“We are faced with a whole series of global problems that are harming the biosphere and human life in alarming ways that may soon become irreversible.” ~ Fritjof Capra
Those words, nearly a quarter century old, from the first page of Fritjof Capra’s 1996 book, “The Web of Life,” ring truer now than ever.
Capra goes on to say, “There are solutions to the major problems of our time, some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values.”
He adds that he believes we are on the cusp of a paradigm change in worldview as profound as the Copernican revolution, but hastens to add that, “This realization has not dawned on most of our political leaders. The recognition that a profound change of perception and thinking is needed if we are to survive has not yet reached most of our corporate leaders either…”
We face major problems. Climate change, economic inequalities, homelessness, poverty, political divisiveness — the list goes on and on. The most recent societal upheaval, a global pandemic, presented an opportunity for political leaders to rise to the challenge, put aside partisanship, and lead. But instead, it has cast an amplifying and harsh spotlight on the selfishness, antiquated worldviews, short term reactive and myopic approaches to ‘solutions’, and outdated modes of leadership that prevail.
“Not only do our leaders fail to see how different problems are interrelated; they also refuse to recognize how their so-called solutions affect future generations.” ~ Fritjof Capra
If we are to survive as a society, we need a new type of leadership — transformational leaders with a systems thinking worldview. We need systems leaders and systems thinkers.
“The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader — the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.” ~ The Dawn of System Leadership
In their paper, Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development, Lisa Dreier, David Nabarro, and Jane Nelson define system leadership as “innovative and adaptive approaches that engage broad networks of diverse stakeholders to advance progress toward a shared vision of systemic change.” They then outline the key elements of System Leadership:
- The System: An understanding of the complex systems shaping the challenge to be addressed.
- The Community: The tactics of coalition building and advocacy to develop alignment and mobilize action among stakeholders in the system.
- The Individual: The skills of collaborative leadership to enable learning, trust-building and empowered action among stakeholders who share a common goal.
Consider those three elements for a moment. How many current leaders really understand the complex systems in which they operate? How often do you see leaders building broad coalitions of stakeholders across the system. How rare it is to see trust-building instead of tearing others down and assigning blame. Think how refreshing and affirming it would be to witness leaders who exemplify those key elements.
Core Capabilities of System Leaders
In their seminal paper, The Dawn of System Leadership, authors Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania outline the core capabilities of system leaders.
- Ability to see the larger system — in other words, systems thinking.
- Ability to foster reflection and more generative conversations.
- Ability to shift the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.
The paper goes on to share ‘gateways’ to becoming one a system leader and offers many tactical examples of how systems leadership approaches have been used to catalyze transformational change.
The two papers referenced above, The Dawn of Systems Leadership and Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development are both highly approachable primers to start to learn about systems leadership.
“The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.” ~ Fritjof Capra
The network of networks and interconnections of the systems in our society require collaborative and collective leadership. But it starts with us, the members of society, requiring better leadership, understanding systems leadership, understanding systems thinking, and adopting a systems thinking approach and worldview.
Systems thinking and systems leadership both need to be more broadly championed if they are going to permeate society and take root amid the weeds of failed leadership. We need more people and organizations need to join in and help to promote awareness. Consider this humble article as my initial foray in that.
Are you disappointed (or even disgusted) in the failed leadership all around us? Learn more about Systems Thinking and Systems Leadership in the links below.
Resources: Where to start learning about Systems Leadership and Systems Thinking
- Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking, Leyla Acaroglu
- The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra
- The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge
- Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, David Peter Stroh
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows
- The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities, Linda Booth Sweeney