What is Systemic Leadership?

Article 01 June 2019

When we think about what’s required to lead systemically, we first have to clarify…What is a system?

An organisation is not a machine with cogs and mechanisms, as it was once thought to be. It is far more complex, alive, and unpredictable. Management theory has moved beyond industrial thinking to embrace the mindset of anthropologists and social scientists, and it has done so because organisations behave more like living systems: the carefully balanced ecosystem of a forest; the aligned and coordinated activity of a beehive; the complexity of the human experience.

This ecosystem perspective of organisations explains why challenges and dynamics can become entrenched and not easily shifted. Replacing trees in a forest will not change the quality of the soil on which future trees grow; there’s no fast track approach to building a mature forest. In people, applying pain medication will not resolve the underlying condition.

How does one lead systemically?

We need to understand the root of issues, and we can only do that with a combination of perspective, and attention to detail.  Using the previous examples, we need a perspective of the broader health and lifestyle of the whole-human-being. We need incisive curiosity about the nutrients in the soil.

The task of systemic leadership, therefore, is to get a birds-eye view of the ecosystem, scanning for the multiple forces and factors at work upon it. Including those dynamics in the surrounding area that may be impactful, as well as those taking place from within.

What are the capabilities required for systemic leadership?

External forces to consider include economic, regulatory, political, social, cultural, and changing resources available to do their work – such as the quality of labour market, raw materials, available investment, reputation, licence to operate, the belief and loyalty of customers and investors.

Internal forces could be climate and culture, capabilities of workers and managers, the efficiency of processes and operating models, quality of tools, as well as the hopes, fears and aspirations of people as they engage in the work.

A holistic view of these multiple dynamics gives leaders a true sense of what it is required – how to adjust the work, approach, and direction of the system to stay relevant and fit-for-purpose in changing environments.

What is the value of systemic leadership?

The important task of leadership is to keep the organisation thriving and surviving through constant adjustments and course corrections. With increasingly interdependent markets and societies, paying attention to the health of the entire food chain and ecosystem – beyond the immediate boundaries of the organisation – is the only way to stay vital.

With this perspective, it is inevitable that leaders become cognisant of the impact the organisation has on its surrounds – the community, nature, supply chain and so on.

So what is systemic leadership? It is not about ‘being the best’ or ‘delivering year on year growth’; these are bi-products and the welcomed results of a healthy and vibrant system. Systemic leadership is the ability and preparedness to take accountability for the work of the organisation and the ultimate impact it has on everyone – and thing – involved. From the people to the environment, industry, economy, and society it seeks to serve.

Olivia.jpeg Olivia Margo