Leadership and Systems Intervention

Leaders need to intervene, interrupt, and sometimes disrupt the existing system. If you’re leading, you’re messing with the state of things.

That’s because leadership is always about creating a new and different future. Managers devoid of leadership deal with the future, too. That’s because planning is a classic management function, of course. Managers can deal with the future merely by planning “more of the same” or “modest variations on the theme.” No leadership required for that.

The top two factors in leveraging change, in creating the future, have
to do with uniquely
human factors.
But how do you lead toward a bolder future when you are far removed from the seat of power? Let’s be honest. Many TechRepublic readers aren’t CEOs in a position to issue compelling “visions.” But that view of power to affect the future actually represents a very narrow and limited one.

Consider Donella H. Meadows’ twelve leverage points to intervene in a system. By way of introduction, the late Dr. Meadows earned her Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, was a protégé of systems dynamics guru Jay Forrester at MIT, and taught at Dartmouth College for 29 years. She was a pioneer in environmental science for several decades, researching and writing (picking up a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize), and founding both the International Network of Resource Information Centers and the Sustainability Institute along the way. Among the many books she wrote: The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions. (See a list of her other books here.)

Meadows suggests that you can affect complex systems in a dozen ways. She lists them in the order of their import, from least impactful to most, noting that, “Leverage points are not intuitive,” and may actually be counterintuitive.

So what factors actually make an impact on a complex system? Dr. Meadows put numbers last at #12. The easiest grasp, “they rarely change behavior,” according to Meadows (emphasis in original). Then come other familiar factors we often consider important including structure, delays, negative forces, rules, goals, and so on.

Consider these fascinating conclusions about the most potent factors about making an impact. At the top of the list... #2: The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises, and #1: The power to transcend paradigms.

Both of these top two factors in leveraging change, in creating the future, have to do with uniquely human factors. More specifically, they center on our capacity to think.You can affect complex systems in a dozen ways . . . but leverage points are
not intuitive.

This is perhaps the most powerful leadership lesson we can learn — one that I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with as an executive coach. Because, as Meadows points out, “The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it.”

If we — as creators and stewards of the status quo — are the most potent leverage point in the system, we are also the epicenter of resistance. That’s why, long before anyone uttered the words “systems dynamics,” Aristotle observed, “The hardest victory is victory over self.”

Leadership is not about the techniques you use to “get” people to do things, or pronouncing grand visions. Or whipping people into a frenzy to work like mad trying to achieve an objective.

Leadership really is about a) how you see the world now, b) how you envision the world becoming, and c) how you evolve yourself in terms of being and doing to create that desired future state.

If you’ve never read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, or if it’s been a while since you have, put the book at the top of your list. There’s a new edition out now anyway. Read and re-read the Mental Models chapter. Then read it again.

The primary system into which a leader must intervene is his or her own belief systems.

— Don Blohowiak
Leadership Coach

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