15/05/2020 – Business / Leadership / Management
Leading through crisis
The current unprecedented world dynamics urge leaders to up their game. Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld – authors, and leadership and organisational transformational facilitators – explore how business chiefs can add new ways of leading to their repertoire.
There are a number of key skills that every leader needs in these complex times. Systems thinking and systemic intelligence are indispensable qualities for leaders in such a complex global setting. Systemic intelligence surfaces the roots of seemingly intractable problems, illogical resistance to change, persistent roadblocks and disappointing results.
David Snowden’s Cynefin framework – as outlined in his Harvard Business Review article – describes the typical dynamics and corresponding approaches in light of predictability and unpredictability. The latter can be defined by complexity – where we often only understand the causes and effects, the dynamics and interconnections in hindsight – or by chaos – where things are escalating at high speed. What additional skill set is required from leaders in these unpredictable times?
We typically assume that the organisation’s performance and culture are a reflection of the leaders – their personality, their decisions, their words, what they do and what they don’t do. Yet often, there are stronger systemic forces at play overruling the individual leaders’ best intentions. This is why it is so critical to understand the underlying dynamics of the system – the invisible currents that drive you off-track. The system’s restoring mechanisms are often stronger than the individual willpower of a highly capable leader or leadership team. If leaders don’t understand what is really going on, they will find themselves fighting symptoms, and possibly even making it worse.
An indispensible quality
Systemic intelligence invites you to:
▪ See systems: to see both the forest and the trees;
▪ Recognise the deeper causes underneath the drama on the surface;
▪ Stay curious to discover what is below the symptoms, while you probe, sense and navigate;
▪ Ask the deeper questions and be courageous to accept the answers and act upon them;
▪ Allow safe-to-fail experiments, take a first step and experience how the system is reacting, be willing to let go of the next step you already had in mind;
▪ Acknowledge that your leadership legacy does not depend on a heroic solo effort, but on a thoughtful collaboration with the organisational system.
When you get to the deeper systemic roots, you can turn seemingly struggling businesses and teams around, resolve longstanding issues, inject new creativity and inspiration, and restore energy and flow into the company.
Taking back control
We regularly find leaders and teams in stormy weather. Sometimes they try to convince us (and themselves) that they are in control, but when we take a deeper look, it becomes clear that they feel the underlying current pulling them in many different directions; increasing their effort doesn’t result in a course correction. It becomes critically important to:
▪ Invite the leadership team into the eye of the storm, where they can rise above the hectic perceived reality and bring fresh air and new positive perspectives into the game;
▪ Invite individual leaders to ground themselves and get into a zone where they may not feel completely calm, but have enough space to observe the real dynamics in their organisation. From that place, they can witness how they are interfering with the system, and in some cases contributing to or even exacerbating the issues at hand;
▪ Identify support resources and facilitators who can serve the system by creating space and holding ground when the leader’s capacity to do so is temporarily restricted;
▪ Get leaders to balance their outward-going energy, focused on critical stakeholders, owners, headquarters, the customers and the community with the inward bonding energy that keeps the organisation together in challenging times.
The inner landscape of leaders
There is no use intervening in the organisational system without working with the inner landscape of leaders. It requires them to display an inner capacity beyond the skills and competencies that may have made them successful so far. It is not just about industry knowledge, business expertise and execution of strategies.
Today’s complexity demands much more. It requires the capacity to deal with ambiguity, with ‘not knowing’, and it will include discomfort. It requires a leader to be able to hold space for themselves and to hold multifaceted dialogues with their teams so that reflective learning and fundamental mindset shifts can take place. It requires them to pause at the right moment; to enter into stillness and spaciousness instead of jumping to conclusion and actions; to allow new questions and answers to emerge; to invite and live through motions and emotions. It requires a previously unseen inner versatility.
A time for reflection
We need leaders to ask themselves and their teams different questions. We all need to reflect on:
▪ What are the consequences of my decisions for generations to come? When holding community meetings around the children’s fire, indigenous peoples ask themselves, ‘How will this decision affect the seven generations to come?’ Imagine what our planet would look like, what our companies, communities and families would feel like, if we considered the long-term impact of our behavior.
▪ How often do I rely on, or hide behind, my technical and functional knowledge and expertise? How often do I admit that I simply don’t know? That the solution to this question is beyond my current reach? That it will require a totally different mindset and skillset? Am I willing to suspend my first analysis and test a new solution?
▪ Am I willing to look at, and let go of, my biases? Am I looking for confirming evidence of my own opinion? Can I listen to the voice of the minority or are they automatically voted out? Can I invite the wealth and possible wisdom of opposing forces? What do people see as my blind spot?
▪ Dare I trust my gut? Do I trust my intuition? Am I willing to truly listen, knowing that this implies I might have to act accordingly? Dare I tune in to the organisational system, the teams, my people, realising that will expose me to more feelings and emotions and tension than I may be used to?
▪ What is the inner work I need to do, to be able to continue to lead in complexity? How do I better understand how I function in different systems (family of origin, current family, community, business, etc.) so that I am aware of my patterns, triggers, pitfalls, blind spots? How do I avoid leading the organisation with one eye only?
▪ How important is it for me to leave ‘my’ legacy behind? What am I trying to prove? To whom? Do I see myself as a hero, the one who is saving the day and gets an applause for it? Or can I see myself as one link in a long lineage of leadership?
▪ Do I stand by my values? In his book ‘In Over Our Heads – The Mental Demands of Modern Life.’, Robert Kegan claims we can’t survive in the current volatile and complex world if we let ourselves be defined by the group norms and expectations. We must let our own values lead the way, even if that puts us outside the group.
▪ What am I loyal to? Loyalty can totally destabilise a system or create unhealthy dynamics, especially in complex times. Strong loyalty leads people to go along with the rules or to follow a leader – even when this is not in line with their own values, or when it leads to destructive, unethical or illegal behaviour. ‘Who or what am I loyal to?’ is a critical question to ask ourselves.
Systemic intelligence is more needed than ever
In the current unprecedented times of global action trying to contain Covid-19, it is clear that systemic intelligence is more needed than ever. We are all invited to expand our notion of living in interconnected systems, much beyond our own micro-cosmos. Leaders can no longer deny global interdependencies and their responsibility far beyond the company fences.
As Sympatex’s CEO Dr Rüdiger Fox put it is in his recently published leadership article, we need to consider the cumulative effect of all players on the broader affected system. ‘We, as leaders, must be more careful in our decisions so that we do not overburden the economic, social and ecological systems surrounding us, with our collective actions’. Leaders have the responsibility to reinvent themselves.
About the authors
Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld are leadership and organisational transformational facilitators and co-authors of new book ‘EMERGENT – The Power of Systemic Intelligence to Navigate the Complexity of M&A’