The Leadership System

What We Believe

Mission is Sacred
· Mission is more than a pretty slogan;

· An organization exists solely to fulfill its mission;

· The primary responsibility of leadership is the execution of mission; and

There are two lenses through which to view leadership. 1) The lens of the individual leader seeking to influence others and attract a following through a personal style; and 2) The lens of the organization where all systems are engineered with a set of standard requirements which will deliver predictable value to the customer. Leadership is one of these systems.

Implications for Leadership
Leadership and System Design
With no intentional system design, leadership defaults to individual leaders seeking to attract followers through personal style and personality. The results are all too frequently revenues at any cost, profits at any price, and production at any risk. Case: In September 2016 OSHA sited a major automotive parts manufacturer and its staffing agency for repeated safety violations. The most notable of which was a robot that malfunctioned. A young woman, struggling to meet demands of leaders who required quota be maintained at any cost, stepped in to clear a sensor fault. It abruptly restarted, crushing her to death.

A designed leadership system has all the components of any system beginning with a defined set of requirements that are aligned with mission: 1) a clear purpose, 2) a set of standard behaviors, 3) a defined set of routines and activities designed to deliver predictable value, 4) a plan for deploying the system; and 5) a measure of system performance. Case: When Paul O’Neil stepped down from the Alcoa Company after 13 years of stellar performance, it was safer to work in an Alcoa foundry than work in the back office of an insurance company. O’Neil set up routines and metrics that focused on worker safety. Individual leaders performed to the requirements of a system that said safety was the function and purpose of leadership. The result was the best financial performance Alcoa ever enjoyed.

The Leadership System
In her classic book, Thinking in Systems, author Donella Meadows defines a system as exhibiting three components: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.” We would add to this basic definition that within every system there are rules that govern the interconnections or relationships and routines. These rules are both formal and informal.

Therefore, when systems theory is applied to leadership, a definition immerges that can be understood as:

A leadership system is that which coherently organizes and connects leaders and the elements they control with critical relationships to produce a desired and measurable outcome, (maximum value).

This is opposed to the personality driven view of leadership, which might be best expressed in the subtitle of John Maxwell’s bestselling book – 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership – Follow them and People Will Follow You. Under this model, the primary function of a leader is accumulating power and influence through gaining followers – frequently through sheer force of will or personality.

With a designed leadership system, there are a set of defined requirements, which recognizes interconnections to other systems and the leader submits everything she controls (elements), to deliver maximum value (purpose or function). It is not about leaders and followers. It is about leveraging the highest value of each interconnecting system to provide predictable and maximum value to the customer.

Example of Leadership System Design
In his book, The Power of Habits, author Charles Duhigg tells the story of Rhode Island Hospital. At one time, it was a place of feudal fights where nurses were pitted against surgeons. An elderly man was brought in with a Subdural Hematoma. Immediate surgery was required. Ignoring both hospital protocols and repeated caution from the nurses that standard consent forms were not properly completed the surgeon went ahead with the surgery and told the nurses: (Quoting Duhigg): “If that’s what you want, then call the fucking ER and find the family! In the meantime, I’m going to save his life.” Within two weeks the man was dead. The surgeon operated on the wrong side of the man’s head. It would be easy to say that the fault was the surgeon’s and he should be dismissed, (he was). However, over the next four years similar accidents occurred for which the hospital paid $500,000 in fines.

The good news is that changes were made. It might be obvious to say, they implemented check lists and other procedural changes to insure patient safety. However, the stronger reality is that they transformed the entire leadership system. Leaders become subservient to the requirements of a designed system rather than every leader managing according to personal style and personality. The result was a dramatic increase in patient safety and they were honored with a prestigious award for Critical Nursing. Where the old leadership system put the surgeon at the top of the pyramid with virtual unquestionable authority, the new system empowered everyone around the care of the patient – delivering maximum value. Duhigg concludes with an example of a routine surgery performed by an experienced and well trained surgeon. Before he started he went through a check list but missed a minor point. In response, the youngest and least experienced nurse pointed out the error which was welcomed by the surgeon.

A leadership system, therefore, is what connects individual leaders, and organizes the elements they control with the critical relationships to produce the desired outcome – maximum value. Without a designed system, individual leaders function according to personal style and produce results that are highly variable and sometimes catastrophic. With a designed system, all leaders operate according to the requirements of the system which is designed to produce predictable maximum value. In the Rhode Island Hospital example, the surgeons recognized the nurses as part of a total system of patient care. It was not a matter of power and control. It was about more medical value delivered to the patient.

  1 comment for “The Leadership System

  1. December 16, 2019 at 10:30 am

    So true. Much grist for the mill in this post. Thanks Dan.

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