Your leadership style is essential in helping you, and others, to use systems thinking. Think about it – you are asking people to step outside of their comfort zone, see things from a different perspective and, at times, put their own necks on the line to enable others to work with open-mindedness, curiosity and a holistic perspective. People need to know that they will not be blamed for trying something new or approaching a situation in a different way. They need to feel safe, encouraged and supported. This takes honest and open, legitimate, relationships, built on mutual trust and respect. In my opinion, your leadership style is ESSENTIAL to your success as a systems practitioner.
Know yourself and how your thoughts and actions impact on others
Before you can effectively lead others you need to know yourself. You need to know what your own impact is on your situation of interest. It helps if you are able to be open-minded and curious. Being truthful about, and letting go of, your preconceptions are two powerful skills to help you on your way. Knowing yourself is key! It is far too easy for any of us to get caught up in our own obsessive thoughts and to forget to challenge our very own thinking. So, my first piece of advice is to get to know yourself, and how your thoughts and actions impact on those around you and the situation you are in.
Celebrate not knowing!
Applying systems thinking to any situation means that you have to start from a point of not knowing the answer. Only when you adopt this approach can you truly start to expand your perspective and take into consideration the wider context. Think about that for a moment. To say “I don’t know,” particularly if you are in a management position is not often an acceptable starting point. Traditionally, managers are expected to know the answers. What we often forget is that it is perfectly ok to say “I don’t know, until I have a look.” However, this can make you stand out from the crowd and many texts on social neuroscience will tell you that human beings are wired to fit in with the crown and not stand alone. Much of what is expected of the process of applying systems thinking depends upon people acting in a way that is opposite to how they might naturally behave. So, if we want them to feel comfortable using systems thinking, leaders must allow people the safe space required to do so. See not knowing as a huge opportunity and encourage others to do the same. Only then, can you overcome the stigma attached to not knowing and embrace the whole situation without a pre-conceived agenda in mind.
Support multiple perspectives
Don’t just stick to people who think like you. Find the biggest critic you can and listen to what they have to say. They may help you to uncover what your biggest obstacles to success might be. Listen deeply and think about their beliefs, fears and hopes. They have them for a reason and if they are trying hard to make you listen to them, it’s usually with good intentions in mind. No-one goes to work to intentionally be awkward and negative. If someone is shouting out, listen to what they have to say. Many an, “I told you so!” moment could have been avoided if people just learnt to listen and take others’ perspectives on board. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you should at least listen. Observe deeply and with an open mind. Immerse yourself in the situation and learn from the experiences of others.
Think positively about those you are trying to lead
Believe that their mindset is malleable and they are capable of learning and developing. If you don’t believe in people, then that very mindset alone will be a barrier to the positive outcomes you could achieve. Remember empathy! Gain insights from those around you.
Build legitimate, honest relationships
Nothing destroys trust more than dishonesty. So, be honest! Be fair and transparent. Give constructive criticism if necessary. Avoid reactiveness and defensiveness. Be mindful and aware. The quality of your own actions is paramount to trust building and developing mutual respect. Be genuine; take responsibility for yourself. People will soon spot if you aren’t authentic and once they have done this, your leadership will mean very little to them.
When on a client site
Work in a current rationality informed way – so that you can work to shift the rationality as you move forward with any changes.
Learn the politics and protocols of the environment. Learn how those who are succeeding are manoeuvring around the politics – this will help you work out the ‘rules of the game’.
Remember: stress changes our ability to think and a lot of people in the situations using systems thinking are in high stress situations. Therefore, seek to find out what is needed to help people really “think” about the situation (do they need space/ permission/ to be away from the management/ someone to listen?)
Consider in advance how people might have negative reactions to systems thinking and pre-develop a set of positive responses to those emotions, rather than reacting negatively, on the spot, which can cause you to lose the respect of those you are working with.
Work to increase your own requisite response to other people’s emotional reactions to systems thinking (remember to look at things from another person’s point of view; how powerful will systems thinking feel to them?)
Interpret any strong emotions in the situation (including your own). Passion often means people care – go to the root of what they care about and try and maintain that throughout the change. Show emotional empathy to gain buy in.
Use interactive planning (i.e. the future is subject to creation. Let the stakeholders define the desirable future). The stakeholders are the designers. Bring the whole system into the discussions right from the beginning.