The Subtle Difference in Leadership of, in, and with the System

I recently completed a paper on the challenges of leading social change in meta-systems. Organizational change was one of the evergreen topics when I worked at Harvard Business School Publishing, i.e. you could sell books and articles about it forever as no one ever got it right. Move up to the level of a meta-system where you are trying to inspire global change in response to the big, hairy issues like climate change or urbaniztion and, well, things get really fun.

In the paper I put forth a conceptual framework for examining the leadership issues and it is build around three simple prepositions: of, in, and with. Leaders of a system, really a sub-system, such as a CEO of a company have one level of influence largely bounded by the extent of their authority. Leaders in a system, perhaps that same CEO  but working through a U.N. initiative or the head of an international NGO, have a larger level of influence as they don’t define it in terms of formal authority. They know that they must collaborate and move multiple stakeholders in order to be effective. A few truly achieve large scale, meta-system change and I call these leaders with the system. They articulate the inconsistencies within the system and lead the system to be true to itself. Their leadership is not motivated by personal gain or the self-interest of any entity other than the system itself.

Jim Spohrer of IBM, one of my advisory team members, has suggested that leading with a system may at the point where one moves beyond a zero-sum outcomes. That’s an interesting insight that I am going to explore.

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

The leader with a system I examine most closely in the paper is Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s why I am posting the paper today on MLK Day 2012. Others whom I would consider leaders with the system would be Gandhi, Mandela, and perhaps the Dalai Lama. That’s an illustrious, almost stereotypical list. I will be looking for more as my work progresses. I invite you to read the paper and give me your thoughts on the of, in, with framework.

Read the full paper here: Leadership of Social Change cc.

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