“The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” -Margaret Wheatley via Leadership and the New Science
We don’t often take the time to consider our systems, especially as dynamic, flourishing structures. As leaders, we have a tendency to view them through a more controlling lens, approaching them as stagnant, stationary processes to repress and restrain. As complex compositions that can run amok if not aligned in an orderly manner. Structures we interface at, instead of navigating and networking within as if they are living, developing, and ever-evolving.
As we look to the future…that leadership mindset will have to change, will have to evolve forward.
As a child, my friends and I loved to play and explore in the mountains behind our house. Especially after a heavy rain, the mud, puddles, and streams were irresistible sources of natural inquiry and entertainment. We especially loved to determinedly collaborate our efforts around damming up the water that streamed heavily down the mountains from these heavy downpours. And to no avail, our efforts were always in vain. The water would eventually find a way around or through our best efforts. We eventually faced up to the fact that we could not bridle back and control those constantly adapting streams of water.
While we did not recognize it at the time, we were learning wonderful leadership lessons.
First, despite our best efforts, the water could not be controlled.
Second, while the water could not be controlled, it could be guided.
Once we learned that the water could not be controlled, we stopped putting our often misguided efforts towards creating bigger and greater obstructions to hold the water back. We stopped running back and forth plugging the holes that constantly and inevitably burst through. Instead…
We learned to guide the process, to guide the stream.
We approached the process through a new lens, with a new perspective.
When we fail to recognize that our systems are fluid rather than stagnant. When we fail to realize that our systems are changing, evolving, and ever-renewing, we continue to spend our time creating obstacles. We spend our time plugging holes.
Rather, we need to push our efforts towards creating the path of the stream staying in front of the flow. Creating the conditions that will move the system forward, influencing the path.
We must allow our leadership to serve as a support and guide to the system.
Loosening our command and control grip, by gaining understanding that the system will eventually seep through our grasp.
Less time spent on plugging holes. Less time attending to the urgent and scrambling to keep our structures secure, and more time focused on what is most important.
Accept that our leadership is part of these living systems and with any living system, the humanity has a way of leaking out. Seeping through despite our best efforts. People are messy, as is life. So why would our systems be separate and different. They are made up of us and are the result of what we have created. It can be messy. It will be messy. And it should be welcomed and embraced. Celebrated.
We can continue to build and erect structures, walls, and obstacles to provide some semblance of control. Or we can accept the fluidity of our systems and determine to guide and direct them. Loosening control in favor of dynamic momentum. Movement over stagnation. To allow our systems to evolve, adapt, shift, and reinvent themselves. Continuous and ongoing. Or we can struggle to keep them as they always were, a facade of safe and controlled.
It may be worth remembering…
Systems are like our children, they do not remain the little lovable bundles that they were when they were first placed into our arms. Rather, they grow and involve into toddlers, teenagers, and then adults. We can’t control that process, rather we have to look to engage and enjoy each level of it, each stage of growth and transformation. Guiding and coaching forward.
“Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Streams have more than one response…” -Margaret Wheatley via Leadership and the New Science
As always, I truly enjoy your posts.. Like a handful sand, the tighter the grip the more sand slips through the person’s fingers. Rather than managing people a leader should, as you describe guide, support and coach toward what is important in the organization. Leaders sometimes need to take a step back and evaluate, determining if the organization truly understands what the “focus” is, rather than taking the shotgun spray approach of many initiatives at one time. This type of leadership often results in failed attempts to plug the dam, realizing that in the end the dam will not hold and all the attempted initiatives fail to take a successful hold within the organization.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for your insights around the evolving leadership mindset. I loved your analogy of you and your friends being unable to control the waters, but instead able to guide them. As leaders I believe this is one of our most important roles. We need to be able to identify talents and strengths within our school or system and give them opportunities to use those strengths and to share them with the community. We also need to support them as they build on those strengths and become leaders in their own right.
Thanks again for sharing.
David, it is wonderful to see Wheatley’s ideas as a framework for how to build truly living systems with adaptive leaders setting the course, while being wise enough to realize that they can’t and shouldn’t try to control everything. Another incredible piece is “Goodbye, Command and Control” (http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/goodbyecommand.html). Thank you for your thoughts.
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