Are you leading systems or silos? 5 ways to be a more connected leader

Connected leaders and why we need them…

I was proud to take my 14-year old daughter to our local Climate Change protest a few weeks ago.

My pride turned to gratitude a few days later, when we were snorkelling together on the beautiful coral reefs of the Pacific Ocean. I was filled with awe and wonder at the natural beauty of our planet.

To see the passion and energy of people of different backgrounds, ages and walks of life come together to protest for the protection of our planet, and then be up close and personal with the amazing natural under-water environment, really brought home to me the myopic perspective that pervades leadership.

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Interconnected leadership in the new world

Never before have we needed leadership that understands the interconnected nature of systems, and the power and magnitude of unintended consequences that can be unleashed through short-term, disconnected leadership.

The VUCA environment, fourth industrial revolution and the range of ‘wicked problems’ that we currently experience, are beyond existing models of leadership and their hierarchical authority structures.

Systemic challenges like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, embedded poverty and widening inequity, require leadership attitudes that seek new levels of collaboration among increasingly diverse stakeholder groups. One only needs to look at the leadership in world politics to understand the impact and costs of disconnected leadership.

Furthermore, in organisations, leadership horizons and agendas need to move beyond the individual leader (me) and their team or division (we) to increasingly all-encompassing understandings of ‘us’ – the collective.

Doing this brings an attitude that seeks opportunity and progress through connection and commonality rather than divisions and difference.   This is why a connected attitude in leadership central to my model of Leveraged Leadership.

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5 ways to be a more connected leader

As part of the founding research team at the University of Melbourne that established Systems Informed Positive Psychology, (SIPP) I recently published and presented on the topic of systems leadership at the World Congress in Positive Psychology.

Through this work, I’ve come to see some core capabilities that are needed to develop a systems leadership perspective:

  1. See the larger system

We naturally tend we see a system from our own vantage point and perspective, which often leads to conflict about which perspective is ‘right’. When people see the bigger picture, they can build a shared understanding of complex problems and develop solutions together that would not be evident from their individual perspectives.

This increases the health and performance of the whole system, rather than fire-fighting and problem solving individual pieces.

  1. Understand that we are part of the system we want to change (and perhaps the problem too)

Recognising that we are part of the systems we seek to change is a powerful aspect of systems leadership. Transformation is ultimately about transforming relationships among people.

Unfortunately many change leadership efforts fail because they fail to recognise this, and are based on unquestioned personal and group assumptions and inflexible change agendas.

  1. Foster reflection and more generative conversations.

Understanding another’s perspective and reality – emotionally as well as cognitively – requires deep, shared reflection. Meta-cognition – thinking about our thinking – is crucial to this as it allows us to hold the unconscious and taken-for-granted assumptions that we take into conversations up to scrutiny. It also helps us to understand how our mental models may limit us.

This is an essential doorway for building trust and fostering collective creativity.

  1. Create conditions for positive change to emerge

Leaders that try to make change happen are often ineffective. Focusing on creating the conditions for positive change to emerge can eventually create a self-sustaining cycle of change.

Collective wisdom cannot be built or planned in advance.

System leadership cultivates conditions so that collective wisdom can emerge over time, and in doing so, brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being.

Plans are, of course, always needed, but system leadership understand that plans and space are the yang and yin of leadership. Both are needed. But what is needed even more is balance between the two.

  1. Shift the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

It is easy for people to articulate problems and the conditions that create them. This is the Name and Blame Game that I’m sure you’re familiar with.

System leadership moves people beyond this to building collective positive visions for the future.

Through this gradual process people are encouraged to explore meaning and purpose and articulate their deeper aspirations. Their confidence grows through the celebration of positive progress.  

It can involve facing difficult truths about the current reality; and harnessing the energy created in the tension between vision and reality, to inspire and generate creativity and innovation.

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Nike case study: Systems leadership in action

It was 1998. Darcy Winslow, who was responsible for Nike’s advanced research department, was reviewing a gas chromatograph toxicological analysis that showed the chemicals embedded in one of their top running shoes. This was the first time they had been able to see the toxins embedded in their products and processes and the many chemicals that posed uncertain risks to their customers.

The Vice President of the product looked at the results and surprised the team by asking what they thought he should do. The toxins in the products were there because of cost, function, and design and material choices.

The real question became, ‘Who could—and should—lead in tackling this truly complex problem?’

Whilst wrestling with the challenge in the coming months, Winslow came to a new perspective.

Nike creates products,” she says. “Our first maxim is, ‘It is in our nature to innovate.’ The people we had to reach were the designers.

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At the time, Nike had about 25,000 employees; only about 300 of them were designers. Five to 10 percent of the designers represented only 15 to 30 people. Suddenly, building an initial critical mass seemed far less daunting to Winslow. “So I went knocking on doors,” she says.

Her approach was simple: Winslow showed the results to designers and asked what they thought. “You could tell within two minutes if the person was stirred up to do anything,” she says.“If they weren’t, I moved on. If they were, I asked for a second meeting.

Soon, a new network emerged. “If you tell a great designer something is impossible—like you cannot make a world-class running shoe without glues—they get very excited. It is the challenge that engages them.

Within two years, a movement was born within Nike.  400 designers and product managers convened for a two-day summit where leading sustainability experts and senior management explored the concept of design for sustainability together.

Today, Nike’s efforts have driven leadership throughout the sports apparel industry on waste, toxicity, water, and energy. For example, the Joint Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, a joint initiative of Greenpeace, Nike, Puma, Adidas, New Balance, and others, aims to systematically identify major toxins and achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the worldwide sport apparel manufacturing industry, starting in China. 

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If you want to change how a person thinks, give up. You cannot change how another thinks. Give them a tool the use of which will gradually cause them over time to think differently.” Buckminster Fuller

Tools for systems leadership

A variety of tools have emerged from diverse fields in the last few decades to help develop system leadership capabilities. These tools have two functions: they produce practical benefits and they affect how people think and see the world.

Tools for seeing the larger system

Tools that help people see the larger system bring together the mental models of multiple stakeholders to build a more complete understanding.

Simple questions, like Winslow’s “Do we know what is in our product?” are a powerful way to do this.

For educators, it might be “What happens for the child when she or he is outside of school?

For leaders it might be “What happened to our client/customer/employee in their experience of this organisation?

Systems mapping of the answers can help build a visual picture of the relationships and connections beyond the boundaries normally assumed.

Tools for fostering reflection and generative conversation

Tools that help foster reflection and generative conversation help groups slow down and ‘try on’ other people’s perspectives so that they can question, revise, and in many cases release embedded assumptions. The Ladder of Inference is a valuable tool for this.

Tools for shifting from reacting to co-creating the future

By asking 2 questions,  

What do we really want to create?

What exists today?

…we generate creative energy by identifying the gap between the collective vision and reality. Generating and sustaining focus on this creative tension is one of the core practices of system leadership.

One approach that I use to help individuals, teams and large, multi-stakeholder initiatives do this is Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

 “As managers, we are all good problem solvers,” says Winslow. “But it is easy to get so caught up in reacting to what we don’t want and completely fail to tap the heart and imagination of people’s genuine caring for what they do want, and to use this energy to transcend the ‘us versus them’ mindset.” Fostering the collective creativity happens most reliably when we help people see the larger system, foster reflection, and have different quality conversations – each of which is also achieved through AI.

You can find out more about the variety of helpful tools and approaches available today here:

What are your next steps to developing your systems leadership?

Systems leadership takes more than tools and good intentions.

You need the right skills. And these only come from regular, intentional application and practice to build your own and others’ capabilities.

Systems leadership involves practicing how to help people see the larger systems hidden by established mental models.

It involves how to foster different conversations that gradually build genuine engagement and trust.

And how to help shift the collective focus from just reacting to problems to releasing collective creativity and vision. The practice is internal and external, and it requires discipline.

If you’d like to generate systems leadership, talk to me about how I can help you with Appreciative Inquiry, coaching, or a ‘Pick my Brains’ session.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.