Flying While Grounded

An Introduction to the Core Tools of System Leadership

By:  Hal Hamilton and LeAnne Grillo

System leadership is one output of the Food Lab and Impact Lab, and it borrows from many colleagues and approaches. After Donella Meadows wrote Limits to Growth from the work of a team, people began thinking of global challenges through the framework of feedback loops and the consequences of runaway use of resources. Peter Senge launched systems thinking into organizational design when he wrote The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Adam Kahane of Reos Partners, along with many others, applied Otto Scharmer’s Theory U to solving complex challenges that needed diverse stakeholders to act. Adam helped found Sustainable Food Lab, and both Peter and Otto have always been close partners.

Building on and using these tools and capacities, the Impact Lab helps its members develop system leadership skills while they work on their core business challenges.

Personal capabilities are foundational. YOU are the most important tool in your toolbox. Your interior condition influences the effectiveness of everything you do. It’s important to realize that you can’t change others; you can only change yourself, but as you change, your relationships with others also change, thereby shifting how others show up.

  1. Emotional intelligence compliments what we usually think of as intelligence. Daniel Goleman (literally) wrote the book, and even the Harvard Business Review provides a guidebook. We know that balance and equanimity are important to all human relationships. We’ve all been told to “know thyself.” Here’s a very brief article, and you can google for much more.
  2. Learning to stay centered is partly about managing emotions but has other dimensions also. Some of us have an explicitly spiritual center, but whether or not you think of yourself as spiritual, you will want to be both grounded and creative. Meditation, along with other practices like Tai Chi and Chi Gong can be powerful. Here’s a brief guide to meditation.
  3. Creative tension is a good way to frame the gap between current reality and your hopes. All of us are used to problem solving, which is habitual and useful for simple challenges. When we face longer-term or complex challenges, we direct more attention to trends and their causes, as well as holding a vision for what might be achieved. Creative tension is the energy between vision and a fully contextual understanding of what’s happening now. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube of Peter Senge explaining creative tension.

Strategic engagement is necessary, of course, because we can’t accomplish our goals by ourselves. We need our teams and organizations to be as effective as possible, and frequently we need to influence without authority, within our organizations and among partner organizations.

  1. The art of one-on-one conversationis perhaps the most important practice for any leader of anything. We learn to listen carefully and see the world through the eyes of the other. Here’s a good short guideline from the Presencing Institute.
  2. Four levels of listening is a framework for helping tune ourselves to highly productive planning, team improvement, and project design with people who don’t share all of our assumptions. Here’s a short YouTube from Otto Scharmer.
  3. The Ladder of Inference is a great tool for helping each of us, and members of our teams, notice the assumptions that shape our thoughts and behavior in ways we’re not always aware of. Here’s a brief article with some guidelines. This is an easy tool to teach, and it’s extremely useful for any team to practice.
  4. Finally, check-ins are great ways to begin any meeting, from teams to conferences. Before diving into the business of a meeting, encourage everyone to reflect and share, even if with just one other person. You’ll be surprised at how people show up with more attention. Here’s a guide.
  5. Learning Journeys are perhaps the most effective way to cultivate new insights. These are upgrades on field tours, carefully facilitated so each person has time for individual reflection, after which shared learning multiplies with the diversity of insights among participants. These also work to engage team members around a particular question or challenge and build a team’s ability to work together. Here’s a description  of the method from the Presenting Institute.

Impact delivery is the goal of all this. We want to make a difference in the world, and we have to perform at our jobs. Here are a couple of tools for understanding systems and root causes, and a couple of tools for collaboration, either internally or externally.

  1. Seeing the system is necessary to address causes rather than symptoms. The Iceberg tool is an easily facilitated and very effective way for a group to look at the structures and mental models that undergird what they might want to affect. Here is a guide to using the Iceberg in a group.
  2. System mapping is one step beyond the Iceberg for a group to develop shared understanding of causation and potential leverage points. Here are some “Do’s and Don’ts” for using system thinking and system mapping.
  3. Collective impact is a good approach when multiple organizations are trying to achieve similar objectives. Do we all have to agree on everything? No. Frequently it’s much more effective to have a few common, measurable goals but let each organization play to its strengths. Here’s the foundational article for collective impact.
  4. Stretch collaboration is a further, somewhat more nuanced approach to collaborating with groups that do not share a lot of common assumptions or vision, but which you need in order to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish. Here’s an introduction to the concept, and to the excellent book by Adam Kahane.

Conclusion: personal leadership and strategic engagement are core to delivering outcomes. We need both in order to be successful. It’s impossible to create sustainable change without doing the personal work that enables the leader to show up in a way that keeps others engaged.


More on this success loop can be found here and information on our approach using System Leadership is available here.

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