The new leader: an online convener of diverse perspectives for systems change


We write frequently about online leadership in this blog because Doris and I are continuing to formulate an online leadership model. We have already noted that online leaders build networks, encourage diverse perspectives within and outside an organization, and create an environment of openness, working out loud, and work as a learning experience (see our previous blogs Sighting Leadership in Action, Women Network to Lead, and Take the Lead in Learn, Lead, Connect Online).

This week I came across two resources about the new leadership paradigm in the online, in-person, and blended (combining online and in-person) environments. Both of these resources (and they are bookmarked in our open-to-you Diigo account) are by people I follow and admire: Beth Kanter and Peter Senge. I trust their expertise and know they are very substantial sources.

What interested me was even though they wrote about different approaches to this new leadership, there was a congruence of thought. Leaders for this new age are systems leaders – able to not only see the connecting pieces of an intractable issue or problem, but able to convene a very diverse group of stakeholders, including competitive businesses and organizations, at the table to work through how to tackle it. The convening is not just inviting people to a meeting, but creating an atmosphere and providing the structure to really examine each stakeholder’s perspective on the problem and each other to break stereotypes and move beyond turf and proprietary interests.

Beth’s blog of February 18, 2015 describes a workshop she will help facilitate for the American Leadership Forum in Silicon Valley (ALF). ALF has developed a I/WE/IT leadership model that concentrates on developing internal awareness of leadership (I), the power of groups and networks (WE), and the system that needs to change (IT). Beth says:

Making a real big difference demands that leaders do interior work to gain a self-understanding of themselves,  develop relationship building skills and facilitating the work work of groups and leveraging their professional and organizational networks,  and a keen understanding of complex systems change. This leadership is less about current position, authority, management, or control, and much more about facilitating the work of others: engaging, connecting, and catalyzing people, and helping them to self-organize and innovate around shared goals. It requires new mindsets, tools, and skills … 

She goes on to describe the shift in skills, from ”ego” to “eco” or system-awareness, the difference between organizational and network leadership, and why design thinking is a critical skill for change-makers. ALF process graduates are titled Senior Fellows and participate in online and in person activities in their communities as well as ALF events. Although specific to their model, this is a good illustration of systems leadership:

American Leadership Forum model of developing systems leaders. From Beth Kanter’s blog:

ALF’s rational for their model:

As the world of social change shifts to more collective approaches, it is important that we cultivate new kinds of leadership. If you are a leader within a nonprofit, foundation, socially responsible business, or government, much of what you’ve learned about organizational leadership doesn’t necessarily apply in this new world.

Peter Senge, the acclaimed author of The Fifth Discipline among other works,  and his coauthors Hal Hamilton, & John Kania wrote about the new leadership, Systems Leaders, in the Winter 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled The Dawn of Systems Leadership. They define the attributes of systems leaders after citing Nelson Mandela’s actions to rebuild South Africa as the ideal systems leadership:

Genuine system leaders have a remarkably similar impact . Over time, their profound commitment to the health of the whole radiates to nurture similar commitment in others. Their ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.

As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation. And organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part.

These authors identify 3 core skills of systems leaders:

  • The ability to see the larger systemHelping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces.
  •  Fostering reflection and generative conversations: Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us.
  • Shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future: Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future.  This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.

Margaret Huffernan, in this TED talk, Dare to Disagree, talks about the importance of disagreements and discourse to solve large, systemic issues. She argues that these disagreements and examination of differing points of view create learning, thinking societies. Her talk illustrates how system leaders must be comfortable with conflict, manage conflict so differing views lead to new learning, encourage all voices to be heard in constructive ways, and view conflict as a healthy part of any change process.

The descriptions that these authors use to define the traits, skills, and abilities of systems leaders seems to me to be the overall container of an online leader. We have talked about:

  • Creating diverse networks to obtain divergent and wide-ranging views that enlarge your knowledge of an issue and help you gain understanding of other’s perspectives
  • Working out loud so there is transparency in the process and the ability of everyone to learn from each other
  • Identifying what information is helpful, useful, and real and sharing that information to enrich everyone’s learning
  • Convening online groups such as communities of practice to utilize the expertise of members to co-create new learning and knowledge

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, in their excellent work on social learning, Leadership groups: Distributed Leadership in Social Learning, identify the roles community members play in a distributed leadership network that is developed for learning to impact change.  The role Community Keeper embodies the same attributes as systems leaders:

Social learning during an online event depends on the quality of the process, including a variety of appropriate, well-designed, and well-conducted activities, good pacing, smooth logistics, and adequate infrastructure. It is also sensitive to issues of social dynamics, including relationships of trust, power dynamics, egos, and the voices that are present or absent, being heard or ignored. The combination of reflecting on process and on the voices engaged in that process affects the ability to inspect actual practice, to dissect mistakes, and to question assumptions, as well as opportunities to express personal experience and diverging thoughts.

I still, of course, have questions. Does the online environment contribute to systems thinking and leadership by the very nature of its networked structure? Does building trust to overcome biases, stereotypes, and preconceived notions take less time to achieve online, or longer? What will the impact of online systemic leadership be and look like? We will continue to explore these issues, but in the meantime, what do you think?


Featured image created by misirlou from the Noun Project

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