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Applying Systemic Leadership

Acting systemically means taking a whole systems (or ‘holistic’) approach, rather than selecting individual parts of the system and ‘fixing them’. Classical leadership development programmes make this error, because individual managers’ competence is only one component of the wider system. Other components include, for example, the way incentives are designed to influence manager’s performance, the way the hierarchy and grading structure impose constraints, the process for holding managers to account, and so on. Improving one part may not improve the whole, and indeed improving one part may have unintended consequences for another. So, if we need to intervene in the system to improve the ‘way leadership works around here’ and make the organisation better led as a whole, then we should try to intervene on several fronts that are mutually reinforcing.

That may sound onerous, so to the right of this text is a list of actions and perspectives from the website’s Resource Centre that are relevant to the application of systemic leadership. We draw your attention to a handful in the text below.

Some of the items are relatively easy ‘levers’ that can be pulled quickly, such as how to sort good bureaucracy from bad – a familiar preoccupation in most organisations. Another example: it is possible to reduce the many ways in which your organisation wastes leadership. Related to this is the item on identifying and plugging the gaps down which leadership can escape and which leadership may be needed to bridge the gulf or to exploit opportunistic spaces.

At the same time it is best to think holistically of systemic leadership as a major culture change, for the leadership culture and beyond into the wider organisation.

All behaviour springs from assumptions, mindsets, worldviews and perceptions we have about things; applying perceptual control theory helps you think about the perceptions you have and check out the perceptions of those around you. Organisations can do quite a lot to shape managers’ perceptions about leadership favourably. The book The Search for Leadership delves further into mindsets and assumptions.

Some of the other items are designed to help you improve your organisation’s dynamics such as its dark, shadow side and how organisations project their own inadequacies onto other groups. Thus armed, you can make improvements in individual, group and system behaviour and performance.

If you are in a senior position, you will spend some of your time in a hands-on change role. But you will also spend some time supervising the work of other managers who are actively leading change. The two roles differ: ‘how to practise high-level leadership’ helps you handle the difference.

A most important item concerns the need both to ‘deliver today’ and to ‘safeguard tomorrow‘. This looks at how the purposes of the two timeframes are different, with one being more about leadership than the other. The balance is reflected in job seniority level and in how you allocate your time in a disciplined manner.

Further issues are listed opposite for you to browse. But make sure that you have first explored ‘Understanding Systemic Leadership‘ in this website and have looked at theories, definitions, principles.

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