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A Systems Perspective of Leadership

We are obsessed with leaders. This is not a complaint; rather, it is an acknowledgement of a fundamental reality in our personal and professional lives. Further still, we are fixated on trying to understand leadership. Across decades of research we have tried to define leadership through what can feel like a kaleidoscope of intertwining factors. Meaning, while intuitively complex, the conceptual image we create in our minds to better understand leadership may focus narrowly on only a few factors at any given time. Sometimes research focuses on leader behaviors, while at other times on the impacts and outcomes that leaders help produce.

I have a deep appreciation for this approach as it has helped to unearth interesting truths about how we engage with and recognize 'effective leadership'. In fact, it is this tried and true method that has resulted in ways to organize and codify effective leader behavior to some degree, albeit not necessarily contributing to the simplification of our understanding. Search LinkedIn for 'Characteristics of top leaders' and see the sheer volume of articles (and different top 5 characteristics) to prove my point. We are continually defining and redefining leadership, indicating that we are still searching for clarity on what exactly 'it' is.

What if there was a way to escape this endless proliferation of top 5 lists and reach a more accurate understanding of how and why effective leaders function the way they do within organizations? A systems perspective on leadership may offer just such an escape by reframing how we choose to understand leadership and the questions we ask to gain clarity on the topic. So, what do I mean when I say systems?

We have to begin with the organization

To understand systems, we have to begin with the organization. We know that organizations operate at varying degrees of complexity often characterized by interrelated parts and roles that function at the organization, team, or individual levels. Ironically, some models of highly effective organizations lend themselves to overly simplified, sometimes rhetorical, conceptualizations that offer only cleanly defined roles, flow charts, and metrics. Practitioners that buy into these oversimplifications run the risk of being lulled into satisficing among only superficial understandings of dynamic, complex organizational behaviors and processes.

Luckily, systems thinking offers a type of reconciliation against these contrasted understandings by applying a discipline of seeing wholes. Systems thinking provides a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than snapshots in time (Senge, 2006). As organizations develop greater capacities to absorb and collect information, develop stronger interdependencies, and react quicker than in years past, holistic systems perspectives accurately capture the complexities of organizational processes while offering a structured approach to understanding organizational behavior.

Good leaders know how to take an external view of their environment while operating within them.

However, a systems view is not just about seeing the 'big picture'. As a means to understand effective leadership, a systemic view provides important insights beyond high level organizational diagnosis. For example, just as there are large systemic breakdowns (i.e. national budget deficits, climate change, international drug trade, etc.), organizations also break down despite the best efforts of individuals and creative teams because they are unable to pull their diverse functions and talents into a productive whole (Senge, 2006). Meaning, holistic views of organizational processes and structures alone would still ignore the ways leaders interact with and are in fact a part of the organizational environment-culture-relationships within which they and all other workers operate. A systems view pays attention to the human side of organization and offers contextual understandings of organizational environments and the people therein. As a means to understand our own roles as leaders, we must view leadership itself as a function of relationships with other people within organizations.

To view leadership as a product of and catalyst for effective organizational work is not earth shattering. However, implicit in this understanding of leadership is that it has traditionally viewed leaders as being both separate and outside organizational systems, exercising influence onto the system. This assumption is actually aspirational in nature. We wish leaders could do this.

The reality is that leaders operate within the same systems as everyone else in the organization. The challenge that leaders face is to recognize their position within the system, and then step back to take a systemic view of how all the people and processes interact. This way, leaders can learn to apply influence in effective ways that facilitate the most impact. Good leaders know how to take an external view of their environment while operating within them.

By seeing effective leaders as exhibiting both and internal and external views of systems, we come to realize that 'effective' leadership behavior is not a function of some widely assumed leadership norms. Rather, effective leadership is a product of a dynamic understanding of organizational environments that is predicated on a systems view of how things and people work. So, instead of referencing yet another 'top 5' list of what effective leadership should look like, leaders can begin to recognize their impact on and in organizations by reflecting on a few key questions -

  • Can you view your current organization as a whole system of interrelated people and processes? How would you characterize this system? In what ways does it perform well? What needs to be changed?

  • How do you see your role in this system? Can you make a difference to bring about change?

  • We all have a responsibility to the professional environments we inhabit. Are you compelled to change or improve your professional system?

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