leadership in broken systems

Over the past year I have given a lot of consideration on the role of leaders in our organizations and how some of the core assumptions about leadership need to change.

Surviving in broken systems and moving beyond them

Many of our systems and institutions are broken. So how can we survive in these? The answer may be in adopting an ironic sense of humour, coupled with honesty and humility. Sensemaking through irony, and not falling into a state of anger, frustration, or apathy, can lead us toward envisaging new systems. When people in the roles of decision maker, expert, & resource controller — traditional bottlenecks for knowledge flow in organizations — adopt these perspectives then “distributed, iterative sense-making, decision-making, and action-taking” can be enabled.

We have seen a “profound failure of ethical action” in dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As a society, we learned nothing from the influenza pandemic of 1918. We have learned little over the past three years. During this pandemic, many leading health and infectious disease experts have worked hard to promote misinformation leading to disinformation, in order to protect their institutions and disciplines, and not to protect people. This ethical crisis should be a wake-up call to build better educational, cultural, economic, and political structures.

One approach could be strategic doing through agile sensemaking. As Cormac Russell noted, “Bureaucracies following an iron rule: those who wish to elevate, support, & practically resource community alternatives will always be junior/subordinate to those who want to feature their professional & institutional capacities above citizens and the communities they serve.” In broken institutions, loyalty is often strongest to the structure in place and this powerful antibody staves off any progressive ideas from outside. Progressive change in these environments has to be in the form of trojan mice developed in an ‘agile’ fashion, using Strategic Doing skills such as creating a short-term action plan in which everyone takes a small step and meeting every 30 days to review progress, adjust, and plan for the next 30 days. But to begin, those ‘ironic-sensemakers’ have to first build and protect safe spaces.

The leadership lens

It is time to dare to un-lead as Céline Schillinger advocates in her book of that title. “A movement toward more liberty, equality, and fraternity at work starts, as we have seen, with an individual distancing themselves from a dominant model — one inherited from the past, which has become restrictive and counterproductive — with others eventually electing to do the same.” As Father John Culkin wrote in 1967, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Our organizational structures are just tools. They can be re-shaped.

Leadership by example is what we need, and what all citizens should demand. As Bill Comeau implored for better public health practices, “We each have few times in our lifetime to truly lead by example. This is a unique opportunity for you to do something you will look back on and think ‘I did the right thing despite the pressures around me and maybe I helped a nurse from burning out or someone getting very sick’.”

connected servant leadership model

Connected leadership is based on temporary hierarchies and strong networks. It requires work structures that are transparent, diverse, and open. Networked contributors are supported by servant leaders who actively listen, question the context, and sense & review. These leaders suggest responses, build consensus, and propose changes in order to get things done.

Complexity & Chaos

There is a critical need to lead in complexity today. Making our networks smarter is one aspect of leadership in our digitally connected world and so is convening the best parts of our networks in order to address complex issues and make decisions. In crises, sometimes perfection is the enemy of the good, so having a diverse, knowledgeable, and experienced group of advisors becomes critical. Leadership today should be a temporary privilege and a permanent responsibility.

Dmytro Yarmak shared his experience of leadership in chaos as he shifted from being an Agile IT coach to an officer in the Ukrainian Army. He explained how the Cynefin framework helped him understand the chaos of battle and complexity of war. This is a lesson for anyone in a leadership position today. This is agile sensemaking in action.

“Knowing the Cynefin framework also helped me in another way. If you are in the Chaos domain there are no best practices as your context changes. So if something worked before there is simply no guarantee that it will work again or in your dynamically changing environment. So you should be really careful when someone insists on best practices. This helped me to calmly ignore suggestions that I felt would not work. And instead of an imaginary ‘silver bullet’, act and create new practices.” —Dmytro Yarmak

Flipping leadership on its head

Telling people what to do does not create value. Networks of trust are what create value at all levels for human society. If at any point a manager/executive/politician wonders why people are aimless, disengaged, or ineffective, then they should reflect upon self-determination theory which states that there are three universal human drivers — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The historical role of management has been to reduce transaction costs in getting work done. A networked organization based on the compass of self-determination theory needs minimal management. It has the capability of sharing power between people and working together as the situation requires.

It’s time to get rid of the great man theory of leadership and stop replacing CEOs and presidents while expecting different results — it’s the system, stupid. The pervasive authoritarian father needs to exit stage left, and quickly. Our optimal future is networked and feminine, despite the many authoritarians that still abound in organizations and institutions.

One problem is how we perceive our optimum future. Often, the traditional political Right wants to go back to the Pre-modern (Institutional) Era — based on dogmatism, faith, & truth — while the traditional political Left wants to stay in the Modern (Market) Era — based on doubting, science, & facts. However, the best way ahead is toward a Meta-modern (Network) Era — based on seeking, knowledge, & combining.

Leadership models from previous and current societal forms are insufficient for a meta-modern world, which offers a way out of our post-modern mess. Most of our leadership models and practices belong to yesterday.

How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map, and reshape us.
So we should listen to the future.
Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, “which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent — the dead, or the unborn?”
To listen, we must first be present. —Meta, Modern 2020-05-20

societal forms based on timn model


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