Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash

Some insights on systems leadership, through the lens of felt experience

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Within all the discourse on systems transformation, and in organizations in general, ‘leadership’ is a word that comes up a lot. There tends to be an implicit (or explicit) narrative, often institutionalized by organizational competency frameworks, that we should all aspire to be leaders, or at least strive to embody the qualities of leadership in whatever we do.

But while we like to talk about the leadership capabilities needed for transformational change in organizations and societies — to be agile and adaptive, to embrace complexity and lean into uncertainty, to lead with courage, to be innovative, to help others step outside their comfort zones and galvanize around compelling visions — we rarely seem to openly talk about the actual experience of leadership, or what it feels and looks like to develop the capabilities we laud. We like to publicize the achievements that emerge from good leadership, but not necessarily what had to be learnt along the way or the many shapes and forms those learning processes take.

I think one of the consequences of this paucity of sharing about the varied processes and experiences, including and perhaps especially the embodied experiences, by which people learn to lead within complex systems is that we start to perceive and look for leadership as though it is something that just is, rather than a highly diverse, contextual process of continuous formation. We prefer to narrate the existence of good systems leaders and reflect on their commonalities for insight, much more than narrating the collection of questions, uncertainties, internal shifts, surprises, failures, discoveries, and discomfort inherent in the work of becoming. The latter is often the entry point to relatability, which is often the entry point to accessibility.

Seven months ago, I was asked to lead my bureau’s task force to fight racism and discrimination. My immediate internal reaction was to say no (“You are definitely not the right person for this”), but largely because of that impulse, I ended up saying yes (“The experiences you fear are probably the ones you should be leaning into”). I have never considered myself, nor necessarily aspired to be, someone who ‘leads’, at least in the traditional connotation of the word. This feels almost blasphemous to admit, in the context of cultures and workplaces that often valorize the role of the leader — or the role of the influential individual — above all else. Perhaps because of this, and with the daunting open-endedness and weight of the task, I found myself seeking out blueprints and frameworks, examples and advice, insights and experiences I could draw on to piece together some basis from which I could take steps forward (or really, in any direction) with my team amidst so many unknowns.

Through this unintentional deep-dive research into systems leadership, including inquiry into the thought processes, intentions, and approaches that underpinned the leadership perspectives of respected colleagues and friends, it was fascinating to note the places where models diverged. Something that struck me in particular was how rare truly facilitative, participatory leadership often is, despite how much we say we want to see more of it. As one friend aptly articulated, much of what we call leadership in organizations is really just project management. Project management has its place, of course, but when we try to apply the same directive, command and control model to a complex social problem, the inadequacy of the advice emerging from such a paradigm is palpable. In my case, a lot of advice I received, while valid in certain contexts, just didn’t seem to fit the task at hand. If the goal of our task force was to come up with a set of deliverables to achieve in 6 months to show that the organization cares about addressing racism and coloniality (e.g. hold a few dialogues, design and implement a survey, develop a training or tool), then perhaps traditional methods would hold, but when the goal is something like contributing to systems-level change on structural racism in the organization and its work in development at large and the path to get there cannot yet be known, the ultimate task of a leader, I think, doesn’t lie in the strength of a deliverables strategy or Gantt chart but in the capacity to craft spaces for trust, learning, and connection: trust across team members and potential community so that generative collaboration and collective wisdom can emerge; learning as an overarching framework for everything we do and the basis on which our actions can be continuously designed, tested and redesigned; and architectures of connection capable of drawing out and marrying the potential of diverse capabilities, interests and lived experiences as both an input and outcome of the work.

Trying to figure out how to do this, in the context of addressing an issue that is so urgent and all-encompassing and yet, for that very reason, demands that we slow down and examine the assumptions by which we normally prioritize our responses to it, has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I am super grateful for all the patience, support, and energy of the colleagues I have been on this journey with and the opportunity it has granted me to learn in ways both painful and inspiring.

Since I always appreciate when others share the under the hood parts of their work and learning processes, I thought I would share a piece of this particular ‘systems leadership’ learning experience in the form of some working reflections (‘lessons’ feels too concrete) that I am sitting with at the moment:

  1. We need far more examples, and visibility of the experiences of, a diverse spectrum of leaders in our organizations. This includes leaders who identify as introverts, who are prone to anxiety or other mental health challenges, whose ways of communicating or thinking don’t fit our predominant notions of ‘natural-born’ leaders, who process the world in different ways, who lead even whilst rejecting the label of leader, etc. We need this visibility so that when we try to take in our organizations’ messaging that we can all be leaders, we can actually find sources of inspiration and validation in the examples and struggles of the leaders around us: that what is valuable and relevant does not look like any one mold. Making space for this diversity also requires examining where we look for leadership in others — to be clear about what qualities and mindsets are actually intrinsic to impactful leaders, and what qualities our culture has simply conditioned us to think characterize a leader (or the role of one).
  2. Discomfort is inherent to growth. But not all forms of discomfort signal something generative. It is important to remain discerning of, as much as it is to remain open to, internal upheavals: particularly to distinguish between discomfort that is natural to feeling your way through something new and unknown, and discomfort that comes from attempting to suppress core parts of yourself or counteract the ways you’re wired to fit a pre-conceived idea of what you think leadership should look like, what others have told you it is, or what an institution expects of you.
  3. When you are working towards a goal that is truly long-term (i.e. intergenerational), when you are co-creating the direction as you go, when the necessity of failure does not make the experience of it any less challenging, when your markers of progress do not fit the predominant definitions of an institution or sector, radical hope is a non-negotiable. There needs to be genuine faith in the possibility that the desired future state you have set forth as a group can be achieved. This sounds obvious (you wouldn’t agree to goals that you don’t believe in), but in practice, we are so steeped in cultures that encourage us to zoom in on the concrete products of our present moment that we can easily forget to keep zooming out to see the bigger picture: to consider what kind of seeds must be planted and continuously watered in service of that long-term future, even if the fruits will only be visible after we’re gone. To lose sight of this, which in essence is also to lose touch with our deepest sense of reality, can lead to burnout.
  4. Cultivating and sustaining radical, practical, grounded hope is not an individual practice. It is also not an act of illusory optimism. We should not underestimate the energy that is transferred and generated through being a mirror for each other’s struggles, concerns, and questions as much as for our shared aspirations. Hope isn’t necessarily derived from having an inspiring vision and knowing how to reach the destination as much as it is about knowing that there are others beside you who feel the destination just as deeply, who are willing to speak truth to power, and who are able to acknowledge what is not known and the vulnerability in that which makes us all the more dependent on each another.
  5. Leading in a way that is truly adaptive and emergent is uncomfortable. It is not only uncomfortable for the one leading but for all involved. Something that often gets downplayed in all the encouragement from institutions to ‘innovate’ or depart from business as usual is the fact that working in such a way generally means you are working outside the dominant business models or norms or accountability frameworks of the institution itself. This includes working outside the traditional metrics we fall back on to measure our own success, or progress, or value. When we move outside the confines of what is known or what feels validating — because it is literally the basis on which our organization or sector validates us — it requires a good degree of open-mindedness, mutual support and reinforcement, and likely also some intentional deconditioning of our own internalized standards and metrics. It is also worth noting that some of the characteristics of White supremacy culture include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, either/or thinking, valuing quantity over quality, and attachment to ‘objective’ measurement. Do with that as you will.
  6. Human beings are complex. Understanding people’s desires, interests, and intentions in order to find entry points for collective action is not something that comes from simply asking, listening, and synthesizing. Design research, or the generation of collective intelligence, at least in the context of something like anti-racism work, is not simply a matter of ‘objectively’ collating inputs from a set of individuals or data points and applying your analysis to them. It is about facilitating the conditions by which many ways of seeing and being and thinking can actually be in conversation with, rather than stacked next to, one another. In many ways, I think, it is really the long, deep process of trust-building, learning how to build bridges between the underlying meaning of disparate ideas, and listening between words (which requires giving weight to different forms of human expression): of creating the relational infrastructure for shared meaning-making and sense making. This is not easy or quick. We often like to jump to sense making before we have actually built the foundation in which we can really hear and see one another. Or we treat the information we have gathered from different people as something static and isolated rather than a living interaction of many moving pieces (interconnected human beings), or fail to draw wisdom from the cultivation of the interactions themselves.
  7. You don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t attempt to, erase yourself in order to be a facilitative or participatory leader. Besides the fact that we can never remove our own biases and be an objective convener of a process, part of the work of helping others to bring out their unique points of view is often being open about your own. I think learning how to stay whole and bring your wholeness in the room as a facilitator, as a way to bring out the wholeness of others rather than impose yourself on the space (in being mindful of your positionality) is part of the task/challenge. There is also a certain sensitivity required in the work of being a connector of expertise and wisdom, where it is necessary to appreciate the wisdom that lies in lived experience, without inadvertently framing certain groups of people as the possessors of ‘lived experience’ and reinforcing reductive relationships in the ways you bring different voices into the room or apply them to collective action.
  8. In the context of addressing deep systemic issues like racism and colonial power structures, words are actions. Dialogue is action. Storytelling is action. ‘Design research’ is action. These are not just tools that inform how we design our actions, but the conversations in themselves are the sites of transformation. True dialogue — energy-transferring, mind expanding, creating-something-more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dialogue — is one of the most powerful technologies we have for systems-level change, insofar as it allows us to work at the level of human hearts and minds and the paradigms that ultimately shape systems. As Ursula K. Le Guin notes, “Speech is dynamic — it is action. To act is to take power, to have power, to be powerful. Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listeners. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment in speech.”
  9. If we really internalize the power that is held, produced or shifted via communication, within work that depends so fundamentally on human connection and understanding as the raw materials of change, we become that much more present to the nuances and gaps and barriers that exist in any space of dialogue, and the implications of those gaps. While this form of presence is necessary to illuminate the work in front of us, it can also be draining. This feels important just to name. If there’s one thing this experience has reminded me again and again is just how mysterious and challenging and utterly beautiful and equal parts painful the work of human communication is. It can be isolating at times to be reminded of all the chasms that have to be crossed just to connect what is in the minds of two people at any point in time, even between people who know each other well, or to acknowledge the fact that even within connection, we can never fully know or understand someone else. Yet this reminder also makes it that much more beautiful whenever we experience moments of truly seeing each other, or moments when even in confronting the places of our missed connections, we have managed to still exchange something of value and meaning, even if only the desire and commitment to continuously try to understand just a little bit more.

In case it isn’t evident, this list is largely an attempt at translating emotion into insight. Whether or not it is of use to anyone as a list about ‘leadership’, I hope it at least offers one additional narration of leadership as a felt process that is as messy, winding, and reflective of the human condition as the kinds of insights that often emerge from it.

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