Over the spring 2011 semester I spent considerable time looking at the challenge of leading complex systems. This was the first of what will be a six-semester effort over the next three years. In this initial, broad brush examination I used the sustainable city as proxy for a complex system. I also looked at both the literature on systems and systems leadership as well as at traditional leadership work to see if I could discover why there seems to be such a vacuum of leadership at the system level. The resulting paper, very much a work in progress, is posted below.
Among my findings was that the traditional leadership literature — that which most of us are taught — comes up short on three critical points:
– Complexity: a leader must understand what kind of complexity he or she confronts and have a framework for dealing with it. There are dramatic differences, for example, between disorganized and organized complexity (see the paper for details);
– Agency: how much do leaders control completely versus how much do they co-control and co-create with others. In complex systems, leaders control less and can influence more than they realize;
– Emergence: how much can leaders design versus how much must they help establish the conditions in which a positive outcome emerges. There is a strong predilection toward the former yet reality is closer to the latter.
I welcome your comments and will continue to post updates on this work as they are ready.
Download the PDF: Meta System Leadership