This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from the writings of Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania, The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015.
“The good leader is he whom the people revere. The great leader is he of whom the people say, “We did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu
We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Problems like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, growing scarcity of water, youth unemployment, and embedded poverty and inequity require unprecedented collaboration among different organizations, sectors, and even countries.
The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.
Systems leaders develop the ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves, encouraging others to be more open as well. They re-contextualize organizational self-interest, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part.
Transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems. Therefore, effective systems leaders work to build relationships based on deep listening, allowing networks of trust and collaboration to flourish.
There are three core capabilities that system leaders develop in order to foster collective leadership.
- 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. Getting the right people in the room and helping them 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.
- Foster reflection and generative conversations – Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the 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.
- Shift the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future – This typically happens gradually as 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.