System Leadership in Action

Over the coming year Sustainable Food Lab will be collecting and sharing stories of system leadership by individuals and organizations. In a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania describe system leadership as the capacity to catalyze collective leadership. This is a different type of leadership than that of John Wayne with his six-guns, or, for that matter, Donald Trump with his self-branded hotels. In the article by Senge, Hamilton, and Kania, they open with a description of Nelson Mandela wanting to have two white jailers at his side when he was first inaugurated as President of South Africa.

A very diverse and talented group of system leaders founded Sustainable Food Lab in 2004. As Jan Kees Vis of Unilever recalled, “We put the Food Lab together because we knew that the ‘global food system’ was not functioning properly: not according to farmers, consumers, manufacturers, retailers, or politicians. And for each of these stakeholder groups, we knew more or less why they were dissatisfied. Yet nobody seemed to be able to make a move to improve it. So we could describe the problem we were trying to solve, and we could see the kind of complexity that requires the kind of solution a ‘laboratory’ can provide.”

Social innovation laboratories cultivate system leaders by taking advantage of diverse perspectives, using systems thinking logic, focusing on what is most important to create, and trying out solutions in a process similar to rapid cycle prototyping.

Mainstreaming sustainability requires bridging quite different points of view. The opposite of system leadership is an ideological attachment to one solution, one pathway. For example, some activist NGOs denounce any version of intensification, even if farms lower their carbon footprint and improve farmer livelihoods while becoming more productive. Activists propose agro-ecology as the alternative to intensification. On the other hand, many mainstream leaders say that only large farms using the most sophisticated technologies will feed the world; small farms are irrelevant. Whether promoting intensification or agro-ecology, those who encourage either approach can tend to ignore truths on the other side of the issue. Stepping back from debates, most experts agree that agro-ecological principles are important, AND that both large and small farms will feed the world (as they do now). Individuals and organizations providing system leadership learn how to bridge these divides.

System leadership is critical when organizations collaborate with others to establish a resilient supply base from sourcing regions. At the 2015 Sustainable Food Lab Summit, John Rogers from AB InBev and Charlotte Cawthorne from Innocent each shared insights from initiatives to deal with water risk in their sourcing regions—AB InBev in Guanajuato Mexico, and Innocent in southern Spain.

John Rogers’ take-aways from the Mexico project with several other companies were:

  • Get started.
  • Share goals and actions with others.
  • Let go of preconceptions about solutions.
  • Find local ownership.
  • Get some quick wins while also working on long-term solutions.

Charlotte Cawthorne’s insights from Innocent and SAI Platform work in Donana, Spain were:

  • Do your homework up front, and know your stuff.
  • Commit to a journey and accept that it will take time.
  • Don’t do it alone.
  • Share common goals, stick with them, and don’t keep changing.
  • Organize your group with a work plan, regular calls, a neutral facilitator, clear communications, and farmer engagement.
  • Get native, working with a local well-connected group.

The water collaborations in Mexico and Spain have to engage with farmers, suppliers, NGOs and government agencies that have different points of view about the problem and how to solve it. From John Rogers and Charlotte Cawthorne, and others like them, we have learned that system leadership develops when:

  1. Organizations reward people who achieve not only short-term but also systemic goals.
  2. Teams support leaders who connect across functions and organizations.
  3. Leaders are self-aware and have emotional intelligence.
  4. Learning journeys and good design processes take advantage of diverse points of view.

We’ve learned that system leadership has not only individual but also organizational dimensions. Jane Nelson and Beth Jenkins of the Harvard Kennedy School have written convincingly of these multiple dimensions, using case examples from the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture.

We have much more to learn about what enables system leadership. Please help Sustainable Food Lab in our effort to collect and share examples of effectively working within and across organizations. We’re eager for stories of corporate sustainability directors who connect scientists and value chain strategy, NGO leaders who bridge from campaigns to implementation, and cross-sector dialogue that moves into action on-the-ground.

Collecting these stories has a very practical purpose: we want to learn, share, and support much more system leadership to develop so that risks are avoided and commitments fulfilled. Contact Hal Hamilton.

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