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Systemic Leadership – A liberating mindset of connection

I love the word ‘mindset’ – parts of the mind that have set, like a jelly or (more seriously) cement, so to remain fixed until an external factor disrupts it and it reforms. The word also evokes sets of ideas that have grown together and run the risk of remaining conjoined, creating chaos in their random association.


Influencing the mindsets of leaders today is an almost overwhelming plethora of approaches and philosophies on Leadership. Even scholars in the field struggle to keep up with trends. We hear frequently that leaders should be responsible, authentic, principle-centred, effective, intentional and even ‘naked’. As leaders, we have to be emotionally intelligent, start by breaking all the rules, start with ‘why?’, think outside the box, think inside the box and study the outliers until we reach the tipping point. We have to be attuned, plugged in and unplugged. Quiet and gung ho! We learn that our iceberg is melting, someone has moved our cheese and apparently a monk has divested himself of his Ferrari. We have to be servants, mavericks, saints, surfers and alchemists, all inside a leadership pipeline, while trying to figure out what they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. This all happens in one minute, at five levels, with six sigmas, seven habits and based on 21 irrefutable laws. Is it any wonder conceptual randomness is wreaking havoc in the minds of our leaders?

The obvious conceptual trap is that saying anything more about Leadership simply adds to the overwhelming weight of understanding it. Unless, as I respectfully submit, we remind ourselves of what we are trying to do in the first place. Of course, even claims of the ‘first place’ can be problematic, since first places (our priorities) are subject to perspective.

For that and many other reasons, a systemic approach to Leadership proposes the gathering of multiple partial views – collecting and connecting various perspectives (from diverse sources such as multi-level staff, customers, competitors, etc.) that are inevitably limited in outlook. The focus is not only the neuroscience of the fox, but the wisdom of the entire forest, as well as the blue ocean that surrounds it. This provides the leader with at least an opportunity to create a holistic view, from which an informed approach may be galvanised.

While analytical leadership (still the dominant paradigm in most organisations) is obsessed with the parts (rather like a 17-year-old school boy), the systemic leader is always and only concerned with the whole – the sustainable success of the organisation. The implications are significant. Analytical leaders believe that, if each part is improved, the whole is automatically enhanced. Not so. Consider, for example, the classical case of enlarging the sales team while those in production struggle to keep the exponentially greater promises (based on disjointed BHAGs) made by colleagues they have hardly met, and the unintended and circular consequences of damage to business reputation.

So, if you find the conceptual world of leadership somewhat overwhelming – if you are feeling like the long tail at the bottom of the pyramid and you are struggling to tell your SQ from your escrow or even if you are starting to favour GQ over EQ – scan the multiple containing systems of which you are inevitably a part. Identify new, meaningful relationships for sustainability, discard redundant ones, and create synthesis where fragmentation reigns. Systemic leaders see and create healthy, dynamic and living organisational systems. 

Dr Morne Mostert is a faculty member at USB Executive Development and a specialist in Systems Thinking, Strategy and Leadership. His new book, Systemic Leadership Learning – Leadership Development in the Era of Complexity, appears in November. For further information, please contact morne@leadershipoptions.co.za

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