In modern technology organizations, the individuals are encouraged to own their product decisions and grow into the leaders of their specific functions and teams. Many of these functional leaders grow into business leaders or industry leaders, or even the category leaders. For example as a personal opinion, I think Patrick Campbell of Profit Well (formerly Price Intelligently) is the SaaS Pricing leader (see their LinkedIn).
Very few of these leaders make a planned progression into system leadership. System thinking calls for a system-wide perspective to see an intersection of methods and exchange of ideas for a work-in-progress-synthesis view of what the organization is trying to do, in what directions, and how they plan to measure the trajectory and the progress.
Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania wrote on system leadership in the year 2015 and they called that time as The Dawn of System Leadership, in SSIR. The authors used a few examples and stories of system leaders led projects and enabled a shift such as the Sustainable Food Lab—a network of more than 70 of the world’s largest food companies and global and local NGOs (half NGOs, half companies) working together.
In modern technology teams, leaders often work at the crossroads of the business sense, people, technology, ethics, compliance, and culture, with an eye on building and scaling teams. One of the hallmarks in the system leadership culture is that the leaders are not only willing to experiment and learn—they take the tribe with them and they strongly believe in co-learning because the investment is not for an individual or a function or team.
They have an eye on the foundation, to solidify what actually sustains the organization at the foundation level.
Even if there are gaps in the baseline culture or in the communication system for how certain decisions have been made in the organization in the past; the system leaders believe in making multi-layered commitment for a multi-layered progress, in multiple directions of the organization’s trajectory.
A few organizations are planning formal programs in system leadership. For example the NHS Leadership Academy recently announced a five-week program in Foundations in System Leadership; collaborating for health and care. Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, published a paper on How systems thinking enhances systems leadership.
The content and design leaders may not always find it easy to map their functional work in the context of system thinking. I wrote about it in a systems-driven content supply chain is the life blood of customer experience, in 2021.
The transition from a functional leader or from a business leader to a system leader also shows its positive impact in the team and most often in the organization and its community itself. Many inspiring functional or product leaders are not able to inspire the same kind of energy or curiosity in their teams because their teams are not able to match the sentiment or speed for their learning processability.
System leaders move forward with their teams as a core group if not the full team. A leader can take the organization forward in one milestone, one phase, or one release—it needs a team to repeat it as a culture. This is what brings the collective intelligence in the organization which clearly shows in their operations, speed, and in their positioning.
You can read the SSIR post for deep insights into system leadership and as I said, the authors wrote it in the year 2015. Our challenges have only got more complicated which means that we need more system leaders now, and quickly.