From Systemic Failure to Systemic Leadership
Although there’s been a long-running debate about whether leadership can be taught, most people would say we know good leadership when we see it. Well, it turns out we were wrong.
In his book on leadership, Bill Tate takes us back to basics to examine our assumptions about leadership and organisations. As elegantly as a fishmonger filleting a Dover sole, he uses Systems Thinking to expose a number of key misconceptions:
Separating leadership from leaders
Although it is now generally accepted that leadership is not tied to elites or authority, it is still often associated with a senior management position and hierarchical thinking.
Bill reminds us that most leaders spend only a little of their time leading and that leadership can be a vital aspect of people’s jobs anywhere in the organisation.
Separating leadership from people
Even spreading the job of leadership around more widely, still leaves the focus of leadership on individuals.
Bill asks us to put that deeply ingrained approach to one side, and think in a radically different way. He sees leadership activity as grounded not in the individual but in the organisation. Drawing on Systems Thinking, he calls this approach systemic leadership and defines it as follows:
“Improving the way an organisation is led, based on understanding the organisation as a system, focused on the interdependency between leadership and the organisation, concerning how leadership is applied, managed and developed.”
Separating leadership from development
When an organisation identifies a need for ‘stronger leadership’, the first thing to emerge is always an agenda for developing people.
Drawing on his long experience, first as head of HR Strategy at British Airways and then as a consultant, Bill shows how the usual defective thinking about leadership and people has infected the way organisations think about improving leadership. The discussion, he says, typically starts with ‘Let’s have a leadership development programme’, rather than starting with a questioning process that begins with the organisation’s needs and goals.
Separating development from improvement
Conventional thinking means that leadership can safely be left for individual managers to sort out and for HR to develop. Collapsing the leadership agenda into personal development is where the quest for improved leadership in organisations starts to go wrong.
Bill invites us to shift from a ‘development’ to an ‘improvement’ perspective. Asking the question ‘How can we improve leadership in this organisation?’ opens the door to a wider variety of interventions and a wider range of targets for improvement action.
Separating the organisation from the business
The word ‘organisation’ glosses over an important distinction between the business and the organisation. The business is essentially outwardly focused and profit driven. A company’s business model answers the question ‘How will this company make money out of what it is doing?’. By contrast, the organisation is the set of internal arrangements at the service of the business.
Bill insists that a clear distinction must be made between the two before leadership can be properly considered.
Separating the organisation from its people
If the business is to receive the leadership it needs, the organisation has to provide more than a context.
Bill asks us to see the organisation not as a passive vessel waiting to have leadership poured into it but as an active player that has to contribute to leadership if it is to receive its due from managers. The connection between leadership and its host is symbiotic, with the organisation proving a vital partner both to leadership and improvement, and to making use of leadership action delivered by managers.
In an article written to coincide with the book's publication, Bill Tate examines our reactions to the systemic failings witnessed in a number of recent and current UK news stories:
* MPs' expenses
* the killing of Baby Peter
* the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police.
They provide a timely backdrop to his incisive analysis of the problems that underpin our current approach to leadership in organisations.
And they highlight the need for a new approach, which he explains lucidly in his new book.
Read the article in full below:
From systemic failure to systemic leadership