With the passing of Nelson Mandela in late 2013, the world celebrated a remarkable life. But the spotlight on Mandela's accomplishments relegated to the shadows much of the reason that he has had such a lasting impact, in South Africa and beyond. Above all, Mandela embodied a system leader, someone able to bring forth collective leadership. In countless ways, large and small, he undertook interventions aimed at bringing together the remnants of a divided country to face their common challenges collectively and build a new nation.
In the four delicate years between Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the first open election, he supported a scenario process that brought together the formerly banned black political parties to work through their alternative visions for the future of South Africa. Exploring their different ideologies and their implications openly and together resulted in the moderating of potentially divisive differences that could have ripped the nation apart, such as whether or not to nationalize critical industries. (1)
Perhaps the most transcendent example of Mandela as a system leader was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a radical innovation in the emotional healing of the country that brought black and white South Africans together to confront the past and join in shaping the future. The simple idea that you could bring together those who had suffered profound losses with those whose actions led to those losses, to face one another, tell their truths, forgive, and move on, was not only a profound gesture of civilization but also a cauldron for creating collective leadership. Indeed, the process would have been impossible without the leadership of people like Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President F. W. de Klerk.
Even more, the process invited the thousands who participated to step forward in co-creating a new reality for South Africa--and, in so doing, to embody an ancient understanding of leadership; the Indo-European root of "to lead," leith, literally means to step across a threshold--and to let go of whatever might limit stepping forward.
At no time in history have we needed such system leaders more. We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Problems like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, growing scarcity of water, youth unemployment, and embedded poverty and inequity require unprecedented collaboration among different organizations, sectors, and even countries. Sensing this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade--locally, regionally, and even globally. Yet more often than not they have floundered--in part because they failed to foster collective leadership within and across the collaborating organizations.
The purpose of this article is to share what we are learning about the system leaders needed to foster collective leadership. 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 a 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. As Ronald Heifetz has shown in his work on adaptive leadership, (2) these leaders shift the conditions through which others--especially those who have a problem--can learn collectively to make progress against it. 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. Understanding the "gateways" through which they pass clarifies this commitment and why this is not the mysterious domain of a chosen few.
Today, many of us are "swimming in the same river"--trying to cultivate collective leadership in diverse settings around the world even while our larger cultural contexts remain firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic individual leader. This search for a new type of leadership creates a real possibility to accelerate joint learning about system leaders. For undoubtedly we are at the beginning of the beginning in learning how to catalyze and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of problems we face, and all of us see but dimly.
PETER SEN6E is a senior lecturer and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the founding chair of The Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) and co-founder of the Academy for Systemic Change. Senge is the author of the book The Fifth Discipline and co-author of the books Presence, The Necessary Revolution, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, and Schools That Learn.
HAL HAMILTON is director of the Sustainable Food Lab and co-founder of the Academy for Systemic Change. He was previously executive director of the Sustainability Institute and the Center for Sustainable Systems.
JOHN KANIA is a board member and managing director of FSG, where he directs the firm's consulting practice. Kania is co-author of "Collective Impact" and three previous articles in Stanford Social Innovation Review, as well as numerous SSIR blog posts.
CORE CAPABILITIES OF SYSTEM LEADERS
Though they differ widely in personality and style, genuine system leaders have a remarkably similar impact. Over time, their profound commitment to the health of the whole radiates to nurture similar commitment in others. Their ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.
As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation. And organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization's success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part.
There are three core capabilities that system leaders develop in order to foster collective leadership. The first is the ability to see the larger system. In any complex setting, people typically focus their attention on the parts of the system most visible from their own vantage point. This usually results in arguments about who has the right perspective on the problem. Helping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces.
The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us. Deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually "hear" a point of view different from their own, and to appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other's reality. This is an essential doorway for building trust where distrust had prevailed and for fostering collective creativity.
The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together. This shift involves 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.
Much has been written about these leadership capabilities in the organizational learning literature and the tools that support their development. (3) But much of this work is still relatively unknown or known only superficially to those engaged in collaborative systemic change efforts.
GATEWAYS TO BECOMING A SYSTEM LEADER
Many years ago, a mentor of ours, William O'Brien, past CEO of Hanover Insurance Companies, posed an important question, "Many...