The Value of System Leadership and Seeing the Big Picture
Principles for leaders
June 29, 2020 | By Christel Gollnick | 6 minute read
This first year of a new decade has demonstrated the power of interconnected systems like no other in our lifetime. Just a few months ago, the fact that a tiny virus about a hundredth of the size of our human cells 1 has the power to take down global markets, cause more than half a million people to die in less than a year, and shake the confidence of millions of leaders from small organizations to the world’s most powerful governments was inconceivable. Yet, we are all living with a new set of rules, whether we like it or not. Added to the impact of COVID-19, the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a small group of police officers has reminded us all of how discriminatory attitudes and systemic bias over centuries can evoke flames of anger, fear, and unrest that is fueling hope and demand for real change.
These times remind me of a scientific theory called “The Butterfly Effect,” which states that the flutter of a small insect’s wing on one side of the world is enough force to begin building a tornado on the opposite side.1 This name and comparison are not meant to be a literal scientific statement of truth. They are an analogy for helping people understand that small things can have a direct and indirect influence on large complex systems. Sometimes the link is traceable, and many times, it is not linear enough to easily track. The point of The Butterfly Effect story is that we understand the interconnectedness of our world.
Brian Lassiter, president of Performance Excellence Network, a nonprofit serving Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, shares, “The world is full of systems – the human body, the earth's ecosystems, weather systems, transportation and communication systems, to name a few – with which we're all familiar. Some are complex; some are pretty simple. But viewing the world through a systems perspective allows you to consider the unified whole and how various parts fit together to accomplish things. Organizations are integrated approaches or systems, and so are communities.”
Systems are created, or they form organically. The level of information, resources, and intelligent strategic thoughtfulness determines the outcomes produced of each system. Communities of Excellence 2026 Co-founder Lowell C. Kruse often cites W. Edwards Deming’s quote, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” when sharing the story of why COE 2026 is applying quality performance excellence principles in communities. Those that are ill-designed or created for the benefit of only select sectors or population segments yield less than wonderful results. Those that take into account all sectors and segments, encompassing all stakeholders, are better positioned to realize transformational results.
In the case of communities, leadership and cultural attitudes and behaviors that seem like minor characteristics and tiny habits can have a wide range of effects from harmful to wildly positive. Systems thinking is what we call the leadership skill that helps organizations and communities embrace their complexity and rise to work on issues and projects of shared and common interest. When small and large teams of people come together, the power of one individual is multiplied. In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey outlines the leadership traits and management skills that have proven to lead to success for centuries.2 They are the building blocks of thriving human ecosystems.
Covey starts his legendary list with the advice “Be Proactive” in acknowledgment that our species has freedom of choice and the responsibility to think ahead instead of only reacting to life’s situations. Based on mindset, worldview, and the emotions that comprise behavior-driving attitudes, leaders and followers can choose how they respond to and interact with each other as they pursue their self-interests, shared interests, and common interests. Embracing the power to choose and responding is part of finding a path to personal and group victories.3
Positive change spreads from leaders to the broader community when proactive planning and actions are implemented and communicated.4 The more self-interests align, the better chance groups have of achieving shared and common goals. Proactive thinking and alignment is evident in communities that grow around complementary industries or trade clusters. Think about New York’s financial district, Kansas City’s life science corridor, the entertainment industry amassed in Los Angeles, and various food production, processing, and distribution pockets throughout the country. Think about the South’s retirement complexes and recreational vehicle communities catering to seasonal migrants from the northern states, the snowy abodes of people who love downhill skiing in the Rocky Mountains, or the artists that gather to collaborate in many small towns and cities. Community members that gather to dream big and grow together can build up their ability to negotiate, work, and compete more effectively with those outside their community. They also grow by attracting others that can play a contributing role in their well-connected system of people pursuing interrelated objectives.
The idea of thinking ahead frees individuals to think beyond what is directly visible and immediately experienced. It is the ability to imagine a picture, or form a guess, of what will be real in the near and distant future and take appropriate steps of preparation. This skill can also be referred to as seeing the big picture or systems-thinking. It is essential for leadership in today’s global economy to be systems thinkers so they can be proactive in spotting and communicating potential opportunities and internal and external challenges.5 It is also helpful when team members develop their systems thinking skills so they can grasp the leader’s visionary messaging, envision the goals, and contribute to the group’s pursuit of excellence.
Brian, who also serves as a Communities of Excellence 2026 (COE 2026) faculty member and community coach, explains, “Viewing communities and the leadership that serves them as a system helps improve decision making, communication, and resource allocation -- it improves overall alignment, the achievement of the mission, and ever-improving outcomes. And here's the thing, if you DON'T view communities and their leadership as a system, you're certain to sub-optimize components of that system.”
Having a community systems perspective is the first core value and concept listed in the Communities of Excellence Framework. Being able to see the bigger picture ensures segments of the community and relevant facts and perspectives are not marginalized or completely forgotten.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower said during World War II, “When I can’t solve a problem, I always make it bigger. I can never solve a problem by trying to make it smaller, but if I can make it big enough, I can often find a solution.”
He was not suggesting actually to make a situation worse but to imagine a situation from a broader and more encompassing perspective that prompts envisioning how the smaller problem fits into the greater whole. What is the root cause of the problem? What are other issues being created because of the initial challenge? How might a change in another area of attention impact and solve the problem without creating more difficult situations?
“Being a leader today is more challenging than ever! There are so many moving parts that need to be managed as a whole to achieve success,” said Brenda Grant, performance excellence coach for UPMC Western Maryland, and former chief strategy officer for CAMC Health System. “I have had the privilege of working within an organization that received the Malcolm Baldrige National Award. I experienced the power of the Baldrige Excellence Framework in transforming our organization by ensuring we looked at how we lead, how we planned, how we engaged our workforce to meet customer needs, and how we managed operations to achieve the best results possible. Even more challenging than leading an organization is providing leadership for our communities. Adapted from Baldrige, The Community Excellence Framework is assisting communities nationwide to develop stronger communities. Our local coalition had many successes over 20 years: however, when we embraced the Community Excellence Framework, we identified gaps in our systems approach. As we address these, we are becoming better community leaders … and that is what we need now, more than ever, for all the places we live, learn, work, and play!”
Well said, Brenda! I’ll leave you with two quotes that feel especially meaningful at this brink of challenge and opportunity of change for the better in our country. The first is COE 2026’s Foundation Statement, “For America to sustain its vitality, promote opportunity, and create a more equitable society during its second 250 years of existence, we must improve the performance of communities and the people who lead and live in them.” While this statement is very big picture thinking, every new or changed picture begins with just a brushstroke. The seemingly small flutter of a brush full of bright color and hope has the same power to alter a canvas that a small group of people has in a community, region, state, country, continent, and world.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead inspires with her words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed [empowered and organized] citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The empowerment and organizational aspects added to this quote are a nod to the essential role and value of applying a systems perspective framework for change-making in our communities.
1 Hobbs, B. (2020). The big and the small. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/03/30/2859247.htm.
2, 3 Covey, S. R. (1989, 2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, NW: Free Press, A division of Simon & Schuster.
4 Nel, H. (2018). Community leadership: A comparison between asset-based community-led development (ABCD) and the traditional needs-based approach. Development of South Africa, 35(6): 839-851.
5 Senge, P., Hamilton, H. and Kania, J. (2014). Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter, Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#.