Monday, March 5, 2012

Leadership is a System Capacity

image source
That's the other big lesson I got out of the "How to Be Open" chapter in Humanize by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. Here's the key passage, pulling directly on the work of Peter Senge, and again, the emphasis is mine:

Leadership, paraphrasing Peter Senge, is defined as the system's capacity to shape its future. This is a critical assumption for a decentralized culture because it realizes that our traditional notions of leadership that focus on individuals in positions of authority are not enough to propel the system to the next level. Leaders are everywhere, and leadership is not some personal characteristic or quality that we assume exists in people who get attention in organizations. Leadership development takes on a whole new meaning, moving away from preparing people to get promoted into management toward making sure the system has the capacity in every corner of the system to adequately respond and move forward in ways that generate results.

I am becoming more and more convinced that embracing this system-based view of leadership is an essential characteristic of a high-performing association board of directors. The question they must struggle with is not just the leadership structure that will serve their association's interests today, but the leadership structures that will perpetuate the system's ability to serve the association's interests for years to come. Think about it. Whoever the volunteer leader is and regardless of how much individual leadership they offer for the benefit of the organization, there will come a day when they are gone and that individual leadership will no longer be leveraged. What happens then? What kind of legacy is it for a passionate leader to see the organization they have committed so much energy to stumble and fall when their hands are taken off the reins?

Here's a personal experience I recently had that helped entrench this perspective in my thinking. My daughter is in the first grade. She attends a charter school in my hometown, one started a few years ago by a very dedicated and passionate parent in our community. She wanted to offer kids and parents an alternative to the traditional curriculum, one much more focused on science, technology, and self-directed learning. Others have been involved, but it's not unfair to say the school exists because of her efforts, and its policies and practices bear her unmistakable stamp.

When my daughter entered the school last year the principal reached out to me and asked me to get involved. Ultimately, I think he wanted me to serve on the school's governing board, but I begged off because of my busy schedule and my uncertainty over how much time I would be able to commit. What I did do was help him review the school's governing documents, and make some suggestions on how they could be improved.

My single motivation in doing so was to help ensure a system-based approach to leadership. You see, I believe in the school. I want it to grow and serve more families in our community. Not just those with kids my daughter's age, but families with kids who will come after her. Families with kids not even born yet. And I feared that if the volunteer-led organization that supported the school didn't have a system-based view of leadership, if it wasn't focused on who was going to lead the school in the future and how the system was going to identify and groom those future leaders, the school would die shortly after the last child of the mom who started it moved onto the middle school.

This is just one prism through which to view the challenge of system-based leadership, but for many organizations it's an essential first step.


  1. Growing the system (or community) capacity really means thinking differently about how we invite and engage volunteer contributions, particularly outside the more formal roles favored in our governance structures. I think it also connects with a more facilitative leadership style, one that takes the long view on what success in leading a group is all about.

  2. The long view is key, Jeffrey. Too much of the time we focus on what success looks like today. The next question is how do we build the capacity to sustain success in the future.