“The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” -Margaret Wheatley
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 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 misguided efforts into 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 spur 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…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 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 momentum. Movement over stagnation. To allow our systems to evolve, change, 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 were first placed into our arms. Rather, they grow and involve into toddlers, teenagers, and 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
Wheatley, Margaret. (1999). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.