Over a coffee with a friend the other day, we asked whether leaders in business, politics and in our communities are equipped to deal with the scale of disruption and breakdown occurring at all levels in our systems for living. Afterwards, she sent me a report called, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’; http://thinkunthinkable.org/downloads/Thinking-The-Unthinkable-Report.pdf
It establishes a strong case that leaders are ill-equipped to respond to, let alone proactively influence, the growing complexity and acceleration of systemic level challenges.
It has caused me to think more deeply about the idea of cultivating capacity for leadership of systemic change. Here’s where I’ve got to.
Firstly, leadership of systemic level change is a process, just like so much of the discussion about leadership. We are focused often on the means more than the ends; on power, behaviour, systems and strategy.
Instead we should be asking ‘what is our leadership leading toward?’.
I’ve heard so often that leaders should have a vision. However, rarely do we question what the nature of that vision is. Most visions, and certainly the ones of 99% of business and political leaders are contained within existing worldviews, within the existing and dominant paradigms and central stories.
But if we look at any of the significant leaders through history, they offered to lead people to a vision outside the pervading story. Mandela lead towards a new story of forgiveness, reconciliation, of blacks and whites living in harmony. Mother Theresa showed through her example a story of compassion and selfless service. JFK inspired through a story of active and engaged citizenship (‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’). And the good news is, we don’t need to be a world famous leader to do this. Leading toward a new narrative can be done from wherever we stand.
The inability of leaders to adequately deal with the chaos and disruption of our times is at least in part because they are still seeking to lead within the bounds of out-dated stories.
The story of perpetual growth and progress that underpins our economics is flawed. We live on a finite planet and the extractive economy of consumption and waste is undermining the future inhabitability of the planet for humans.
The story of ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition and survival of the fittest is also out of date, as biospheric and sociological scientists show us that life exists primarily through relationships of co-operation, symbiosis and synergy. The research shows that humans are not the winners ‘at the top’ but part of a complex web of interacting systems.
Yet when I pick up the Wall Street Journal, or the Australian Financial Review, papers read by the leaders of business and politics, I find only news of leaders acting within the existing paradigms of growth and competition.
My thinking cycled back to systemic change. This capability, the means, is needed because it is time for leaders who are willing to lead toward a new story; from a narrative of growth in our economics to one of regeneration, from a story of competition to one of relationship and collaboration with each other, our Earth, and the systems that sustain life.
So for me, the insight is about recognising that these failures of leadership, and the inability for leaders to be effective in these complex times, is because they are either focussed only on the process – the means – of leadership, or their vision is still contained within the context of the old story that is no longer valid.
The means to facilitate systemic change, build eco-systems, collaborate through ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ become potent when we are equipped with a compelling end, a new story, narrative and world-view to lead people toward.
And that kind of leadership can be taken up from wherever we stand, not just from those vested with power in our current institutions which are mostly built in service of the old stories. The people equipped to lead in these troubling times are those willing to believe, share, and lead toward a new story.