What Can Nelson Mandela Teach Us About System Leadership

What can Nelson Mandela Teach Us About System Leadership

The world faces a range of complex problems today that are well documented. Leadership will be important to resolving these problems. Nowadays there is a growing awareness that leadership styles need to change and adapt to a new type of world and working force that is increasingly more active, autonomous and willing to collaborate. If one runs a social business it is very important to acknowledge what type of leadership you use in your company. Being aware about the importance of leadership for the success of a social business entreprise, Intelligenthq has published various articles that present revolutionary approaches to leadership.

An interesting approach to leadership that seems very fit to the social/open business model is entitled “system leadership” due to its focus on the collective. Writing for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in late 2014, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania explain what is system leadership. The authors argue that leadership needs to be driven by the “system leader” who is a person that drives collective leadership. Senge et al. argue that Nelson Mandela was one such leader – a man who could “bring forth collective leadership”. His efforts served to draw together a country that was divided, with a view to tackling common challenges that everyone was faced with, to develop a new nation that cast aside the problems of the past.

Nelson Mandela as a system leader

Looking at Mandela’s activities in greater detail, Senge et al. believe that Mandela used the four years after he left prison in 1990 and prior to the election to bring parties together. In particular he worked with parties with black roots to understand different visions that everyone had of a new South Africa. This open discussion led to an easier resolution of difficult issues. Addressing the many differences that could have pulled the nation apart in a direct way like this helped to be able to find a way forward. Senge et al. cite the use of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought both whites and blacks together to look at the issues of the past and work together to shape a new and different future. By bringing together those that had lost out with those that caused these losses, Senge et al. believe that collective leadership could be facilitated.

What is a system leader ?

Senge et al. set about to understand what a system leader is and how to grow as such a leader. While some people hold Mandela up on a pedestal, in fact many such leaders can be observed, and they have shared abilities that people can learn and develop. While system leaders are quite different in many ways, such as with regard to personality, they do have some similarities such as wanting a health for all, and being able to view realities of others that are very different to themselves. They are able to listen, and they build relationships based on trust and collaboration. They are willing to learn by doing and they are not afraid to ask the questions that others might be frightened to ask as these may seem too “obvious”.

Nelson Mandela quote Intelligenthq

But these abilities can be narrowed down to three core capabilities according to Senge et al. The first of these is the capability of seeing the larger system in which issues are operating. This means stepping away from the most obvious and easy to see parts of the system from one’s own viewpoint and looking at the bigger picture. It means focusing on the whole and not incremental or piecemeal solutions for part of the system. The second core capability that Senge et al. espouse is that of fostering reflection leading to more generative conversations. Shared deep reflections means that people are better able to see one another’s points of view. The third core capability means not just acting reactively to solve a problem but also looking at how the future can be “co-created”. This requires the ability to build inspiring visions and learn how to inspire new approaches.

Importantly, system leaders have to commit and they understand the level of commitment needed to be able to achieve transformational change. It also, importantly means being able to comprehend that they are part of the change and they need to change too. As Senge et al. put it:

“Our actions will not become more effective until we shift the nature of the awareness and thinking behind the actions.”

A system leader has therefore  a willingness to open heart, mind and will and change strategy accordingly to achieve change. Space for change is also necessary to be able to achieve this, and an understanding of this still needs to be enhanced. What is known so far is that system leaders need the opportunity to have space so that those that have a problem have the chance to talk it through and understand what is really happening to reflect for a greater change. While many who are new to system leadership may see this as being “weak” it means that they can miss important parts of the change that are manifesting themselves. There is much to be considered but it is important to do this so that a more successful change can be achieved.