Whole Systems Leadership

Whole Systems leadership entails the skillful application of knowledge, skills, and tools that can be systematically applied and adapted to meet the needs of changing circumstances. It is a way of being and doing that applies at every level of leadership—individual, organizational, and societal.

Why Whole Systems Leadership?

We live in a world full of challenges that are unprecedented in complexity and interdependence. Indeed as Eamonn Kelly says, “We do not just live in an age of change, we live in a change of ages.”

In this world of rapid, complex change, no one person can know the future and lead others there. An individual leader can’t neatly choose the right outcome and chart a course alone, because there are too many unpredictable variables in the mix.  We need a new model of leadership, which we call Whole Systems Leadership.

From a Whole Systems Leadership perspective, change doesn’t take place one person at a time. Instead, as Margaret Wheatley notes, it happens “as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible”

Drawing from the lessons of complexity science, Whole Systems Leadership recognizes that when many interconnected individuals and groups take many small actions, a shift happens in the larger patterns of communities, organizations, and societies.

group of racially diverse employees sitting around a table, discussing a project

Who Can Practice Whole Systems Leadership?

Anyone and everyone, individuals or groups—all can practice Whole Systems Leadership!

In this new model, leadership is not a position, but a behavior that can show up anywhere within a community, an organization, or other human system. Leadership is not tied to having roles with authority. It is just what happens when people step forward to make a difference for the issues they care about—whether or not they have positional power and expertise.

How Whole Systems Leadership Differs from Conventional Views of Leadership

 Conventional View of LeadershipWhole Systems Leadership
Leadership is...a position or role of authorityan activity or behavior that can arise anywhere in a human system
Leadership flows...in one direction: from the top-downin all directions
Leadership is exercised...by individuals with special leadership traitscollectively by groups and/or by individuals informed by the collective
Effective leadership comes from...accurately anticipating a predictable path to a predetermined outcomerecognizing and influencing patterns that are present in human systems at all levels
Leadership requires...certainty, clear vision, and the power of persuasion and controlwillingness to embrace uncertainty, listen to all voices and take adaptive action, often in collaboration with others
Leadership creates...harmony and stabilityconditions that are conducive to groups moving forward -- which sometimes means disrupting the habitual patterns of engagement so that groups, communities, or organizations can set the conditions for a preferred future
The purpose of leadership is to…fix problems and leverage opportunities to achieve goalsenable adaptability, learning, and innovation so that groups make progress on the issues they care about –even in unpredictable and changing conditions
Leadership can make a difference through…one large strategic intervention designed to fix a problem or achieve a goalrecognizing emerging patterns in human systems and making meaning out of many small changes

Characteristics of Whole Systems Leadership

Whole Systems Leadership is a way of being and doing—a set of behaviors, values, and skills that further collective work and enable the conditions for a preferred future. There are six core characteristics that enable whole system leaders to generate appropriate and effective responses to complex situations:

  1. Deep listening: Conversations have the power to transform our understanding and generate innovative options for action. A key component of successful conversations is deep listening, which means listening to learn and temporarily suspending judgment.
  2. Awareness of systems: Whole Systems Leadership understands communities, organizations, and groups as adaptive, changing systems. With an awareness of systems, you get a fuller perspective of the situation, which expands and refines your options for action.
  3. Awareness of self: Developing self-awareness is the necessary beginning to developing skillful ways to respond to situations. If you are not aware of your motivations, feelings, and beliefs, you cannot make effective decisions about how to behave.
  4. Seeking diverse perspectives: A whole systems approach thrives on the respectful inclusion of all voices. From this viewpoint, conflicting opinions do not present a problem; rather, they present a potential resource that can sharpen thinking and lead to innovative options for action.
  5. Suspending certainty, embracing uncertainty: Suspending certainty enables you to see beyond your habitual lenses to get a broader and potentially more accurate view of what is going on. It also creates room for diverse views so that new or different knowledge can come forth.
  6. Taking adaptive action: Adaptive action means learning from everything you do. It means taking time to recognize patterns and reflect on their meaning before jumping to a solution. It balances an inclusive, deep listening approach with a bias towards action.

These six characteristics often overlap one another. It is easier to listen deeply if you are able to suspend certainty and embrace uncertainty. Whole Systems Leadership uses these characteristics to generate appropriate and effective responses to complex situations.

Inspiring Examples

A woman and man on a dark stage. The woman is holding up a cardboard television frame, and the man is standing with his head in the frame and speaking.

Lecia Grossman was an organizational trainer who wanted to do something about homelessness.

“Every time I saw someone on the street… I knew nobody was looking at them like a human being! That was 20 years of feeling like this, you know, real intense, just hurting.”  Although Lecia was not a theater artist, she gathered people together to create zAmya Theater, a forum where housed and homeless performers collaborate to tell stories. Through performances and dialogue, zAmya generates awareness and understanding of homelessness.

“I didn’t want to do something for homeless people; I wanted to do something with them,” says Lecia.

How did Lecia come up with a theater company as a social change strategy? She states: “If you ever start thinking about how you want to change the world, don’t forget to ask this one question: What would make it fun?”

Listen to Lecia Grossman talk about putting whole systems leadership into practice.

Another inspiring example is the story of Vinoba Bhave and the Bhoodan Land Gift Movement. Read Vinoba Bhave's story (PDF).

Practice to learn

One cannot really learn to swim by reading a book about swimming. At some point, you need to be in the water. Similarly, the characteristics of Whole Systems Leadership need to be practiced to be learned.

What helps most is to turn your life into a learning laboratory. To play with these ideas:

  • Keep on the lookout for opportunities to practice and experiment
  • Use adaptive action as a learning strategy
  • Cultivate comfort with ambiguity and not-knowing. For example: the next time you find yourself confused (about anything) before you jump to “fixing” the moment with more information, ask yourself, “How can I relax into this confusion? Can I be okay with ‘not-knowing’ right now?”
  • Keep a log of your experiments, challenges, discoveries and triumphs

As you start to cultivate characteristics of Whole Systems Leadership, you may notice how they overlap and support each other.

Good luck – and happy pattern seeking!