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Is your leadership unwittingly adding to the challenges of uncertainty

By Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld are transformational facilitators, experts in systemic intelligence and co-authors of new book EMERGENT

One commonly held belief is that leaders have a significant influence on their teams.

As a result, we assume that the organization’s performance and culture are a reflection of the leaders – their presence, their personal development journey, their decisions, their words, what they do and what they don’t do.

At the same time, after many years of diagnosing organisational dynamics, we have come to believe that there are also systemic forces at play that can undermine an individual leaders’ best intentions. Forces that might date back to before the current leaders’ tenure or that are caused by them not understanding the real deeper underlying dynamics. Forces that may have been unwillingly created in the organisational system, as a survival or correcting mechanism in the past.

That is why it is so critical that leaders do not only see their own reflection when looking in the mirror, but are also capable of holding the complexity of the entire system and the lineage of leaders they build on. The system’s restoring mechanisms are often stronger than the individual willpower of a highly capable leader or leadership team. If they don’t make the correct diagnosis, they will find themselves fighting windmills, not solving the real issues, and even making them worse.

Does that mean that we don’t need a captain on the ship? Quite the contrary.

We need leaders to:

  • understand that organisations are actually living systems with multiple visible and invisible interconnections
  • see the deeper layers underneath the drama on the surface and distinguish the symptoms from the underlying dynamics
  • ask different questions and become really curious to understand how they themselves are unwittingly adding to the issues, instead of resolving them
  • work with the organisational system, not against it

Only then can they lead in complex and uncertain times, like the ones we are currently experiencing or turn around seemingly struggling businesses and teams, resolve longstanding issues, inject new creativity and inspiration.

Leaders and management teams are currently in stormy weather and sometimes tend to revert to their well-known crisis management and problem-solving techniques. Now, more than ever, it is important to understand the undertow and not solely increase the pressure on the organisation to initiate and drive the course correction that is needed.

Leadership teams need to make it a priority to:

  • find their way to the eye of the storm, where they will be able to rise above the hectic perceived reality and bring fresh air and new positive perspectives into the game
  • safeguard a zone where they may not feel completely calm, but have enough space to observe the real dynamics in their organisation
  • build their capacity to deal with ambiguity, with ‘not knowing’, and discomfort
  • witness – in all honesty – how they are interfering with the system under pressure and in cases contributing to the challenges or even exacerbating it
  • rearrange the system within themselves, which will lead to an external expression of a shift in the organisation
  • balance their outward-going energy – focused on critical stakeholders, the employees, the customers, community and owners – and the inward and bonding energy that keeps the organisation together in this global phase of uncertainty

We believe that the system is also represented in the leader, and by extension in everyone who belongs to the system. In our experience, some organsational dynamics resonate with the leader’s personal triggers. This may seem like a bold statement at first sight, but we have seen it confirmed over and over again. When there are no personal triggers, the leader has absolute clarity related to a specific problem. When he or she has full clarity, the issue does not arise anymore.

We learn how to operate in living systems early on, as our family of origin was our first encounter with systemic dynamics. Becoming a highly effective leader in complex organisational systems requires inner work. How can we better understand how we function in different systems (family of origin, current family, community, business, etc.) so that we become aware of our patterns, triggers, pitfalls and blind spots?

It is most effective to intervene in the organisational system and work with the inner landscape of the leader: the way the organisation is alive in them, the visible and invisible dynamics and conflicts in them, their loyalties, beliefs and core needs. This requires the leader to display an inner capacity beyond the skills and competencies that may have made them successful so far. It is not just about industry knowledge, business expertise, strategic talent or execution excellence.

Personal systemic questions can help you become aware of family patterns and dynamics that you unconsciously have taken along, copied or translated to your professional life.

  • What does/did it take to belong?
  • What am/was I loyal to?
  • Who or what gets/got excluded?
  • What is/was not to be named?
  • What am/was I giving, what am/was I taking?
  • What is my place? (in the row of children)? Which place do/did I typically take?
  • How was the parents/children relationship?

Asking yourself these questions about your family system – the one of origin – and the parallels you see in your professional life, can give you surprising new insights and a wider range of options. You might get a new perspective on:

  • Your own positioning towards the board of directors or the executive/leadership team above you
  • How managers at lower levels behave towards you
  • The culture you have created: what makes someone successful in your organisation, what are the unwritten rules and hidden loyalties?
  • The voices that are muted. What are the opposers trying to flag? What if resistance is just a symptom of something you are not seeing yet?
  • Behaviors – your own and those of others – that seem out of place. In which other system might this have been normal behavior?

Thinking, working, leading, living and being systemically aware turns out to be a much more effective way to reveal the patterns and underlying connections in any system and certainly where systems overlap.