In the final part of this three-part series, John Wenger discusses the merits of John Seddon's 'successful systems thinking' from a leadership perspective.
So what is the leadership stuff? In my old workplace, the senior managers managed like systems thinkers (working on the system, not on the people) and they also role modelled leadership stuff. Leadership is often associated with providing a vision. Once again, the assumption is often that the few people “at the top” will craft that vision and then apply a bunch of management techniques (individual performance management, targets, standards) to get people to do stuff. I believe there is a disconnect.
Why should the senior managers have the joy of working to achieve a grander purpose while all the workers get to see is their activity targets? Even if those 'at the top' put together a vision, it will not necessarily come to fruition just because we tell people, 'This is what you have to do.' I believe it comes to fruition when everyone in the business is a part of it, when everyone connects with it, when everyone is enlisted into it. I will do something really well if my will is engaged in it, not just because I have to. Best way of engaging my will? Include me in something bigger and bolder than a numerical target. In any case, if I’m a good boy, I may just try to meet my target and go no further or I may try to find creative ways to play with the numbers so it looks like I’ve met my targets.
To get leadership, I believe we need to emphasise purpose: what are we here to achieve for our market? Depending on the organisation, the market is someone buying our products and services or a social housing tenant who needs repairs done or a patient who needs good treatment. If targets are set, then, as Seddon suggests, the people work as if their purpose is to meet the targets. I believe organisations have other, more useful things as their purpose. I’ve used the example before of grave diggers. The activity they engage in is digging and tending graves. However, I believe they are part of a wider system whose purpose is to assist families through bereavement. It is not just semantics; it makes a difference to how they carry out their work. It also makes a difference if they are connected to that purpose because rather than have to be carrotted or sticked to do their jobs well, they can see how they add value to the purpose, how they add value to those they are there to serve. The purpose, then, is not about meeting targets for how many graves they have to dig or tend. They already know how to do that well and don’t need beaten to make it happen. If the managers spend their time working on the system to make sure the grave diggers have everything they need to do their jobs and the processes are clear, they can let them get on with it, and if there is leadership, everyone will be connected to purpose: making a difference to families in distress.
As Gregory Gull says, leadership must transcend self-interest. That, to me, seems self-evident. If someone is 'doing leadership', they are cognisant of those around them and the wider system. Operating purely out of self-interest is self-defeating in the long run. Good leadership is about seeing possibility; having the vision of how things could be. It’s about making a difference to others; having a deeper sense of why everyone really comes to work. Gull also says that leadership is related to one’s personhood, not one’s position. I believe the same. Good leadership development is good personal development.
I agree with John Kotter, that there are very very few organisations that have sufficient leadership. They may have managers who have re-styled themselves as 'leaders' because it’s just what you call yourself these days. Without a shift in thinking, however, what we end up with a bunch of 'leaders' still applying old management tools and looking for the people to blame when things don’t get any better.
Am I adding anything to the wider conversation? Not sure, but pondering and reflecting on all these things has helped me to get clearer in myself. I do, however, welcome comments that build on this conversation and which may give pause for further thought.
I am owner and Chief Sociatrist at Quantum Shift Global Ltd, based in London. I have a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. I bring a passion for lifelong learning and a deep understanding of human behaviour to my current work in organisational learning and development. I apply a...