Systemic dialogue: a gateway to purpose-led leadership

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What does leadership that serves everyone call for – in us, in teams and in our wider networks? What does it take to lead such transformation during these times of turbulent change? How can leaders identify solutions that strengthen a whole system?

These are the questions that I am finding and exploring with my colleague Ed Rowland in our work to co-create 21st century leadership.

Given the scale of the challenges that we’re facing as a global society – mass migration, digital disruption, fragmenting globalisation, climate change - and the nature of much of our political debate about such issues, we believe that leadership itself needs a “pivot” (to borrow a phrase from Silicon Valley).

Upgrading our leadership so that it is truly fit-for-purpose in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in requires a fundamental shift in perspective and approach.

We observe that much of our media remain in thrall to the myth that leadership is simply about individuals or the 'person at the top'.

The ‘strong man’ or ‘strong woman’ model of leadership holds sway, even though there is increasing disillusion with the fallout from individual heroics that all too often turn into hubris.

The challenges that leaders face today are too complex for one person thinking or working alone.

Systemic dialogue

From our combined thirty years experience consulting to leaders, we advocate an approach that is more systemic than singular.

To put it simply, the challenges that leaders face today are too complex for one person thinking or working alone.

In addition, many of us have experienced the frustration of working in organisations where rivalry between individuals, teams or departments undermines collective performance.

We observe that much of our media remain in thrall to the myth that leadership is simply about individuals.

We have identified several core capacities for this new 21st century leadership, arising out of our experience working with leaders who are co-pioneering a new approach.

Here we focus on the need for leaders to develop the core capability of developing purpose-led leadership through expanding their capacity for what we call “Systemic Dialogue”.

Leaders who use “systemic dialogue” to engage, energise and enthuse all the different people in their ecosystem enable better business performance and greater wellbeing in their organisations.

The benefits of using systemic dialogue to unlock purpose-led transformation also include:

  • Breaking silos and increasing collaboration - People who can talk together and move beyond self-interest work together more courageously and generatively.
  • Strengthening the whole – By drawing on diverse voices, solutions emerge that serve the whole system not just one part of it.
  • Creating new opportunities – People come up with their most innovative and fresh ideas when they are able to see the big picture and co-create together.

Purpose-led leadership

Given the complexities of human systems, discovering and embodying organisational purpose is inherently a systemic undertaking.

Too often, senior leaders, sometimes alone or with a small handful of advisers, attempt to define corporate visions – and sometimes purpose – in a huddle behind closed doors.

People who can talk together and move beyond self-interest work together more courageously and generatively.

Singular efforts to outline espoused corporate principles almost always end up being seen by other stakeholders as superficial, irrelevant or even hypocritical. If purpose is laminated and not lived, cynicism settles in.

If, on the other hand, purpose is carefully discovered, uncovered and embodied by a wider ecosystem of stakeholders, it can act as a true touchstone for inspired action.

When there is an appreciation of all the systemic forces that shape a purpose, along with the creative engagement of many diverse voices through dialogue, the organisation’s north star is felt throughout the whole system to be “right”.

Purpose can then act as an energetic wellspring that inspires higher levels of performance, commitment and aligned action.

People come up with their most innovative and fresh ideas when they are able to see the big picture.

As author and consultant Pete Burden puts it: “Purpose develops out of conversation. It’s never fixed or final – it develops and grows over time, as people talk together, bring in new ideas, and get creative.”

The question for a leader then becomes:

  • How can I create the conditions where people can bring their voice, access their collective intelligence and identify actions that bring to life the true purpose of an organization or team?

Some practical pointers

Creating a culture of purpose-led leadership is a new challenge for many organisations.

It has greatest potential when sponsored by an organisation’s most senior leaders, but anyone at any level of an organisation can contribute.

Although seeding such a culture is a generative process with as many forms and manifestations as there are people and organisations, four key elements in the process stand out.

  1. Focused intention. Someone needs to hold the desire to catalyse and diffuse a culture of purpose-led action. Drawing a group of people together to discover new insights and identify ways forward provides a powerful and necessary energetic foundation for dialogue to take place. An invitation to talk needs to excite and entice people into the room so that they share their best thinking about the future.
  2. A charged “container”. Someone needs to create a meeting space for the dialogue. There are concrete aspects – including the room, light, air, seating and access to nature. There are also more subtle aspects: as people enter the space, they need to feel able to open up and suspend “business–as–usual”. A crucial component is that people feel a sense of safety and trust.  They need to believe that bringing themselves authentically to the conversation will be respected – and rewarding. When people meet authentically, openly and expansively, this “charges” the space with co-creative energy.
  3. Diversity of perspective. “It’s as if we’ve been programmed to be collectively smart,” writes James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds (2004). In order for a group of people to be “wise”, however, certain criteria need to be met. Chief amongst these is that participants have diverse points of view. People need to feel that the uniqueness of their perspective – and that of all the others – is encouraged. There needs to be an atmosphere of welcoming, curiosity and acceptance.
  4. Dialogic practices. Participants need to learn and share skills that foster dialogue. Embodying new patterns – for example, of speaking, listening and asking questions – may sound simple but it is often not easy. Leaders need practical support, committed practice and on-going encouragement for these ways of interacting to become the new muscle memory.

Amid the current leadership crisis, there is an exciting new opportunity opening up. Instead of the more typical command-and-control approach, a different way is starting to emerge: leadership that is more inclusive, systemic and conversational. Purpose-led leaders who draw on the intelligence of the people around them and who generate open dialogue, are the pioneers of the current times and the hope of the future.

Author of Life-Changing Conversations (2012), Sarah Rozenthuler is a leading international figure in the field of multi-stakeholder dialogue. A chartered psychologist and leadership consultant, she co-presents an innovative skill-building programme Leading Systemic Dialogue: Unlocking Collective Intelligence at St Ethelburga’s Centre (City of London), 9th & 10th November, sharing tools to co-create lasting transformative change in organisations.

About Sarah Rozenthuler

Sarah Rozenthuler

 Author of Life-Changing Conversations (2012), Sarah Rozenthuler is a leading international figure in the field of multi-stakeholder dialogue. A chartered psychologist and leadership consultant, she creates transformative change for global leaders and their organisations. 

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