Leadership…Systematically Speaking October 2017

Leadership... Systematically Speaking

Thoughts on the Model

To achieve extraordinary results, leaders must recognize the input and energy that come from others as they facilitate continuous improvement, change, and collaboration. One school of thought that has emerged in recent decades as a way in which leaders can unite that energy to build and sustain high-performing teams is Human Systems Theory.

A human system, as defined by CRR Global, one of the leaders of systems-based approaches to leadership, is when two or more people come together through dependency with a common purpose and identity. This entity is recognized as having power, energy, and knowledge. And when a fused team taps into those attributes answers show up, deep respect for input from others exists, change is welcomed, and unity is evident—even in times of conflict. This “human system” team is leadership in action.

Over the years, research from such systems-theory pioneers as Peter Senge has provided evidence that a move away from top-down or lead-from-the-front leadership is more and more being superseded by this type of relationship-based approach in which decisions coming from a collective wisdom contribute to a strong ‘team entity’. And it is this systems-based state that closely aligns with The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. With the model’s focus on self-leadership, those who embrace The Leadership Challenge and harness the energy and knowledge of the collective have the ability to (in the words of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner) “transform values into action, visions into reality, obstacles into opportunities, separateness into solidarity, and risk into rewards.” 

Exploring this alignment, here are some thoughts on how a systems-theory approach to working with teams can complement and/or enhance each of The Five Practices:

Model the Way
Values are at the core of this first Practice as it challenges leaders to have clarity on ‘what matters most’ to them. However, leaders never stand nor achieve alone. Shared values bring alignment, appreciation, transparency, mutual understanding, and clarity. And working with a team as a human system to identify and voice its values would assist greatly here.

Once a system has emerged (e.g., a project or operational team, a department, a committee), its strength lies in its identity which comes from every voice within the system—sharing, caring, respecting, and allowing for individual difference. Like the Practice of Model the Way, values also are at the core of this formation process. A significant benefit of a systems-based approach is its focus on continuous improvement. As the team progresses toward new challenges, new ‘inner compasses’ (new values) will no doubt emerge and so would the dialogue around their importance. A system’s intra-dependency would simply not allow this to happen any other way.

Inspire a Shared Vision
When leaders perceive a changing direction, one that has potential for bringing greater hope to the organization and to people, they willingly paint a picture of the exciting and ennobling future. They effectively enlist others in a common vision by integrating imagery and metaphor in telling the ideal story, as they see it. Leaders also recognize that they themselves only know what they know, and when others are invited into the picture, it may well expand their original vision with additional input and creativity.

Engagement for growth and change is the very essence of systems work. A system is always in an emergent state, becoming greater than its former state as it invites in each voice and perspective, allowing fresh input to be received within the context of ‘what matters most’. A human-systems team will even recognize conflict as an opportunity for development. Competition gives way to the collective wisdom of all, which will creatively extend a leader’s vision, if and when relevant.

Challenge the Process
When an exemplary leader facilitates the organization’s growth toward a new destination, there’s bound to be many learning opportunities and a need for innovative trial and error. Trust-based relationships and collaboration are essential to fulfill the promise of this Practice. After all, the team has never been there before. Mistakes will no doubt be made. This can bring about burnout, hesitancy, complacency, and even risk-aversion for individuals on the team.

Taking a systems approach to Challenge the Process can help leaders understand that a “human-system” team simply cannot exist without a focus on growth and regeneration. It achieves this with synergetic energy, ensuring the total sum is greater than its parts: the team focus is stronger and deeper than that of the individuals within the team.

Enable Others to Act
This fourth leadership Practice focuses on developing individual competence, confidence, and trust. Exemplary leaders foster collaboration and strengthen each team members’ self-determination and, as a result, the contributions of all individuals grow—sometimes exponentially equipping them for future challenges and preparing them to bring value to joint efforts.

When two or more people come together through dependency, with a common purpose and identity, empowering others is also what this human system is all about. When one voice speaks the system will automatically adjust to integrate its message without question, ensuring all inputs contribute to enabling the future.

Encourage the Heart
As practitioners of The Leadership Challenge®, when we recognize individual excellence and create a strong spirit of community, balanced and respectful encouragement exists that further propels our collective efforts into action. Celebrations and acts of positive recognition strengthen the bond of teamwork and trust, and reinforce the value that it is only the best and most innovative that the team seeks. It could be suggested that leaders engaged in this Practice think of encouragement as synonymous with water for a marathon. When the going gets tough, people get tired, worried and often feel stretched and stressed; at such times, recognizing their efforts with that one little extra drop of ‘water’ can send the engine of willing efficiency back into action.

Similarly, a human system is fueled by the excitement of progress, the ability to self-correct and the ownership of results. It is driven by a strong conviction about the path it walks and the progress it makes. At every moment, it is self-encouraging and mutually-assisting. The validation and encouragement that keeps the system going is simply embedded in its DNA.

Summary
Over the years, there have been a number of well-founded leadership models walking alongside The Five Practices, complementing and enhancing the effectiveness of The Leadership Challenge’s powerful model. I have found that incorporating systems-based principles into my leadership development work can make a profound difference in increasing engagement, commitment, and outcomes. By their very nature, human systems are intelligent, creative, and generative. And working with this framework in mind, I’m confident we all can help teams much more successfully address difficult situations with dignity and respect, transform values into action with cohesion, and turn separateness into solidarity with sustained collaboration.


Debbie Nicol is a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge and founder of ‘business en motion’, a Global Training Partner of The Leadership Challenge. With change at its core, her business consultancy and learning organization moves businesses and leaders ahead through training, coaching, and consultancy services by applying change management, team, and learning methodologies. She can be reached at debbie.nicol@businessenmotion.com or at ‘business en motion’.

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