Systems Leadership: Why it matters for our future


Systems Leadership: Why it matters for our future

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of "changing the system". When you see how the structures of democratic societies are failing to take seriously the pressing global problems of our time, giving up in despair is an understandable reaction.

But change is possible. In recent years, we have developed a better understanding of how complex and abstract systems work - both in theory and in practice - and how to change them. "Systems", in this sense, includes everything from economies to cities to ecosystems. This has led to the emerging notion of systems leadership.

Connecting the dots for maximum impact

Management schools like to put adjectives in front of “leadership” – authentic leadership, servant leadership, holistic leadership and so on. Systems leadership is different. It’s not about a leader’s personality or style – it involves a different set of skills.

Systems leadership starts with systems thinking, which is among the most important skills a young person can develop. Systems thinking goes beyond critical thinking, important as that is. Systems thinking is essentially about connecting the dots.

Remember the storm of criticism when Elon Musk announced that Tesla would take payment in Bitcoin? He hadn’t joined the dots between the energy-intensive nature of mining Bitcoin and the role of electric vehicles in reducing our demands on the planet.

With systems thinking, the idea is to pinpoint what will have the biggest impact. One example is diet: the type of protein you choose to eat, and where it comes from, has all kinds of knock-on effects on the environment, climate and sustainability. So it's important to see the big picture.

Fundamentally, systems leadership focuses on identifying high-impact ideas, and on connecting the dots in order to mobilize collective action.

Collaboration not control

The problems ahead of us require a systems thinking approach, to take a step back, work together and connect the dots ahead of time. This way, we can find solutions which work across the system, and avoid the unintended consequences that can arise if we only address one part of a problem. Systems leadership is hard work. There is no single position of authority to aspire to. Much of systems leadership is about emotional intelligence – EQ, rather than IQ, which is difficult to demonstrate in a CV or an academic essay.

According to three leading thinkers on the subject, systems leaders share some attributes with traditional leaders – they are smart, ambitious and visionary – but they are also good at listening, facilitating, and engaging people with very different priorities and perspectives. Above all, systems leaders are humble: they “see their role as catalyzing, enabling and supporting widespread action – rather than occupying the spotlight themselves”.

Cynicism is rooted in the misconception that to change a system, you need to take control of the system. Systems leaders recognize that in complex systems, nobody has total control. Systems involve many people interplaying in complex ways to produce positive and negative feedback loops. Change the actions of enough people, and systemic change can follow.

Swapping anxiety for agency

Systems leadership can sometimes involve painstaking negotiations, but it can also be about crafting an inspiring new narrative. We should not underestimate the power of narrative to coalesce people around new ways of doing things.

As John Hagel puts it, narratives shape our view of the future, and our view of the future shapes our actions today. Threat-based narratives can paralyze people with fear about the future – but an opportunity-based narrative can motivate us to act in a way that, in turn, help to bring into reality the future we foresee.

Creating lasting change in the three domains we focus on at the Villars Institute – the energy transition, nature-based solutions and emerging technologies – will require systems leadership. It also needs intergenerational collaboration, melding the curiosity and ambition of youth with the expertise of people who have more experience in how systems work.

We aim to create awareness among young people about systems leadership, and through that inspire a sense of agency – an approach that rejects cynicism, but also is not naïve. We can face up to all that is wrong in the world with hope that change is possible.

Find out more about what to look for in future systems leaders: 5 Traits of a Future Systems Leader