Thursday, July 1, 2010

Leaders as Symptom-Bearers

     When leaders fail, many observers tend to focus on pilot-error and what he or she could have or should have done differently.  While it's true that leaders fail, I believe it's also true that the failure is in part due to the nature of the systems they operate in.  In other words, the leaders manifest symptoms that speak to what is happening in the larger system.  

     What is a system?  Edwin Freidman defined a system as,  "...any set of relationships which upon achieving homeostasis, functions to maintain that homeostasis through inner adjusting compensations."  Now, go back and read that definition one more time carefully, to make sure you let it sink in.  
     A system could be a corporation, an ecosystem, a church or a family. Systems of all types are seeking to gain stability (homeostasis) and maintain stability.  This means that individual efforts to bring change to a system will always be met with resistance.  When it comes to lasting change, a leader has to be able to redirect the homeostatic pattern in a system.  Much of what we interpret as change is usually just ripples impacting the surface of the water.  True change or "second order" change changes the color and composition of the water itself.
      Sometimes effective leadership means helping to maintain homeostasis, but when the situation calls for change, an agent of change has their work cut out for them, and sometimes the resistance they experience is too great.  Enter burnout, drama, failure.  
     The next time you observe someone in your family "acting out" or "having issues", or when you read about the downfall of another CEO (think BP here) or pastor, ask yourself, "What might these failures or issues (symptoms) tell me about what is happening in the larger system?"  Thinking this way is much more exciting than blaming the individual.  
     If you would like to further explore this kind of systemic thought, a great initial read is the book, "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" by Gordon McKenzie.  It's a gem of a book with an extremely creative layout.        



Mari said...

I didn't know you had a blog! Interesting topic. I've experienced this at home, in the corporate world, and in the realm of public education.

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