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:

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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