The System of Leadership


Un-executable Intelligence

The conversation about effective leadership started during the industrial age in response to the need to effectively (and efficiently) direct the work of employees towards a common goal. I joined the conversation in response to a call for a management paradigm shift in the 1980’s as part of the Total Quality Management movement to improve quality. Since these conversations began, there has been a steady stream of research and publications on leadership practice, growing from a stream to a river and now an ocean. Given the sheer volume of data, setting aside the quality of leadership-intelligence represented, one would expect a level of expertise that translates into leadership excellence in execution. Sadly this is not the case. Survey after survey reflects a growing lack of confidence (and trust) in leadership capability and decreasing levels of employee engagement, worldwide.

How is it possible to know so much about any one topic and not be able to effectively execute against it? Could it be that we are focusing on the wrong end of the problem?

The vast majority of leadership development initiatives are centered on the style, trait or characteristics [behavior] of the leader. However leaders do not lead in isolation they are part of a larger system. A structure that influences the outcomes of the practice of leadership and a structure that reinforces the leadership model it was designed for — command and control.

What if we developed a new system of leadership designed to support and reinforce an adaptive environment that engages everyone? Could we develop a system of leadership that [consistently] gives rise to effective leadership, innovative and collaborative environment and high levels of engagement and enablement?


Not Leveraging the System

Disruption seems to be the new world [dis] order. Businesses are facing an unprecedented level and rate of change challenging the way we lead and manage our organization. Although there are several triggers for this change, technology, with its disruptive nature, seems to be the genesis for much of it. Innovative technology can wipe out an entire industry at the same time it creates a new one making it difficult, at best, to know who the competition is. Stability and predictability have been replaced uncertainty and ambiguity brought about by shorter product life cycles, constant change, the explosion of data and the need to convert the data into knowledge. So ushers in the knowledge era. A globalized world fueled by worldwide technical disruption and an explosion of information, thereby making the production and management of knowledge a strategic imperative for most firms.

This is a significant shift in competitive strategy, away from efficient management and tangible assets in manufacturing environment to knowledge management and innovation in an information-based environment. Our current leadership system, designed as a means to organize production some 140 years ago no longer serves us. At the heart of this system is the command-and-control model where the role of leadership is to provide the right answers while the rest of the organization waits to be told what to do.

This way of leading is fully supported and reinforced by the current system (environment & culture) evidenced by: the hierarchal structures and assignment based job titles (emphasizing rank over ability); the way jobs are defined (around the needs of the leader, rather than the customer); and the reward systems (where promotions, and accompanying raises, are the highest form of recognition, controlled by the leaders and out of reach for most employees).

There is widespread agreement, supported by research, that the hierarchical model where decisions are made at the top and executed at the bottom will no longer work. Employees need to be inspired by a compelling vision, certain of the goals that need to be met and empowered to achieve them. The data are clear, employee engagement drives performance [in almost every conceivable organizational metric] and leadership is critical to engagement.

The predominant approach to improving leadership focuses on ‘what’ the leader needs to do and usually focuses exclusively on the actions and behaviors of the person in charge. There is no shortage of literature on this topic. The supply of books on leadership is growing year over year. It took five years (from 2003 to 2008) for the number of [leadership] books to double and in the last five years (2008 to 2013) the number of books has increase by 3.5 times. We continue to read (and learn) about how a leader should behave; we even have highly successful examples (such as Gore Tex) to model. We send senior leaders to workshops and bring consultants in to teach leaders the new and necessary skills.

All of this time, energy and money are spent focusing mostly on leadership styles and ways of being without deep consideration of the environment in which the leader must lead. Leaders are taught to do things differently and are told to engage, listen to, collaborate with, involve, and empower their teams with little support in how to create a system to support these new ways of working. Instead, they bring their new skills back to their old environment an environment that still supports and reinforces the old ways of working.

Our leadership solutions are drawn from the same core concepts and beliefs around engagement and can be traced back (in some manner) to time-tested-theories, i.e. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These programs are, generally speaking, well designed, grounded in research and potentially equally effective and yet have not [widely] netted the desired or intended outcomes. Leaders experiment with their new skills and try to influence change. Overtime though, nothing really changes – why?


The System of Leadership

If we assume leadership development and improvement programs are not netting the desired outcome and the programs are not flawed then the cause of the leadership crisis [the reason for this hack] cannot be attributed [solely] to those with the responsibility to lead. It is important to understand this conversation is about leadership the verb – a function or act carried out by someone. Leadership, defined here, is the activity that leads to the achievement of a specific goal (outcomes) by those who have a vested interest in the goal.

NOTE: I am purposefully not attributing leadership to a specific individual like the manager or boss [leader. An act of leadership can be taken on by anyone and is not exclusive to the person with the highest rank in the group.

If leadership is a verb and is activity towards goal attainment, then we must consider all that influences the ability to achieve said outcomes. This in turn requires a systemic view of all that influences effective leadership. When looking at a model of effective leadership, it is important to understand all that is in place (systems, structure and culture) which is influencing the outcome. It is not possible to isolate one component as the reason for success. Consider the Gore-Tex model; it is carefully managed through the selection and indoctrination of new members into the system [it takes 18 months for a new member to be able to act effectively in the Gore-Tex system]. The founder of the company didn’t simply behave a specific way, he built a way of working and culture that reflected and reinforced his value of others. He designed a system that consistently nets the desired outcomes whether he is directly involved or not.

We have many examples of successful organizations founded and designed around the principles and practices of engagement and empowerment. Building such an organization from inception is much different than transforming a command-and-control organization. It requires a systems approach that is designed to reinforce the desired behavior and allows for practice to build capability over time.

The solution for improving leadership capability, at all levels, is creating a leadership agenda based on the system of leadership:


The system of leadership is comprised of four dimensions which are interconnected /related, each one influencing and being influenced by the other. Deliberate changes and work in each dimension reinforces reciprocating changes, resulting in increased capability and capacity of the entire system to achieve the desired outcomes. This enables the practice of leadership to grow organically and virally as individuals practice newly developed skills in an environment that supports rather than eradicates the new ways of working.

The Dimensions:

1. 21st Century Leadership: this dimension focuses on clarifying the role and expectations of leadership (the verb) in the 21st century and the goal of leadership as the means to creating EPIIC organizations where Engaged People Innovate and Inspire Change. Work done in this area must paint a clear picture of the new desired EPIIC leadership model and well as the reasons for moving away from the command-and-control model. Clearly defining the new leadership capabilities to act as a thought partner (rather than isolated heroes), presenting challenges and asking provoking questions that reveal assumptions and challenge deeply held beliefs creating the capacity to ‘think outside the box’. Workgroups will learn how to reframe leadership as a shared responsibility dependent on the needs of the team with each member taking ownership and accountability for ‘running their leg of the race’ and contributing to achieving the goals.

2. Leader Role: this dimension focuses on the leader role (noun) and includes anyone that takes on this role whether they are leading a small team or entire organization. Work in this dimension must build the capability to inspire and influence others. This is not about teaching a particular leadership style or prescribing how the leader needs to show up. It is about increasing the leader’s EQ and helping them to draw on their personal strengths to effective execute [leadership].

3. Environment: this dimension focuses on creating the conditions for success. Building environmental capacity by ensuring there is a common achievable goal that all members are working towards, creating role clarity and distinction so individuals know what their individual contribution is and how it adds value to the team (supports collective goals), defining and building competence and commitment and ensuring measurement systems provide feedback in a way that team members can take action on.

4. Engagement: this dimension focuses on understanding and creating the psychological conditions that give rise to engagement: Meaningfulness– personal valued gained through efforts; Safety — free from fear and clarity around behavioral consequences; Availability– and knowledge, skills, ability and confidence to deliver on commitments.

The intent is not to develop yet another leadership development program but rather to expand the view of leadership development to include all four dimensions. There is no prescription or single process for transforming organizations from command-and-control model to engaged-people-innovating & inspiring-change, EPIIC model. There is, though, a more effective approach with a higher likelihood of netting the desired short and long-term outcomes and this is the aim of the system of leadership.

Practical Impact

Start a rEvolution – engage everyone!

This is a rEvoutionary approach introducing revolutionary ideas and concepts (i.e. leadership as thinking partner) that are tempered by small ongoing changes in all parts of the systems netting the desired outcome over time. We begin with a deliberate plan to ‘infect’ the organization with new ideas beginning with the teams [and people] most susceptible to the new ways of working and showcase their success.

We begin with the creation of a Leadership Community of Practice (L-CoP) and target three types of individuals:

Executives – heads of organizations that have legitimate power

Line managers – team leads responsible for bottom line results

Movers & shakers – natural leaders and change champions with reverent power

Individuals from each of these groups are invited into the L-CoP and work begins in all dimensions using a process I call covert-disruption.

Covert Disruption is a process of ‘introducing’ new ideas and ways of working that solve an existing problem without calling it out as a new process. It can be a powerful tool in making cultural changes without the natural resistance that accompanies a major change effort. The key distinction and power of covert disruption is that the new method or behavior is role modeled while facilitating a team through a real [current and relevant] problem they are struggling with. It is not ‘introduced’ as a new way of working, instead it is brought into an existing conversation as “what if we . . .” The focus is on the problem being solved not the tool or method being used and for the most part goes unnoticed until the team debriefs. During a review of how the problem was solved and inquiry into how to carry what was learned forward, the methodology/ behavior is taught – to a team with a vested interest in learning. These learned [new] ways of working are subsequently used by these individuals in new situations and new teams. Momentum is built in a viral manner and the new skills grow organically. The new ways are adopted not because they have been called out as a new way of working (like TQM). They are adopted because they are solving real problems and helping teams and individuals be more successful. The shift to new ways of working is almost unnoticed (similar to the parable of the boiled frog – but in a healthy direction). Movement in all the dimensions in the same direction will amplify the results changing the culture slowly at first and building quickly.

Team by team, work in all dimensions begins, setting new expectations and creating opportunities to work in new ways that are experienced as subtle changes (when used to address real issues) and net major systemic changes over-time in a more evolutionary manner.

As leaders begin to understand and accept their new role and eventually experiment with the concepts their teams will be evolving in the same direction using newly learned behaviors supported by frameworks and tools (that naturally reinforce the new behaviors) to resolve the very issues teams complain about today.

Customer Driven Performance framework example

The way in which we define jobs/positions and reward performance today (in many organizations) is the role of the manager. In this role the manager must ‘tell’ the employee what to do and most likely how and when to do it. If there is a problem the employee looks to the manager for the answer. There are many factors, below the conscious level, that reinforce this relationship i.e. the subordinate titles used that focus on rank and not ability or contribution. Since birth, we are taught our relative place and how to respond to others as we move through the parent/child, teacher/student and now manager/employee relationships.

The manager also is the one responsible for rewarding performance. Taken together these are powerful drivers that reinforce the command-and-control leadership style. Even when managers want to give employees more freedom and employees want to take more ownership for meeting the needs of the customers, the current system gets in the way. At the end of the day the manager is held accountable for telling their teams what to do and measuring performance and rewarding them.

The Customer Driven Performance framework is a tool designed to reinforce a much different manager-employee relationship where the employee’ job is defined by the needs of the customer and the managers’ role is to support the employee in delivering to customer requirements. Performance is measured by the customers based on objective targets set by the employee and customer. This framework supports the ownership employees crave and the freedom managers must grant to enable increased innovation and real customer focus.

This tool helps to engage employees, build commitment, provide clarity and opportunity and sets up an entirely new and positive leadership dynamic when used as part of the system of leadership.

This is one of many frameworks and tools that can be developed to build a system and create an environment that supports an EPIIC model. The use of the framework will both reinforce and be reinforced by the new leadership expectations and leader skills.


The reinforcing nature of the current system

As with any system, the biggest challenge will be the command-and-control system which is designed to preserve itself — those who benefit the most from the current system must make the decision (commitment) to a change that will result in, at the very least, a perceived loss of power. They must commit to a change that they currently don’t have the skill set to be successful in. This is a significant and fundamental behavioral change and is not easy.

This is the very reason we appear to have a gap between leadership theory and practice. The new leadership theory is ineffective in the current system. Making changes in the system/structure will enable the new leadership practices to take hold and achieve results.

Other challenges include the inherent delay between making a change and realizing the desired outcome. The results unfold over time and at different rates for different teams. Committing to a long-term process that doesn’t promise immediate results can be a difficult sell.

As well as the lack of specific measurement instruments to collect data and analyze results. Teams must be creative using a mixed method (both qualitative and quantitative) approach to gathering feedback and tracking improvements.

First Steps

Operation Covert-Disruption

The good news is that there is widespread agreement that companies need to become more adaptive. There is strong evidence that doing so improves financial health and there is universal recognition that the command-and-control model doesn’t support adaptive behavior. In terms of readiness, most organizations are espousing the need to develop new ways of working that encourage collaboration and increase innovative capabilities.

The first step is to leverage this desire to improve leadership and develop a plan to understand the system of leadership and design some level of activity in each area. Even if you don’t get it right, exposing the organization to the concepts helps move them forward.

This is because, all organizations are facing similar challenges engaging employees and employees want to be engaged. All organizations also have movers & shakers, who have the natural ability and desire to try new ways of working if someone would clarify what that is. The system of leadership begins with providing a clear picture of what that looks like.

The best approach would be to establish a Leadership Community of Practice and involve all three target groups :Executives, Line managers, Movers & shakers. Each group will have early adopters who are ready and willing to be the first ones out the gate. Modules for each of the four dimensions can be developed and tailored to the specific audience. The modules should be designed to teach the concepts, clarify what that concept looks like in their organization and allow for structured practice sessions where participants can experiment and master the new skills and supporting system changes using frameworks and tools.

The CoP will host events that build on the concepts/skills being introduced and practiced and provide a safe space to collaborate and learn from each other.

EPPIC reviews should be developed to help everyone in the organization understand what the desired behavior looks like. Pull together teams (mixed group of volunteers from all levels and all business units) who are taught how to review an organization and determine if and to what degree the desired behaviors have been operationalized. These EPPIC review teams will then be assigned to review business teams who have signed up for an EPPIC review. Through interviews and observation the review team assess and report back on what is and isn’t working (to the business team requesting a review) in similar fashion to a Malcolm Baldridge review.

Over time the organization figures out what works best and how to fully engage everyone. Multiple teams will be working at different paces but all moving in the same direction and all reinforcing the same new behaviors.


Peter Senge “The Fifth Discipline”


William Kahn “ Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement And Disengagement At Work”

Peter Senge, Peter Drucker “Looking Ahead Implications of the present”

R.A. Heifetz & D.L. Laurie “The Work of Leadership”

Ireland, R., & Hitt, M. A. Achieving and maintaining strategic competitiveness in the 21st century: The role of strategic leadership.

Dess, G. G., & Picken, J. C. Changing roles: Leadership in the 21st century

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