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Talik and Co is currently engaged with a group of systems thinkers from local and central government, private sector organizations, consultancies and universities in creating a Masters Level Apprenticeship in Systems Thinking in Practice – because we all feel that the challenges that matter can only be addressed by working collectively – across boundaries.

There is a lot of exciting talk about the technical skills involved in seeing and mapping systems. It is fascinating – and brilliant. And we find ourselves talking a lot about what is sometimes referred to as “soft systems thinking”: the relational side of systems thinking – the part with people in it. The part that is most of what senior leaders are really concerned with; for us the heart of systems leadership.

People seeking to lead and influence across organizational boundaries have many choices to make about how they focus their energies.

We would like to boldly suggest they attend to these 3 things:

  • Let go of the need to articulate a detailed vision and work towards a narrative of shared purpose, which is lively and iterative
  • Move from developing skills in “seeing systems” to “feeling the system”. Senior teams and groups need to deepen their awareness of their experience of the system. They can then use this insight to understand and influence the relational dynamics which shape it.
  • Connect, connect, connect – as if “your life depends on it” because it does. And in many different ways.

This is the first in a series of three “Reflections” on Systems Leadership for Social Impact.

1.The key to systems leadership – living narrative not defined vision

We were working with some Ophthalmologists recently who wanted to create an event for stakeholders, that was as engaging for people who cannot see well or at all, as it was for those who can. They are good at this of course.

But it set me thinking – about how dependent the language of organizational and societal change is on the idea of vision. It’s not just any vision we demand of leaders – it’s a clear vision, 20/20 perfect, detailed, vision.

What about the other senses? I’m not sure how viscerally vision can be ‘felt’ -with as many senses as possible. Can we truly taste/smell/see/hear/feel something which doesn’t exit yet? Perhaps a good argument for a narrative is that it is only real in the now, the present, we feel the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, our hearts pump a bit faster and we live the story of now, whereas a vision has to be reached in a single bound.

We are obsessed with visions – if a leader can just picture the future in their minds eye and paint the picture for others – then people will work towards it, won’t they. Vision is often another one of those “if only” solutions to uncertainty in a system. (There is always uncertainty in social systems) “If only they could just clarify the vision – we would all know what to do …”

What’s the difference between a vision and a narrative? And why do I prefer the latter?

A vision has the sense of belonging to someone, who then has to convince the others. We are told to create a vision that compels the others to follow us towards it. It has a sense of certainty and clarity – which go with fixedness. I’m not entirely against a vision, but a story, a narrative, that can be told and retold – with each storyteller enriching it and being part of it – that is something else.

Marshall Ganz of Harvard speaks of leadership “as a move to motivate others to join you in action on behalf of a shared purpose”.

Purpose, in my view, is better served by a shared narrative than a clearly articulated vision. I don’t need to see the future world just as you see it to join you in a shared purpose, I don’t have to get on or off a bus – or a jump off a burning platform for that matter. I have to be with you now, fully connected and engaged in a story about what matters.

Ganz writes, “Stories are how we learn to make choices. Stories are how we learn to access the moral and emotional resources we need to face the uncertain, the unknown, and the unexpected, mindfully. Because stories speak the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we “ought to” act, but can in inspire us with the “courage to” act….”

That’s it – that’s the difference between narrative and vision. Vision tells us what the future “should” look like. What we “ought to be doing” in the future, “stories are how we learn to make choices now – mindfully”

That’s the first role of systems leaders – leading learning about how to make choices mindfully, in the service of a shared purpose.

Next time – how senior teams can use their experience of tensions in the team to understand systemic tensions and how to resolve them.

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