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What does this mean? Systems leadership is about taking the wide-view; considering not only how to lead your team and organisation, but how to influence the wider system, which includes your suppliers, customers, and other external stakeholders. Before making a decision or taking action, a systems leader considers the impact on the wider system, and asks themselves if this serves the needs of the whole, rather than just their part.
Given the degree of volatility and uncertainty currently dominating decisions that leaders are having to make, a systems approach to leadership may help them navigate increasingly complex systems. Moreover, with the magnitude of some of the shifts required today, collaboration and understanding across the system is the only way forward.
Systems leadership can be described as a mind-set, or a way of thinking about and approaching your leadership role, rather than a set of technical skills or competencies. Putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes and looking at the world from their perspective is part of that mindset. We often do not have the authority to compel others --the public and our partners-- to act in a particular way, so building support for change is important, and by consider others’ perspectives we can build that support.
Systems leaders look at the bigger picture, the longer-term, and definitely view the world through the wide-angle lens. This means they can be strategic in their approach. And given the complexity of the systems that we all operate in today, we need less reactive and more strategic leadership.
A practical example of strategic leadership that we introduce on our programmes is engaging with stakeholders. We build visits to stakeholders into our programme, and this often has a disruptive impact when we explain it to participants! “You want us to go talk to customers / suppliers / partners?” Once they get over the initial shock and hesitation, the impact of those visits is tremendous. Participants come back with a much richer understanding and appreciation of what is going on in their stakeholders’ world; what their challenges and opportunities are, and how they might work better in partnership with them. This can be transformational. It is not a radical idea, but in our experience one that is obviously not utilised regularly.
System leadership is a necessary response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, (VUCA) and to resource pressures. By working more collaboratively across the entire system, we can find common ground and objectives, and appreciate the multiple perspectives that exist. I would encourage you to ‘get off the dancefloor and onto the balcony’ and observe your world from a higher perspective. You will not only see things differently, but you will also enjoy the view!