Systemic Leadership: How do we acknowledge what is?

This blog is more a reflective piece as I don’t have the answers. My question is: How does a systemic leader successfully acknowledge ‘what is’ or the truth of the situation and at the same time take a holistic view of the impact of recognising that some things have not gone as well as we would have liked?

Let me share where I am coming from and what factors are shaping my inquiry. Can I first state that this is an inquiry is systemic. A systemic or holistic perspective considers that all parts of the system affect one another (see Tarnas, 1991). In other words, release processes affect the development/Scrum team. Next, the quality of testing from the development team also affects the anxieties and concerns of business as usual, and so on. I personally also extend this view to see that the success of one team delivering a key project also highlights collaboration across the system too. And, if one project has not delivered in the ways that we first imagined or fantasized; then this too will have both direct team impacts and as importantly systemic ones too. Agreed?

One of the most important roles of a systemic leader is to ‘acknowledge what is’. John Whittington for example says that in terms of systemic coaching that “standing in what is, the truth of the system, settles (the client) and opens doors to fresh resolutions” (p.83). The advice goes on to note that in this coaching role at the individual level it is important for the coach to remain “neutral” which is a gift that the client can benefit from.

Stepping inside a new leaders role and reviewing the last years highlights, progress and areas for improvement certainly resonates with this central idea of needing to acknowledge what is. This resonates around sincerity, candor and transparency and there are neat links in here for Scrum values. “This has not gone as well as we had planned”. Why is this important? If we have genuine concerns that things might be a little ‘happy clappy’ then looking from this perspective (or walking in this leaders shoes) one can have some empathy.

For example Tuckett & Taffler (2008) report that in some organisations there can be a culture that co-creates a ‘bubble of euphoria’. In this bubble (think of the banking crisis) everyone implicitly colludes in a process that everything is OK and all the people get “separated from reality”. The longer this continues the more the risks that actual events get glossed-over, spun and even re-defined to the a degree that we enter a ‘perverted reality’. Newcomers then have three choices: collude, exit or seek to facilitate change. In some cases this creates a systemic cycle of key roles that do indeed ‘exit’ for whatever reason(s), creating what is referred to as the ‘ejector seat syndrome’. This of course, is unsettling systemically.

However, there is a tension in here for me. And this is my inquiry question. In what ways or to what extent should we as systemic leaders, that recognise both positive and negative feedback loops on the system, acknowledge what is: whilst recognising that ‘bursting the bubble” will create pain? We will witness ‘exits’. We will see and feel hurts, disappointments and a sense of mourning.

It is my experience that in most complex systems there will a multi-factoral model and lessons to not only learn from but also not repeat. That’s a genuine learning edge. To this end, the leader’s communication would need a sensitive (neutral?) systemic language. To be seen to attribute (or worst still ‘blame’) a ‘part’ of the ‘whole’ would, in my experiences, only unsettle.. as it does not resonate as the ‘truth of the system’. This is no easy task and I would not profess to always get this right. The leaders would need a ‘heightened awareness’ of their own systemic entanglements and loyalties some of which may well be divided. Developing this awareness; now that’s a different story…

As leaders we would need to be able to understand our own stories (see Geoff Mead, 2011) and the ways by which these stories flow through and sometimes how we get trapped by them. My own inquiry in this has taken to Theory U and I’ll blog on that at some future point.

For the time being, my recent experiences with a constellation with Ed Rowland has helped me to experience the systemic in fresh, insightful and fascinating ways . I experienced and witnessed some of the ways by which formative familial constellations can get re-played in organisations. (see The Whole Partnership).

“Some things have not gone as well as we would have hoped”. There is truth in these words. Is it fair to posit that a bubble may have burst? Is our system maybe hearing a new truth? If so, then let’s be sure that we have a systems assessment; and that any lessons are indeed systemic and do not reveal any invisible loyalties, or personal defences/ protections.

Personally, I am committed to a more morphic model of transformation as this is beautifully systemic and relies on the forming and shaping of new organisational forms through organic changes. In this way we see merging and being merged in new ways; thus ensuring that the organisational is fit to evolve in light off its changing environment. This is fab transformational language.

Personally over the last few months I have been fragmented, disoriented and held contradictory feelings of both excitement/joy as well as genuine sadness/ disappointment as I’ve worked across two teams that are in very different ‘places’.  I’ve wondered whether this has been systemic valency? In other words the ‘micro’ in the ‘macro’ and whether unconsciously I’ve taken-up a role on behalf of the system? I wonder if my divided loyalties between first-class projects as a profession and excellent Scrum teams have been a ‘symptom’ of something wider, something much more systemic? All organisations have defences, and mine is not any different in this regard.

So my question is this: What systemic language speaks truth but at the same time speaks from a respectful place?

To end with a favourite quote of mine from Geoff Mead:-

We must learn how to differentiate between narratives that are self-interested and self-serving (and thereby diminishing of others) and those that come from a place of greater mutuality and genuine engagement (and thereby life enhancing) (p.117)

Quote taken from ‘The Heart and Soul of Leadership’.


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