Countless articles, blogs, and even t-shirts exhort people to ‘be a leader, not a follower’. Meaning, I suppose: choose your own path, don’t just fall in with the crowd, have some independence of thought, be prepared to stand out for your beliefs. All very laudable. But also all largely based on an outdated notion of leader as heroic individual, single-minded and certain.
Systems leadership is almost the antithesis of that model of heroic leadership. It is about leading when you don’t know what to do, when it isn’t clear what the right thing to do is, or even if there is one right answer. There might be many possibilities and they probably conflict with each other. Above all, systems leadership is a team game – it’s leadership…
“…across organisational and geopolitical boundaries, beyond individual professional disciplines, within diverse organisational and stakeholder cultures, often without direct managerial control…. in order to effect change”
Not something you can do on your own then. In thinking about systems leadership, I’ve found it helpful to differentiate between leadership (as a product of relationships between people in a system) and leaders (people who influence this process). In this sense, systems leadership does not mean getting a wider range of followers to comply with the titular leader’s commands; instead, leadership is a product of the interactions between people within a system.
A complexity view suggests a form of “distributed” leadership that is not situated in an individual leader but instead in an interactive dynamic, within which any particular person might participate as leader or a follower at different times and for different purposes. Leadership is not confined to a formal managerial role, but emerges in the systemic interactions between individual connected agents . Individuals act as leaders in this dynamic when they mobilize people to seize new opportunities and tackle tough problems. As the situation changes, different people may act as leaders by leveraging their differing skills and experience.
Systems leadership can therefore be understood as
“…a way of leading change in complex systems, which involves shifts in mind-set, behaviour and leadership practice”
If we can define systems leadership in this way, we ought also to be able to include within that definition the concept of “systems followership” since individual actors in a system must be prepared to be leaders at some points, followers at another. Donella Meadows wrote about ‘dancing with systems’ and the metaphor encapsulates the way that leadership is shared and distributed in complex systems, with followership being a vital role. What, after all, would Fred Astaire be without Ginger Rogers? A lonely, possibly heroic, tap-dancer.
The conundrum, I’d suggest, is that whilst Fred needed Ginger, and vice versa, and both had essential roles in creating a beautiful dance, neither could easily take on the other’s role in their partnership. Does that mean Fred was born to lead, and Ginger to follow? No, I don’t think so. Ginger could happily take on a lead role in a different collaboration – in fact she did, in the 1965 Broadway production of “Hello,Dolly!” – and Fred could and did play second string to others.
It’s not easy though, if you are a leader who likes to lead in the traditional way – from the front, actively, setting the pace and the direction of the dance – to know when and how to follow, not lead.
For one thing, good followership is seldom taught, and it can seem like a largely passive leadership role. Kellerman suggested a model that defines different modes of followership and notes that, at best, the role offers criticality and challenge, requires moral courage and the ability to ask questions in a way that helps the person taking up a more overt leadership position to clarify their thinking.
Knowing when to be a follower, and when to lead the dance is vital, in systems leadership work. There are many complex issues demanding our attention at present. Covid-19 is one; systemic racism another and the rights of trans people a third. That’s just from today’s twitter feed – tomorrow there will be more.
If you are someone who enjoys adopting a traditional leadership approach – calling to action, galvanising support, setting direction, defining the vision – it can be hard to recognise when it is your role to be quiet: to listen, to support, to be a good follower.
Doing is important. If we don’t take action, nothing changes. But there is at present a palpable rush to action from many people born from a belief best summed up as “We must do something! Here’s a thing – let’s do this!” when in reality, systems complexity demands sometimes that we take time to listen, to educate ourselves, to have conversations, to get behind the people who need support and then to follow their lead, in the ‘clumsy dance’ of systems leadership.