The Dawn of System Leadership

Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania at SSIReview: “…At no time in history have we needed such system leaders more. We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Problems like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, growing scarcity of water, youth unemployment, and embedded poverty and inequity require unprecedented collaboration among different organizations, sectors, and even countries. Sensing this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade—locally, regionally, and even globally. Yet more often than not they have floundered—in part because they failed to foster collective leadership within and across the collaborating organizations.
The purpose of this article is to share what we are learning about the system leaders needed to foster collective leadership. We hope to demystify what it means to be a system leader and to continue to grow as one….
Systemic change needs more than data and information; it needs real intelligence and wisdom. Jay Forrester, the founder of the system dynamics method that has shaped our approach to systems thinking, pointed out that complex non-linear systems exhibit “counterintuitive behavior.” He illustrated this by citing the large number of government interventions that go awry through aiming at short-term improvement in measurable problem symptoms but ultimately worsening the underlying problems—like increased urban policing that leads to short-term reductions in crime rates but does nothing to alter the sources of embedded poverty and worsens long-term incarceration rates.9 Another systems thinking pioneer, Russell Ackoff, characterized wisdom as the ability to distinguish the short-term from the long-term effects of an intervention.10 The question is, How does the wisdom to transcend pressures for low-leverage symptomatic interventions arise in practice?
System leaders like Baldwin and Winslow understand that collective wisdom cannot be manufactured or built into a plan created in advance. And it is not likely to come from leaders who seek to “drive” their predetermined change agenda. Instead, system leaders work to create the space where people living with the problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time. Knowing that there are no easy answers to truly complex problems, system leaders cultivate the conditions wherein collective wisdom emerges over time through a ripening process that gradually brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being…. (More)”.