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System Leaership: Crossing New Thresholds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 24, 2015
Updated: Friday, April 24, 2015

System Leaders Inspire Others to Lead 

System leadership requires a new capacity to catalyze the leadership abilities of other people in multiple sectors who can then work together on intractable problems, business theorists say. Climate change, ecosystem destruction, growing water scarcity, poverty, inequity and unemployment, they suggest, typify the systemic challenges that are beyond the reach of existing institutions and hierarchical authority structures.

In a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania describe the systemic and collective leadership skills and commitments that collaborative initiatives need to function and flourish.  These authors join the scholar Otto Scharmer in tracing ancient understandings of leadership.

The verb “lead” comes from the Indo-European root “leith,” which means “to go forth,” “to cross a threshold,” or even “to die,” Scharmer has written, and embracing leadership in that sense includes realizing that a threshold needs to be crossed  and that something must be left behind for something new to emerge. That means letting go of what we think we know or want to control, he writes, and that may be experienced as a form of death to what has been familiar.  


Senge and colleagues say Nelson Mandela exemplified transcendent system leadership with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a radical innovation that allowed those who had suffered and those whose actions had caused suffering, to “face another, tell their truths, forgive and move on” to build South Africa’s future together.  The authors call the work a “profound gesture of civilization,” and a “cauldron for creating collective leadership.” They note the process would have been impossible without the leadership of others, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President F.W. de Klerk.


 Mandela is an iconic national hero, but Senge and colleagues say the core systemic leadership capacities that he and other lesser known leaders have practiced can be learned and developed. One capacity is seeing—and helping others see—the larger system existing beyond any one individual view.  When people come to share that larger vision, they can pursue health of the whole system rather than fragments of it.

A second, the authors say, is a capacity to foster shared reflection and more generative conversations. That requires deep listening, self awareness and the ability to appreciate the reality experienced by others who differ from us. The authors call those abilities essential for building the trust necessary for collaborative creativity.  The third capacity, the authors say, is the ability to shift “the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.” This is generally a gradual and deliberate process, in which leaders help people to build an inspiring vision of the future, recognize difficult present realities, and use tensions between vision and reality to inspire new approaches.

The authors describe successful system leadership in Roca, Inc., a Boston community group that has evolved to work with urban youth at a critical interface with gangs, police, courts, parole boards, schools and social agencies. Among other practices, Roca leaders used American Indian “peacekeeping circles” to get all participants to describe their deepest intentions. The idea was to illuminate how the community is impacted by everything that impacts individuals.

They point to another systemic leadership success in the evolution of Nike’s effort to eliminate toxic chemicals from its top running shoes. The head of Nike’s research department discovered the toxin and engaged dozens of people throughout the organization to design and produce toxin-free apparel. A result of that collective leadership is a movement throughout the sports apparel industry on waste, water, toxicity and energy.  Today the Joint Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals is a joint initiative of Greenpeace, Nike, Puma, Adidas, New Balance, and others.

The kind of systemic leadership Mandela practiced in South Africa was depicted recently in a New York Times story about division and disention in modern Turkey over the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. The official position of the Turkish government has been a century of silence or denial, leaving an Armenian population with psychic wounds passed through generations. In the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, the Times reports, a different narrative of reconciliation, apology and acknowledgement of a painful past is underway. Kurdish authorities in Diyarbakir helped restore the Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East, where descendants of Armenians kidnapped as babies and raised to believe they were Muslim and Kurdish have recently been gathering to discover their family roots.

Click here for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article System “The Dawn of System Leadership.”

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