Wicked, persistent problems that diminish the quality of life in our communities often frustrate leaders accustomed to achieving change within their own organizations and institutions. While they know that homelessness, blight or hunger cannot be addressed as quickly as the strategic challenges they resolve within their company, hospital or university, they understandably wonder why progress on civic challenges is so elusive. And if these leaders travel or talk with colleagues from across the globe, they may also wonder why some communities make progress on wicked, persistent problems and others don’t.
The key to addressing long-standing challenges within a community is neither wealth, nor wisdom – though those can help. Dollars and ideas are not enough. Leadership is what matters most. A specific type of leadership. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article The Dawn of Systems Leadership, authors Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania articulate the value of specific leadership capabilities that enable community leaders to build and sustain the conditions for collective action on social issues.
Systems leaders recognize that bringing change within complex civic systems requires different behaviors and skills than does leading within an organization. Organizations have hierarchies, lines of authority, and established processes for achieving change. Those features are less clear (or completely absent) within the complex civic systems that determine the quality of education, public health, food security, safety, and other outcomes in our communities.
The article implicitly asks, “How do we create more and more, effective systems leaders?” I’ve heard the same question asked explicitly at civic tables in many communities and at national think tanks.
One answer should be our community-based leadership programs. (The Association of Leadership Programs is the membership organization for these types of programs and has members across the United States and Canada.)
These programs exist in nearly every large- to medium-size community. They tap organizational leaders from business, nonprofits, government, education, law, and other sectors, and expose them to an intense, months-long curriculum that strengthens their professional network, and their understanding of the opportunities and challenges within their community.
Participants in these programs often emerge eager to “do something.” And some leadership programs make it easier for graduates to take on a “project” together. The programs could be even more effective if they encouraged leaders to focus less on “what” to do, and more on “how” to exercise leadership within the complex civic systems that shape our communities.
These programs could help leaders develop the skills necessary to catalyze systems change (to be systems leaders) by having them participate in role-playing scenarios and other exercises that help them: 1) learn how complex civic systems differ from organizations; 2) understand why those differences require cross-sector collaboration to achieve change; and 3) develop and practice the leadership skills that facilitate effective collaboration.
Based on work done in partnership with Leadership Akron and the Cleveland Leadership Center, I believe community-based leadership programs can help organizational leaders become stronger systems leaders by focusing on strengthening three skills:
- Inquiry: Participants practice asking compelling questions that help them and others think differently about the challenges and opportunities within the system. Practicing inquiry can be risky business, but it also is the best way to catalyze new approaches to addressing persistent problems. Marcy Levy Shankman, formerly with the Cleveland Leadership Center and now a leadership coach and strategist to the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, helped us develop three distinct kinds of compelling questions that systems leaders need to learn to ask:
- Foundational questions help participants understand the scope of the system where they want to catalyze change. Such questions clarify why the system is performing as it is, and where there are opportunities for improvement.
- Aspirational questions help players explore what is possible if freed from the constraints of how the system is operating today.
- Procedural questions help define conditions that need to exist, including who needs to be engaged, before stakeholders are willing to pursue change together.
- Assessing Context: Leaders need to understand the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders that make up the system. Are stakeholders stuck in “turf protection mode” or are they committed to disrupting the status quo? We use scenarios that engage leaders in role-playing to help them practice surfacing the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders, and to assess whether collaboration is possible.
- Building Trust: Cross-sector collaborations move at the speed of trust. Trust has no memory so leaders need to build it every day, and broken trust can last forever unless leaders work to rebuild it. Building trust requires leaders to understand the basic elements of trust, and how to behave in ways that reinforce those elements. Peer-to-peer learning exercises, such as the Trust Equation, help participants experience how others assess trustworthiness, and increase their understanding of how to act in ways that build trust.
As Senge, Hamilton, and Kania emphasize, systems leadership requires a great deal of rigor and practice. Unfortunately, most civic leaders presently are practicing in the civic arena – often in the heat of a crisis – rather than on a practice court. We know what would happen if LeBron James (or any other athlete) failed to sharpen their skills before entering the arena. We shouldn’t expect our leaders to be effective if they haven’t practiced, either. Community-based leadership programs can provide a safe place for emerging systems leaders to practice the skills that are required to catalyze enduring, positive change in our communities.