders.
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