‘Organisation’s don’t change, People do’.
The oft quoted adage has become a mantra for those of us that work in the world of leadership and organisational development.
Its widely acknowledged that successful organisations are centred on agile and flexible ways of working, being open to change and promoting continuous learning. More critical though is the truth that real transformation will only meaningfully happen if people embrace it. And people will only embrace if they believe in it, feel part of it and can influence it.
So leadership has to sit at the heart of any transformational challenge… whether it be local, national or global in size.
But as our world has become more complex so have our challenges…. And so has leadership.
Leadership skills are celebrated as being timeless; but their outcome is unique to each person and situation. Which is often evidenced as the reason why ‘leadership’ has never been unequivocally defined. Commonly we recognise that leaders who create vision, innovate and execute can deliver better outcomes and so deliver greater productivity, quality of services and growth.
But there is no fail-safe instruction for leaders which will hold true in any circumstance…leadership is about constantly adapting and intrinsically linked to time and need.
As facilitators, we develop programmes which support creating conditions to grow strong organisational leaders… Influencing skills , managing conflict, critical thinking, leading others, risk management, building relationships, and strategic decision making are some of the backbone topics of good practice organisational leadership development programmes.
Being a strong role model for your people has always been an essential attribute, but contemporary practice has broadened to explore inclusion, ethics and collaboration as fundamentals of leadership – as clearly you cannot demonstrate leadership without operating collaboratively, nor effectively collaborate without leadership skills.
But the complexity of our challenges has further evolved leadership practice.
So is the emergent leadership movement – systems leadership – distinct to these?
When working in complex systems where only multi-agency approaches can attempt to tackle wide-spread social challenges a unique approach is needed. The time and need have shifted. And so the leadership should adapt.
It isn’t about delivering. You don’t deliver world peace, or an end to global famine. And you don’t deliver a healthier population.
Setting the direction, goals and targets of an organisation are the failsafe markers for an effective organisational leader. But when working across system organisational boundaries where shared purpose and outcomes are critical, simply stewarding a business no longer cuts it.
Traditional leadership approaches can therefore get messy in a systems-based model where the dynamics that come with multi-led power often creates friction and inertia. Not recognising this, or the unique-ness of systems leadership skills, can be damaging on a widescale.
As a concept, systems leadership goes beyond engaging, consulting, partnering and collaborating. It isn’t about service agreements. Its not just about retaining your own power and authority whilst working well with others. Nor is it purely about co-design. Its not about retaining your competitive advantage. Its about recognising that different people will be in the best position to provide leadership in different circumstances – and therefore sharing, ceding or handing leadership over to others if that’s whats needed.
So can systems leadership be taught?
As John Atkinson notes, we can probably all think of that person who has the ability to connect with others. To see what is really possible if everyone’s hopes, ideas and energies can align. But often that ability is innate and therefore difficult to teach.
But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t focus on systems leadership development as a central activity. Indeed the biggest challenges to systems working lay in not addressing any lack of competent leadership within the system and not developing bespoke ‘solutions’ which address it through focusing on the specific composition and dynamics of the system – cookie cutter templates don’t work.
So how develop an effective systems leadership approach?
Well it isn’t as simple as just getting leaders to leave their egos at the door… for some its part of who they are and positively drives their success. But recognising inner drivers through focusing on understanding your values, beliefs and behaviours, and those of your organisation, is arguably the key to effective system leadership.
Creating opportunities in which leaders can explore the essential attributes of courage, empathy, resilience and vulnerability is vital. Testing that it isn’t about ‘allowing mistakes to be made’ but accepting that they will be. And on a large scale. Honing a quality of thought. Delving into working with uncertainty, navigating living political systems, and embracing ambiguity. And creating dynamic and fluid learning activities which stretch, challenge and reflect the change required.
Consequently system thinkers reflect just how hard this world can be for highly skilled and experienced leaders… to accept that the sustainable outcomes may be beyond their tenure but are still worth investing in and contributing to. To be open to being a beginner again and continuously learning rather than enjoying their ‘expertness’. Brene Brown aptly quotes from Teddy Roosevelt to define courageous leadership observing that “to dare greatly is to fail greatly”… but at least be ‘in the arena’ rather than on the sidelines as a critic.
Myron Rogers addresses this when he asks leaders in complex systems to stop focusing on the system itself, structure and strategy but pay attention to identity and relationships instead.
And this is where values-based organisations have the advantage… Values sit at the core of any sense of identity acting as the building blocks for beliefs and behaviours.
Moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or even ‘us’ to ‘us all’ requires developing shared purpose, governance, goals, systems and outcomes…at whatever level you are operating at. But determining an organisation’s role in the system requires determining it internally first – getting your own house in order before you join up with others.
Exploring values, acknowledging them, understanding them, accepting them, sharing them, and building a culture around them, will develop the authenticity, trust and commitment so important for systems leaders.
But does it work?
Well there is body of evidence to show this approach can shift how leaders think and behave.
Studies consistently show that organisations that consciously focus on their values are more resilient and sustainable. And those are the organisations as a whole, at all levels, (and not just at the senior echelons) who are most effective operating in systems-based environments.
Understanding the boundaries and if, how and when they can or can’t be crossed is a key success factor in systems leadership, enabling frank and honest discussions about what can be achieved.
Bringing together players from across the system and exploring what matters to them and why, personally and organisationally is a conversational starter. Overcoming the system behaviour hurdles (fear or mistrust) is a step change. Learning and sharing insights within the system provides that vital evidence of impact and successful behaviour change.
But leaders being prepared to recognise that they are part of the system they are seeking to change is the game changer.
Leadership, with whatever name, is an action, not a position.
So focus on developing the unique leadership skills which embody the change the system wants to see. Seek to change the people not the organisation. As arguably System don’t change, Systems Leaders do.
Contributing reading and research:-
The Leadership Centre
NHS Leadership Academy
NHS Improvement – In It Together programme
Public Health England – Reducing Health Inequalities, System, Scale and Sustainability report, 2017
The Barrett Values Centre
Myron Rogers – Heart of the Art
Brene Brown – Dare to Lead