How Can We Create a Culture of System Leadership?

Friday Learning Notes

Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela— we remember the names of great leaders, but they didn’t change the world all on their own. These leaders were able to catalyze collective movements that transformed hearts and minds and pushed to solve dynamic problems in complex systems.

In my blog post, Why Good Intentions Aren’t Enough, I talked about how the world we live in is inherently complex, with linkages that are often difficult to see and understand. This is why it’s important for leaders to incorporate a systems view when developing strategies.

There are many anecdotal stories as to why systems thinking is important for leaders, including this fun cautionary talk about cats in Borneo

Leaders who strive to make progress towards social change while applying systems thinking are part of a new culture of system leadership. These leaders can be individuals or organizations who are committed to creating the conditions for others to rise up and better the world.

During lunch with Wendy Kopp, a powerful leader who founded Teach for America, we got to talking about what we’d read recently, and she shared that she gained great insights from “The Dawn of System Leadership” and had read it six times.

If you haven’t yet read the piece by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, it’s a worthwhile article to read and revisit periodically for insight into what it takes to be a systems leader in a complex world.

Specifically, the three leadership capabilities they outline resonate deeply with the work we do at Omidyar Network.

  1. The first is the ability to see the larger system. This is the reason we are building the capacity to do system mapping and other system practices into our strategy work.
  2. The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. With the goal of creating more effective “learning infrastructure,” we have embedded into our business cycles key activities such as portfolio reviews and after action reviews that create a space for teams to engage in systematic reflection.
  3. The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Perhaps the best example of this has been our work in fostering and co-creating with others the impact investing movement that is developing new ways to direct significant capital to investments that create social good.

How can you better adopt the capabilities of a system leader in your work?



Our Friday Learning Notes series is designed to share insights from Omidyar Network’s journey to become a best-in-class learning organization. Grab a cup of coffee and start your own Friday morning learning journey! *warning: side effects of regular reading may include improved mood, upswing in dinner party conversation, and/or increased desire to cultivate learning for social impact.