The Dawn of System Leadership

> ТАЗИ СТАТИЯ Е ДОСТЪПНА И НА БЪЛГАРСКИ

At no time in history have we needed such system leaders more. 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. Sensing this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade—locally, regionally, and even globally. Yet more often than not they have floundered—in part because they failed to foster collective leadership within and across the collaborating organizations. – See more at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#sthash.v2z323zp.dpuf

Today, many of us are “swimming in the same river”—trying to cultivate collective leadership in diverse settings around the world even while our larger cultural contexts remain firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic individual leader. This search for a new type of leadership creates a real possibility to accelerate joint learning about system leaders. For undoubtedly 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. – See more at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#sthash.v2z323zp.dpuf

Core Capabilities of System Leaders

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.

As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation. And organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, 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.

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

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.
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.

Much has been written about these leadership capabilities in the organizational learning literature and the tools that support their development.3 But much of this work is still relatively unknown or known only superficially to those engaged in collaborative systemic change efforts.
– See more at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#sthash.v2z323zp.dpuf

The real question today is, Is there any realistic hope that a sufficient number of skilled system leaders will emerge in time to help us face our daunting systemic challenges? We believe there are reasons for optimism. First, as the interconnected nature of core societal challenges becomes more evident, a growing number of people are trying to adopt a systemic orientation. Though we have not yet reached a critical mass of people capable of seeing that a systemic approach and collective leadership are two sides of the same coin, a foundation of practical know-how is being built.

Second, during the last thirty years there has been an extraordinary expansion in the tools to support system leaders, a few of which we have touched on in this article. We have observed numerous instances where the strategic use of the right tool, at the right time, and with the right spirit of openness, can shift by an order of magnitude the ability of stakeholders to create collective success. With the right shifts in attention, networks of collaboration commensurate with the complexity of the problems being addressed emerge, and previously intractable situations begin to unfreeze.

Last, there is a broad, though still largely unarticulated, hunger for processes of real change. This is undoubtedly why a person like Mandela strikes such a resonant chord. There is a widespread suspicion that the strategies being used to solve our most difficult problems are too superficial to get at the deeper sources of those problems. This can easily lead to a sense of fatalism—a quiet desperation that our social, biological, economic, and political systems will continue to drift toward chaos and dysfunction. But it can also cause people to be more open to seeking new paths. Compared to even a few years ago, we find that many today are exploring new approaches that move beyond the superficial to ignite and guide deeper change. Organizations and initiatives like those described in this article have succeeded because of a growing awareness that the inner and outer dimensions of change are connected. As our awakening continues, more and more system leaders who catalyze collective leadership will emerge.
– See more at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#sthash.v2z323zp.dpuf

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