Renowned systemic thinker Peter Senge and colleagues make a bold assertion. “Ineffective leaders try to make change happen.”

Most of the visitors to this site are familiar with how often Vincent pointed out that neither he nor Louise de Marillac thought the things they did would be as effective as they were. However, the fact is that systemic changes radiated out from them. They did not set out to change systems. But systemic change radiated from them.

Vincent and Louise instinctively understood the following…

System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining. As we continue to unpack the prerequisites to success in complex collaborative efforts, we appreciate more and more this subtle shift in strategic focus and the distinctive powers of those who learn how to create the space for change. Source: ssir.org

In a follow-up of an earlier reflection on “Be the Change you Want” I continue to draw on the wealth of ideas in the Insightful article by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania Winter 2015 “The Dawn of Systemic Leadership.” This time the focus is on, what are the core capabilities of systemic change leaders?

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.

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.

Here are some reflection questions for those impatient with current situations:

  • Have I been trying unsuccessfully to make change happen through my own efforts? Can I shift my focus to “creating the space for change to happen”? How?
  • Do I see the larger picture and try to step forward?
  • Do I try to engage many voices in moving forward?
  • Do I encourage collaboration or do I insist on my vision?

Bonus question: How would you reconcile the above post with an earlier one – One big idea could change everything?


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