Leading Self

Systems and Leadership

Learning Objectives

In this final chapter in this section on leadership, we begin to examine what it means to lead and think in systems. Because organizations are made up of people and there are always interrelationships with those people, it becomes imperative for the leader to know how to navigate the organization’s systems.

This chapter will help you:

  • Define a ‘system’.
  • Paraphrase the difference between a closed, open, and complex adaptive system.
  • Explain how to ‘lead in the open’.
  • Prepare to engage within a 360 degree perspective of leadership.


What is a System?

As for trades people, we are familiar with the term systems. Whether those are plumbing systems, electrical systems, structural systems, systems for organization, or hydraulic systems, most trades people understand there are systems within every aspect of trades.

Leadership is also familiar with systems. Rather than mechanical or electrical, leadership is primarily concerned with human systems. Not biological but relational.

What is a system? Fundamentally, a system is a group of people who share relationships in such a way that they produce their own behavioural patterns. Typically, these behaviours form to achieve a goal. Systems achieve a purpose and as such, it should be the intention of the leader to understand systems to achieve a desired goal or purpose.

A group of rocks is not a system. The key to understanding where a system exists is to understand that systems are based upon interconnections. Take a rock away – the pile of rocks is still a pile. Contrast that with a sports team like a professional European soccer team where you remove one player from the field, the system changes. Why? Because there exists an inherent and deliberate interconnection between the eleven players on the field.

A system is more than the sum of its parts – D. Meadows

Further to this, you can only begin to understand a system by contemplating the whole rather than the individual parts. Any team’s game plan includes the strategic use of all the players on the field working in concert to achieve their goal – winning!

When considering a systems thinking approach to leadership in the trades and business one has to understand at a basic level the difference between a closed system, an open system, and a complex adaptive system. It is important to remember that the reference points for these three systems are between the group and their environment. All systems have;

  1. Inputs
  2. Outputs
  3. Feedback Mechanisms
  4. Emergent Properties
  5. Have Boundaries

A closed system is defined as an isolated system where there is no interaction with the external environment. There may be a group of people who are gathered together for the sole purpose of digesting and discussing information and ultimately coming to a unified conclusion. A sequestered court jury is a great example of a closed system.

An open system is defined as a system which is susceptible to influences from its external environment. The system can adapt and will change when inputs from the external environment enter the system. Returning to the European soccer team, the players will play differently when different external influences are applied to the team and its plans. For example, the weather will have an effect on the performance of the team.

The term complex adaptive system was developed to describe the relationship within larger more complex groups. One major characteristic of complex adaptive systems is that the behaviour of the group cannot be predicted by the behaviour of the individual components. One of the best attributes of complex adaptive systems is their adaptability and resiliency in the face of conflict or disturbance. In complex adaptive systems, there can be many different groups, each being systems in and of themselves. A jobsite is a great example of a complex adaptive system. There are many different trades represented on the job site. All are working towards the goal of completing the project, yet all have an influence upon each other within the project.


Take some time to complete the following;

  1. Give yourself some space and time to think of your own organization. Write down where you see each of the three systems (Closed, Open, Complex Adaptive) within your organization.
  2. Describe the interrelationships within those systems and how each may influence each other.


Leading in the Open

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. – Archimedes

All too often people are promoted to leadership positions based on what they have accomplished. This is important because we want our leaders to be competent in what they do and able to execute and realize their goals. Namely, can they get stuff done and can they do it well? Yet getting stuff done is only a piece of what it means to lead yourself and to lead others.

Called the ‘Peter Principle’ it occurs all too often. This principle states that members of a group or team are promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer competent. Unfortunately, what is often overlooked is the fact that what got you there will not keep you there. With each step up, with every promotion, there comes the realization that your leadership capabilities are brought forth into the open. What she once did to get things done will no longer be noticed by a select few. What she now decides to do and executes will be noticed by a larger audience. This is what is referred to as leading in the open.

Leadership is about relationships. Systems are defined by their interconnections. Essentially their interrelationships. Therefore, leading in systems would necessitate that the leader understands those interrelationships between those they lead. Leading in the open means the leader will exercise judgment on when, why, and how to leverage interrelationships to help their teams accomplish their goals.


Complete the following to help you identify leverage and fulcrum points;

  1. Write down all the names of people that you come into contact with on a daily basis.
  2. Group them according to influence – do you have more influence on them or do they have more influence on you?
  3. Can you name at least three positive attributes of each person? (These will become leverage points for you as you seek to increase your influence for increased motivation to achieve common goals.


This leverage is not about the leader’s ego, pride, or selfish ambitions. The leader who leads in the open and exercises discernment in leveraging interrelationships will do so for the benefit of the group or team. It requires a focus on balancing many leadership styles. Primarily the balance is struck between the transactional and transformational leadership styles. Yet the leader who leads in the open understands that different people respond to different leadership styles. Like a tradesperson who over their apprenticeship accumulates different tools, often specialized tools, to accomplish different tasks the leader will accumulate different leadership styles for different situations.

Leveraging out in the open necessitates that the leader endeavors to do the following;

  1. Intentionally building relationships with those they lead.
  2. Seek to understand what inspires and motivates those they lead.
  3. Identifies the strengths of individual members of those they lead.
  4. Seeks to connect opportunities and tasks with the strengths of team members.
  5. Provide opportunities for feedback from those they lead.
  6. Seek understanding, prioritize agility, exercise courage.

The value of leveraging systems thinking and leading in the open cannot be underestimated or understated. The following is a shortlist of some of the benefits of systems leadership in the open.


Systems leadership helps develop a dynamic understanding of the environment in which your team or organization is situated. Indeed, the more a leader develops her systems leadership the more she will begin to see clear opportunities for creativity. Conformity will corrode creativity and systems leadership will prevent this kind of corrosion. Creativity and productivity depend upon relationships and interconnectivity. Systems leadership will help provide the tools necessary to leverage opportunities for creativity.


Optimization begins when a leader is able to understand the dynamics of the system they are in and organize their team or organization in such a way as to take full advantage of those individuals. Again, this is focused upon the success of everyone involved and requires the leader to build their optimization upon trust, competency, and integrity.

Problem Solving

Systems leadership assists everyone in the system to engage in problems from a position of security rather than fear. Instead of avoiding complex issues, the leader (and their constituents) have an opportunity to leverage problems in such a way as to encourage innovation and agility. Understanding that each member within the system is an agent for change can greatly increase the probability of the team’s success.


A systems leadership approach encourages the leader to engage with the system as a whole, not necessarily the individual parts. Further, knowing that most systems are open systems, leverages the problem-solving ability of teams and is a powerful lever in creating a shift in perspective from being reactive to becoming pro-active agents. Interrelationships are not linear; they are circular in their nature. Meaning there are many layers and there reside levels of complexity. Seeking to understand the dynamic nature in the influence of these interrelationships will prove to be the key in optimizing, solving complex problems, and leveraging creativity.

360 Degree Leadership

Hundreds of years ago people thought of the world as a flat dish. They were afraid that if their boats traveled out too far those boats would fall off the edge of the world and everyone in the vessel would perish. It wasn’t until curious and courageous explorers actually set sail to find out if the legends and world views were correct that the thought of the earth being flat was disqualified.

Just like the globe is not a flat surface but rather a 360-degree sphere, the act of leadership is not flat. There is a very real aspect in which leadership is a 360-degree activity. In learning to lead yourself you will indeed be learning how to lead others.

In one of his most famous articles, Barry Oshry wrote about the idea of managing from the middle. He describes three levels of influence in every organization;

  1. Tops – these individuals are given the responsibility to shape an entire organization. Due to the nature of their position within the organization, their environment tends to be more complex, challenging, and unpredictable.
  2. Middles – these individuals service and manage the various parts of the organization. Due to the nature of their position, they tend to be pulled in two basic directions between those who they manage (bottoms) and those who manage them (tops).
  3. Workers – these individuals do most of the actual work to produce the results. Due to their position within the system, they are usually lowest in pay and hierarchy and as such more at risk and vulnerable when it comes to change.

Summarizing from the article, the following list characterizes what it means to manage from the middle. They are;

  1. Middles tend to be a bit confused by their role. Upward and downward demands may leave them without a position of their own, ambivalent as they try to respond to both Tops and Workers.
  2. Middles may have difficulty seeing themselves as “significant” in a system where the action seems to lie with Tops and Workers.
  3. Middles tend to be involved in a hectic pace, working long and hard. In contrast to Tops and Workers, Middles seem to be in perpetual motion, carrying with them never-ending lists of meetings to attend, items to accomplish, errands to run, unfinished paperwork to edit, business transacted on the run, constant intrusions, and so on.


One of the keys in mastering the middle is understanding the importance of collaborating with others within the system. Collaboration takes time, effort, the building of trust, and the commitment to constantly align values with actions.


Key Takeaways

It has been said that no matter which organization or system you find yourself in you are most likely a middle. There perpetually seems to be someone in a position above you and you are responsible to manage your constituents. Hence the necessity to begin leading yourself, understanding systems thinking and systems leadership, and learning to leverage parts of your system for significant and positive change. It all starts with you.


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Entrepreneurial Leadership for the Trades Copyright © by Chad Flinn and Tim Carson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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