The Challenge of Systems Leadership

This post first appeared on the Kumu Medium site

“At no time in history have we needed… system leaders more.”
— Peter Senge et al in their seminal 2015 SSIR article The Dawn of Systems Leadership

But, being a systems leader is hard work. It’s slow, painstaking, with many dead ends, limited fans and just when you think ‘why am I doing this again?’, a smattering of inspiring, life affirming moments that keep you committed to the cause.

If we need a pipeline of systems leaders to get working on our multiple interconnected challenges, we need to support them to do their work better and to stick at it when it gets tough. This starts with an understanding of the unique challenges they face. Here’s a few:

Being a systems leader makes you question your assumptions about everything

And that’s exhausting. Mapping systems and hearing multiple perspectives, you start to see how society, structured by our ancestors, continues to be reinforced by the institutions we are surrounded by. You hear the voices of the people who have lost out under those arrangements and see your place in the order of things, which is often uncomfortable.

I realized a year or so in that I’d been handed what I call ‘the colored glasses of culture’ at birth. A set of beliefs, behaviors and values for ‘the way we do things around here’. The more I delved into a systems approach, the more these assumptions were exposed and the more I questioned my own views. As a British person, for example, am I really supposed to be proud of Churchill and the British Empire? Is it ok that we partied so hard at University, while others can’t afford to attend school? At what age did I realize that being white was a ‘race’ too, not just a default? What does that mean for people of color?

The unraveling of things I was taught to take for granted has led to wave after wave of new awareness. It starts with a niggling cognitive dissonance that gets louder over time and prompts me to try and change my own behavior.

It’s much easier to get angry, much harder to listen, to understand and to try and change yourself. But systems leaders, if they are doing their work well, set out on a lifelong journey of self-discovery. As Senge et al say:

“Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. The fear and distrust we seek to remedy also exist within us — as do the anger, sorrow, doubt, and frustration. Our actions will not become more effective until we shift the nature of the awareness and thinking behind the actions.”

Are you an expert or are you ignorant?

Vanessa Kirsch, Jim Bildner and Jeff Walker in HBR said of system entrepreneurs “They must have a deep understanding of the system or systems they are trying to change and all the factors that shape it.”

While Peter Senge et al said: “one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.”

While these insights might appear contradictory, I think they actually just highlight another dissonance systems leaders face.

As co-leaders of The Finance Innovation Lab, we had limited background in finance and as a result, our credibility to convene was called into question often. But as I noticed in 2011, my lack of knowledge was actually a strength. There were so many ‘positions’ we could’ve stood for within our community: ecological vs environmental economists, investment bankers vs alternative currency peeps, fintech vs impact investing. Everyone had deep knowledge of their territory. If we’d been advocates for one of these positions over the others it certainly would have cut the diversity of our project at the beginning.

You see, a systems leader is often a convener of difference. You have to know enough about the different positions within that system you’re working on to understand the dynamics at play, and then you need to be willing to suspend your assumptions when you host a gathering. If you show up with a strong agenda, siding with one group over another, your guests will spot it a mile off and it will significantly derail your work.

Unless of course you’re convening a ‘scene’ within the movement. And this is why your role is complex.

By a ‘scene’ I mean a set of actors who want to do the same thing — like a sharing economy group, a gender lens investing group, or a fintech for good group. In this case you are building a sense of camaraderie based on similarity. Here it helps to be a champion of the cause, to illuminate shared interest and support the group to imagine just how powerful they could be if they acted together.

A beginners mindset or a lack of understanding of the players, the issues, and the challenges is a stumbling block here. You have to know your stuff to have credibility and to have the power to convene a ‘scene’.

Perhaps being a systems leader is someone with a birds-eye view who doesknow what they don’t know. Not an expert, but a convener of them.

Are you an activist or a diplomat?

You have to care enough to act, but as a systems leader, while you have a personal view about what needs to change in the system, you must have the ability to authentically put those views aside when it comes to bringing people together. Geneva Global described that “Acting as a neutral facilitator…a networker, and a diplomat” are crucial capacities of a systems leader. Senge et al say:

“All change requires passionate advocates. But advocates often become stuck in their own views and become ineffective in engaging others with different views. This is why effective system leaders continually cultivate their ability to listen and their willingness to inquire into views with which they do not agree.”

This involves an ability to ‘suck it up’ rather than to ‘blow up’ when people attack you. That is why systems change process often leans on Buddhist and peace keeping techniques (and takes lots of practice). It comes from focusing on a vision for how things ‘could be’ rather than focusing on the symptoms that currently enrage warring sides. It can be really difficult and it takes restraint.

Collaboration is key, but bad collaboration hurts

Collaboration in systems change programs comes in two forms:

  1. As a systems leader you are almost certainly collaborating with people directly. This might be with key co-founders, funders, peers, networks, consultants. They will help you to convene diversity and support the ecosystem that emerges in ways you could never do on your own.
  2. You will be asking others to collaborate in new ways. As the host of a diverse ecosystem made up of relevant industry actors, innovators, policy makers, you will be asking them to do the same.

Learning how to collaborate yourself, teaches you a huge amount about how to create the conditions for others to do the same. It also keeps you humble because it reminds you just how hard it is to do well. This challenge is something Adam Kahane talks about in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, so I know I’m not alone on this:

“I have also wrestled with this challenge. At home, at work, in the community, I have at various times found myself needing to get things done with people I don’t agree with or like or trust. In these situations, I have felt not only frustrated, upset, and angry, but also baffled and embarrassed: how could I, a person whose work is to help people collaborate with their enemies, find it so difficult to do so myself? ….The most important lesson — obvious to some, surprising to others — is that collaborating with the enemy, although not fun or easy, is possible.”

You need to learn lots of new skills

Facilitation in the broadest sense is key to systems leadership. Your role involves facilitating an ecosystem of solutions to your systemic challenge: bridging, translating, connecting, building. But systems are different and what’s required in one project will not necessarily translate to another.

Daniela Papi-Thornton in her TEDx talk, highlights the range of skills systems entrepreneurs need to be successful:

“Real system change entrepreneurs are agnostic about the tools they use to create change. Yeah they might start a social business if that’s what’s needed, but if that doesn’t work… they’ll do something else. They will work with governments to get new policy, write a book, work with corporates’, work with non profits, be activists, they might even hug a tree from time to time.”

So being a systems leader means you need to have to be open to being a beginner again. To be continuously learning rather than enjoying your ‘expertness’.

In the Finance Innovation Lab we learnt coaching skills, design thinking, how to facilitate, business writing, network building, policy advocacy and tools for campaigning (among others). Some of this was funded by my organization at the time (ICAEW), but some of it we paid for ourselves and did in our free time.

Where next?

Systems leaders have a complex job to do and they therefore need thoughtful support. The School of Systems change are doing a great job at this. Tatiana Fraser and I are plotting a new program of support for systems leaders.

But we need more.

More incubators, more accelerators, more coaches, more mentors and more community.