Responsible System Leadership


A few weeks ago we shared our interview with system thinker and business evolutionary, Benjamin Taylor, and one of the questions we asked Benjamin was: how much control does a leader truly have when it comes to shaping company culture?

Benjamin's response was very enlightening. He described company culture as "the lived experience of the people", which means it isn't a thing which leaders can control. In fact it isn't a thing at all, rather, it is an intended or unintended consequence which results, in part, from leadership behavior. He emphasized that when leaders seek to shape or engineer a company's culture, they are seeking an unattainable level of control. 

So, if leaders have little control in shaping company culture, do they have the power to influence it at all?

Well, the term 'influence' means the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself. And Benjamin believes, yes, leaders have significant influential power on the people within an organization and this ultimately affects the company's culture. For, even though leaders only have control over their own behavior, people look to them for guidance, social cues, and support; therefore, they have to remain mindful of the responses that will result from their actions and decisions. So, rather than seek an unattainable level of control, he urges leaders to recognize and accept the intended and unintended consequences that might arise from their actions. 

In order to better explain this point, Benjamin shared a metaphor about the concept of control, which is attributed to system engineer Paul Plsek. This metaphor compares the act of throwing a stone compared to throwing a live bird. When throwing a stone, the thrower can ultimately control the direction and distance of the object, so results can be projected and achieved without much uncertainty. On the other hand, when throwing a live bird, the thrower has no control over the "object" after it leaves his hand. There is much more ambiguity in where the bird will end up. Plsek's metaphor also suggests that the person throwing a bird could place a bird feeder in the direction he or she would like the bird to fly. Or, maybe if the bird is thrown in a more controlled environment with boundaries it could be successfully influenced and directed. So, although it is nearly impossible to "control" a complex adaptive system, like a bird or a human being, there are still ways to influence them.

For leaders within an organization, their influential power is a big responsibility. They are responsible for enabling people while also setting boundaries, but more importantly they are responsible for themselves and how they show up in the workplace. 

Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished.
— Lisa Cash Hanson, CEO, Snuggwugg

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Check out one of our newer episodes where Haley interviews speaker, advisor, and consultant, Benjamin Taylor, to discuss systemic leadership and company culture. 

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