System leadership is not just desirable; it’s necessary to deliver impact

By Hal Hamilton

Sustainable Food Lab has two objectives: 1) deliver impacts in the ways that supply chains affect people and nature, and 2) increase the capabilities of “system leaders” who make those impacts happen.

Desirable impacts on farming systems—ecological and social—require shifts in the enabling conditions for farmer and business decisions, and those enabling conditions are complex. Many different players must do their part, and hence a unique type of leadership is necessary: leaders who can support learning and action across and among organizations.

The fastest growing group within the Food Lab network is the Impact Leadership Lab, which, as the name implies, is for leaders with aspirations to make impact. As one told me the other day, “We all view our companies as ways to achieve goals, rather than the other way around.”

Sustainability strategies have evolved over time. Years ago, one of our founders used to talk about “the power of the purchase order,” by which he meant his ability to get suppliers to comply. That’s also the approach most retailers used to take.

But compliance only gets you so far. Faced with requirements, people frequently make the least possible change while ticking boxes. When encouraged to help design strategies, people get engaged. They bring their own sense of purpose to the table. They invest their own energy.

Such engagement is not just out there among supply chain partners and external stakeholders. Alignment and focus have to happen within each organization, across functions and executives.

In summary: achieving impact requires people who can mobilize collective leadership.

When I first visited with an early leader in one of the top five food companies, he had been charged with sustainability because he had succeeded in green factory design. He said something like this to me, “I’m really a technical person, not at all suited to all the one-on-one conversations that I now need to have with everyone around here. Those conversations are the necessary building blocks for having a sustainability strategy.” He actually turned out to be the perfect person for the job because of his relentless personal enthusiasm, which was contagious, and because he’s a data guy, and data wins allies in his culture.

System leadership is the ability to engage others, not just to get agreement, but all the way to commitment and investment. Our friend Anna Swaithes, who used to have a senior position in SAB Miller and now works for the UK government, spent some time a few years ago interviewing “system leaders.” She started with the people who lead companies, NGOs, and big collaborative projects. After a while she decided that the most important system leaders were unheralded people on the ground who could cross divides among communities, businesses, and government agencies—those who could create a collaborative shared energy to make a difference together.

Don Seville, the Food Lab’s long-time executive director, has co-facilitated the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative focused on Madagascar and Uganda, discovered that the key to success was a relatively small group of people who could help lead the whole collaboration while also serving the commercial interests of their own companies. In the ruthlessly competitive vanilla market, that group of people who act on behalf of the whole system takes a lot of attention, and sometimes specific individuals have to step back into their own business challenges, so facilitators frequently need to encourage a few more “system leaders” to step up.

In addition to acting on behalf of the whole, system leaders are also aware of ever emerging challenges and opportunities. This is where incremental change can flow into system shift. Big shifts can arise from moments of awareness if teams actually nurture and welcome such moments. One useful metaphor is that of a campfire from which scouts explore possible passes over the next mountain range, and to which they return to compare what they discover. Campfires are lit at successive points in a long journey. Nobody is certain of the best path to take next, so scouts are essential.

These scouts need courage to look for the next mountain pass. They also need a campfire to return to, to compare observations, and to engage in the necessary conversations about the best way to proceed. Lone Ranger leaders, on the other hand, are off by themselves, and they can get lost.

Within Sustainable Food Lab network those campfires include a Living Income Community of Practice, a Leadership Impact Lab of sustainability managers in food companies, a Soil Health Leadership Lab of people who work directly with farmers, and a Scale Lab to map and develop a playbook of specific leverage points to scale regenerative agriculture.

These are circles within which something happens that is greater than the sum of its parts. Some people are more technical, and some more gifted at strategy. Some are natural connectors. Together they enrich one another. One person in the Impact Lab wrote me that, “although it’s not part of any job description I’ve had [in three different companies], I end up seeing the bigger picture and then connecting the dots between folks who see things and talk in very different ways.” She explained that she had been a little intimidated by more technically gifted colleagues, but from close bonds with diverse peers, she realized her own gifts. She wrote further that, “the Impact Lab has given me a much-needed source of energy and confidence. It seems to me that in the professional world, it is quite common to hope to be approved of, respected and rewarded. I have found it is far less common, but equally important, to be seen, understood and accepted. That sense of being part of a community has been a source of energy and renewal for me.”

Another told me that, “This group is unlike anything else I know of. Through our peer coaching sessions, I realize that others face similar challenges to those that I face, and somehow, even when I’ve felt stuck, solutions get unlocked.”

System change requires leaders who are nourished in such communities. The journey is sometimes intensely personal, frequently technical, and always strategic: Who do I need to engage, and how?

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