Are individual leadership development programmes really fit for purpose in today’s complex world?
There is no doubt that current organisational and indeed world challenges require us to move past individualistic interest and work together, across disciplines and borders.
So it makes sense to challenge conventional views of leadership and look to strengthen leadership in the system rather than solely in the individual. The days of the heroic leader are over, we should stop looking for the miraculous powers of one individual, how can they possibly have all the answers? The complexity, speed of change, volatility and fragility of organisations require highly effective collective leadership teams to ensure they survive and thrive.
“Focusing leadership development on how the whole system comes together to work inter connectedly is how organisations will succeed or fail.”
An organisation is a complex system of interacting and interdependent elements or players with a common purpose and identity. The quality of the interconnections as a whole will largely determine organisational performance not the performance of individual players. Shifting perspectives to think beyond “Me” and “You” to “We” and “It” develops team and systems intelligence that generates far more impact than any individual alone can create.
Dr William Tate uses a fish tank analogy¹ in his white paper describing leadership from a systemic perspective. He likens an organisation and its people to a fish tank full of fish. As we look at the fish tank, we notice different species of fish coexisting with each other, we see the roles they occupy in the tank, how some are prepared to compete with each other and others much happier swimming in a shoal. Organisations that take an individualistic approach to leadership development feed the fish well in a desire to see them thrive. They give them the food and nutrients to keep them healthy. Yet, if the quality of the water in the tank is neglected, if we fail to notice the cloudiness, the toxins and the predators lurking in the water, no matter how much you feed the fish some will die. Many of us have experienced working on individual growth only to find undercurrents in the system create a powerful blocker for change.
“Who’s responsible for cleaning out the fish tank?”
A systemic leadership approach focuses on the collective responsibility for the health of the organisation. It illuminates the relational aspects of leadership and how they affect performance. By relationships we not only mean relationships between people but relationships that exist with “things”; incentives and rewards, targets, decision making, power, responsibility and hierarchy, the list goes on.
“Wise owners do not blame the fish for their poor appearance or performance. They do not take fish out from time to time to give them a spot of training, tell them to smarten up & look more lively, and then plop them back in the same dirty water. Instead they clean the tank.”
– Dr William Tate, Institute of Systemic Leadership
How does it work in reality?
Assuming an organisation or team is clear on its purpose; why do we exist? Systems leadership starts by looking at the environment that determines the ability to perform. What are the political, structural, relational and cultural conditions that affect how work gets done? Are there opportunities to compete and to collaborate, permissions to lead and to be led?
It then looks at the strength of the relationships. Relationship mapping of internal and external stakeholders reveals where there are stronger and weaker bonds. What do we expect of each other? What are the patterns of interaction that help or hinder our performance? Does psychological safety exist within the team and organisation so people have the courage and energy to creatively challenge the status quo in search of something better.
“Control is good but trust is better”
In simple terms, systemic leadership requires a fundamental shift of focus from “Me” and “You” to “We” and “It”.
Developing key competencies
Building systems intelligence requires establishing the right environmental conditions and developing some key competencies. Teams and organisations can access their natural intelligence and creativity by developing:
- The ability to unlearn, learn and actively experiment • Advocacy for each other and the organisation
- Wide angled empathy² – empathy that goes beyond the individual and immediate team
- Deep democracy – ensuring every voice is heard without judgement
- Curiosity & inquiry, which opens the door to awareness
- Collective alignment
Reaping the benefits
Research³ and experience shows that organisations developing a systemic approach to leadership, navigate change better, have increased trust, optimise collective team potential and are able to fast track creativity and innovation.
In short, leaders and leadership teams who embrace this lens are better able to grow, face challenges, tackle problems and deliver solutions to remain future fit and competitive in a rapidly changing world.
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¹ Dr William Tate; Managing Leadership from a Systemic Perspective https://www.systemicleadershipinstitute.org/the-fishtank-metaphor/
² 2019 Turner & Palmer, pg 74
³ CRR Global Inc, Relationship Systems Intelligence™ Transforming the Face of Leadership