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April 2015


The Dawn of System Leadership


by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015)


What are the big take-aways?


The authors contend that the globe’s most intractable problems (social, environmental, political, etc.) require “system leaders” who are able to catalyze collective leadership in the way that Nelson Mandela arguably did in his endeavor to unite South Africa:


We hope to demystify what it means to be a system leader and to continue to grow as one.  It is easy when we talk about exemplars like Mandela to reinforce the belief that these are special people, somehow walking on a higher plane than the rest of us.   But we have had the honor to work with many “Mandelas,” and this experience has convinced us that they share core capabilities and that these can be developed.  Although formal position and authority matter, we have watched people contribute as system leaders from many positions…Most of all we have learned by watching the personal development of system leaders.  This is not easy work, and those who progress have a particular commitment to their own learning and growth.


The three “core capabilities” the authors have identified in system leaders are: (1) the ability to see the larger complexity of a whole system (in contrast to viewing just the part of the system that is observable from their particular, limited vantage point); (2) a commitment to “fostering reflection and more generative conversations,” which means deeply listening to multiple perspectives in order to challenge assumptions and “appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other’s reality”; and (3) the ability to switch a group’s focus on reacting to a problem and trying to solve it, to instead “co-creating” the future together.


This last core capability is extremely hard.  It requires “not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches” (my emphasis).


Why do I like it?


I like the authors’ ideas because they provide a hopeful and actionable antidote to the despair that many people understandably feel about the state of our world, and which some venerable thought leaders have come to exemplify to me.  (I think of Margaret Wheatley as she shows up in So Far from Home, in particular.)  I love that Senge, et al. offer a way forward that resides in the personal development of leaders – by which, I interpret, they mean anyone and everyone – in all places on earth and at all levels of society and organizations and institutions.  With a willingness to do the hard and necessary work, any person can set themselves on the path to building the core competencies of a catalyzing collective leader.


One of the most powerful aspects of this article is that it provides two real-world examples from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, as a reminder that system leaders are among us already doing this work – and as a provocation to the rest of us to commit to taking steps toward becoming collective catalysts, ourselves.


In what situations would this be useful?


This is heady stuff and to “get it” demands a certain degree of optimism, dedication and an imagination free of the debilitating effects of entrenched cynicism.  To the reader who is able to receive the authors’ message, this article would be useful as an inspiration, and as a general guide pointing to the path forward.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


The kind of personal development that the authors describe as crucial to building the core competencies of system leadership is often referred to as “vertical development.”  (Horizontal development is about deepening skills and knowledge, whereas vertical development is about deepening capacity for complexity.)  It is the type of adult development that I am most compelled to learn about, practice myself, and share with my leadership coaching clients.  Limitless resources – in books, humans, learning experiences, reflective practices, nature, etc. – would pair well with this article.  Here is my current list of recommended reading in this area, much of which has been reviewed here in the Leadership Library over the years:


  • “Making Business Personal” by Robert Kegan, et al. (Harvard Business Review, 2014).  This article describes “deliberately developmental organizations.”
  • Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World by Jennifer Garvey Berger (Stanford University, 2012).
  • “Future Trends in Leadership Development: A White Paper” by Nick Petrie (Center for Creative Leadership, 2011).
  • Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009).
  • Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).
  • The Elegant Self: A Radical Approach to Personal Evolution for Greater Influence in Life by Rob McNamara (Performance Integral, 2013).
  • “Seven Transformations of Leadership” by David Rooke and William Torbert (Harvard Business Review, 2005).
  • “Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective” by Suzanne Cook-Greuter (Industrial and Commercial Training, 2004).




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