Will You Be a System Leader?

Organizational leadership Respect Teamwork


Key Point: I recently looked over some qualitative research on what it takes to be a superb leader and there was little insight on the importance of system leadership. So in the spirit of being provocative, I believe the following: If you’re not a system thinker and leader, your ability to lead deep, meaningful and impactful change is limited.

The Indo-European root of “to lead,” leith, literally means to step across a threshold—and to let go of whatever might limit stepping forward. Today, more than ever, we need leaders who inspire people towards greatness and who have the courage, conviction and SYSTEM LEADING competence to do so. In their recent, brilliant article, “The Dawn of System Leadership,” the authors (Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania) describe what the core capabilities of system leaders are:

  1. “Though they widely differ in personality and style, genuine system leaders have a remarkably similar impact. Over time, their profound commitment to the health of the whole radiates to nurture similar commitment in others. Their ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, 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.
  1. The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us. Deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually “hear” a point of view different from their own, and to appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other’s reality. This is an essential doorway for building trust where distrust had prevailed and for fostering collective creativity.
  1. The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.”

Character Moves: 

  1. Recognize that deep meaningful change involves a movement that is both inside and outside of us and the two are connected. The following is a BIG THOUGHT for many. The authors of this article state: “Continuing to do what we are currently doing but doing it harder or smarter is not likely to produce very different outcomes. 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.” 
  1. Investigate what system leadership is about. I’m currently part of leading a large system change. I’m committed to learning more about profound system leadership and sharpen my abilities to embrace, apply, and have lasting impact. My colleagues and I deserve that. What about you? 

System leadership in the Triangle, 


One Millennial View: I love the idea of a rookie needing to earn his or her keep. In a firehouse, a police station, a dugout or the military (to name a few), new members need to prove they’re worth their salt. Great. That doesn’t mean their chief, coach or sergeant doesn’t also completely depend on them, utilize them, and expect them to perform alongside the vets. I was recently asked, “What motivates and demotivates millennials in the workplace?” A system leader seems to motivate. They didn’t hire us to just sit around, and we don’t want to. But, leaders who keep me uninvolved have me swiveling in my desk chair, wondering what I’m even doing there. Look, I’ll “fetch the coffee,” but when the real action is happening, let me get in there too. I feel like a system leader understands that. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis