Leading systemically in complex situations

Mar 6, 2019

Over the last decade, as we have worked with colleagues on our systems leadership programmes and local initiatives, we have often been asked what our ‘system leadership model’ is.  We are called the ‘Leadership Centre’ after all! However, as our alumni and those we have worked with in places will know, we are very sceptical about the multi-billion dollar ‘leadership industry’, about competence models and ‘one-size-fits-all’ definitions of what makes a good ‘leader’. Even more importantly, we don’t think that anyone can, or should, being trying to lead ‘systems’. Our whole philosophy works against the idea that complex systems can be led unilaterally, that anyone should be trying to control the emergent nature of their development or that the current inequalities of power or opportunity should be upheld by looking to heroic leadership to solve our problems.

Are we willing to say anything about what capabilities might be useful to people who are trying to make new and helpful things happen in a systemic context?  Well, yes, as long as we all recognise from the start that:

  • leading needs to be distributed across as many diverse players as possible, most importantly those people who are meant to be being ‘helped’ by our interventions
  • good following is as (and sometimes more) important as good leading
  • leading is an activity not a role – and we need to step fluidly in and out of that activity, taking the flak when required, avoiding the kudos and making space for the next generation when we notice ourselves becoming part of the problem.

If this set of principles holds, then we can talk about capabilities for systemic leading for anyone who is trying work with others in complex, politically charged and contentious situations.  The five capabilities we outline below have not come from any over-arching theory of leadership – they come from our experiences of working with colleagues in places, or on programmes, as they grapple with complex multi-party challenges, facing into their own limitations and strengths and trying to make sense of things in radically new ways.

The five systemic capabilities (or challenges-for-leading) that we have noticed are:

  • Exploring Contexts
  • Convening Conversations
  • Narrating Meaning
  • Fostering Innovation
  • Personal Governance.

We will be saying more about each of these capabilities in subsequent articles, as well as providing examples and stories about their use in action.  However, to pique your interest, here are a few lines about each one below.

Exploring Contexts

One of the key differences demonstrated by people who lead systemically in comparison to conventional leaders is in how they enter a new situation – whether a new role, a newly arising issue or, indeed an entirely new context.  Skills such as ‘under-the-surface’ questioning, assumption-mining, dilemma identification and the ability to recognise and map political, interpersonal and behavioural dynamics become important here.

Convening conversations

The ability to operate according to the specific context becomes even more important where even agreement about the nature of the problem is low – let alone agreement about the nature of the solution!  So, we need create conversations where people can build a shared definition of the issues at hand before we start to build up ideas about how to address them.  These ‘thinking spaces’ can be genuinely creative and context-changing for those who take part in the them – sometimes the issue simply dissolves in the face of greater understanding between people and groups.

Narrating Meaning

Many conflicts and ‘stuck conversations’ in organisations and places involve circular arguments, long standing (but unvoiced) dilemmas, inadequate framing or monocultural thinking. We need to get good at spotting the symptoms of unhelpful, unproductive or exclusionary ‘meaning making’ and at uncovering the deeper meaning issues that underlie the surface problems.  We learn to avoid meaningless organisation-speak or ‘empty talk’, preferring to use plain language, metaphors and stories where at all possible, even when conveying complex messages.

Fostering innovation

Once we have created our coalitions and made sense of what is going on, we need to turn our attention to making the new happen – creating contexts and cultures which make innovation possible, and even easy.  Design thinking and ‘co-production’ also offer a series of large and small scale skill sets which we can make own. Rather than seeing innovation as a complex ‘black box’ which is only relevant to special annointees, we need an emphasis on bringing this straight forward and easily developed understanding to as many people as possible.

Personal Governance

Wherever we sit and whatever our role, leading in complex situations is far from easy. Personal governance is our term for the ability to not only stay resilient in the face of turbulence and challenge but also to constantly and consistently check in with ourselves about the ethics and principles we are managing ourselves within.  We have to be keenly aware of the need to, in Heifitz’s terms, ‘manage our hungers’ – noticing when more shadowy or unaware aspects of our make-up are affecting our judgement and, ideally, having ways of checking in with others who will challenge our approach when necessary.


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