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Systems Leadership

System Addict

21 December 2019

Thanks to my stellar upbringing, I have turned out to be a rather ‘forthright’ woman, chock full of opinions.  As I get older, experience is only galvanizing my resolve. I’m getting worse.  Most recently I was outraged at a children’s party and felt the need to get into an argument with Mrs Christmas / Santa’s Elf (it’s hard to discern elf ears mid-injustice).  She was about to turn away a mum and her two kids who had been queueing to see Father Christmas, because we, the party, had a 12pm group appointment already scheduled in his diary.  She told the mum that the front desk shouldn’t have sold them their tickets and that she should go and see them to see when they could attend. The previous helper of Santa had clearly informed us that our party would get to see him immediately after the two kids in front, they had already been waiting a while, because we had been as well, so I could not believe that this new helper was now considering turning them away?! I must have done some kind of ‘how long does it ever take to see Santa though?’ calculation in my head and reached the conclusion that we would only have to wait a few minutes – “Will you leave out a mince pie for me? Rudolf likes a carrot. *Optional alcohol joke for the adults in the room*. What would you like for Christmas? Oh great, here’s a toy that you haven’t asked for that I have millions of. Smile at the camera. See you on Christmas Eve!”.  #leansanta #scrooge

Imagine my HORROR when Santa spent the next FIFTEEN to TWENTY MINUTES conversing with TWO CHILDREN, either because he’s just really super interested in making their experience memorable and/or they were proving a point to the irritating parent outside who MADE them abandon their schedule.  Either way, Santa had no conception of operational efficiency.  Which is ironic because he is meant to be THE master of complex global logistics. 

So yes, picture me, standing with the lovely parents who had organized a really great party waiting outside some fire doors, increasingly glowing crimson that I had railroaded my opinions all over their event.  The second half of the party arrived in the queue for their appointment at 12.15 and we STILL hadn’t gone in. Badtimes. I made a mental note to rein myself in in future (even if I was right). I felt so bad I even attempted to keep a group of 5 year olds entertained by leading a chorus of Away in a Manger. The second group got into see Santa at 12.40ish, some 25 minutes after the tiny people had started queueing. 

Once inside, I quickly understood why my Santa timing was so out of kilter.  Santa LOVED to talk.  When we were finally able to escape Santa’s rambling tales, I ran for the hills, sent multiple Whatsapp messages of apology and felt deep remorse for at least the next 48 hours. (That’s a lie, it’s still there). 

But I had genuinely tried to do the right thing, and yet it didn’t work out? This feeling is not new to me. In work, I feel like I’m often trying to do the right thing, sort out a problem because something has gone wrong somewhere, so I try to understand why it’s gone wrong and what we can do to stop it happening again.  The actual problem is however, is that this kind of activity is often experienced as interference within someone else’s area of jurisdiction.  

This is a real shame I think ….  I get it though. I HATE it when people try to think that they can do my job better than me! I genuinely do always try to listen to feedback, can and do recognize when it is correct and I think, most importantly, I guarantee that I will always confess when I have indeed messed up.  But yeah, don’t try to do my job for me ok? 😀

Increasingly, to me at least, the answer to all of this is ‘Systems Leadership’ and it’s an approach to leadership that we are investigating and offering more and more within our Executive Education portfolio.  I like this paragraph from The King’s Fund publication ‘The Practice of System Leadership. Being Comfortable with Chaos to help to describe the approach. 

“Effective system leaders are not heroic individuals who, through force of will or personality, achieve changes that others find impossible. (ahem) Rather, they recognise the need to build alliances and collaborations by engaging their peers and many others in working towards a better future. They lead through influence and persuasion, recognising that delivering sustainable improvements usually takes time. They are also resilient in the face of obstacles, keeping faith with their purpose even when they encounter resistance. They have learnt how to work across organisational boundaries through networks that bring together services around the needs of populations and people who use these services. In the words of one of the leaders interviewed for this report, system leaders succeed by ‘being comfortable with chaos’”. 

To me, Systems Leadership helps to describe the way that many of our leadership programmes have been constructed, (they are not chaotic, they are exceptionally well organised btw 😀 ) putting operations management principles squarely beside an examination of leadership, fully understanding of the need to lead the progression of work across organisational boundaries. I’m really appreciating the new elements that ‘Systems Leadership’ is bringing however. The need to build a coalition and to not pursue an ideal, but to progressively move towards better, but accepting of yes, the chaos, is a really positive expression of the sort of direction and hope that 2020 needs.   

I don’t feel that I had the time to build a coalition within the ‘for the love of God just let them see Santa’ (and maybe tell Santa that even if he doesn’t see it as such, we’re running a business here) predicament but I’m going to try to do more network building across the University in 2020 so that I can hopefully be slightly less irritating and slightly more effective. Plus once beyond the fire doors, every child loved their 20-25 minute moment in the sun with Santa. Bah humbug!