Systems Thinking and Leadership
Traditionally, the mantra has been: ‘If you want leadership, look for a leader’.
Bill Tate’s response is: ‘Look inside the organisation first to find out what is happening’.
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 what is destined to become the new leadership ‘bible’, leadership guru Bill Tate uses a Systems Thinking perspective to take us back to basics to examine our assumptions about leadership and organisations. As elegantly as a fishmonger filleting a Dover sole, he exposes a number of key misconceptions:
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.
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. 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.”
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’. Instead, it needs to begin with a process of questioning the organisation’s needs and goals.
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.
Bill insists that a clear distinction must be made between the two before leadership can be properly considered.
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.