In their new book “Systems Inspired Leadership,” Frank Uit de Weerd and Marita Fridjhon have created a resource to support leaders as they tap into the collective wisdom of teams and systems.
Frank, an organizational psychologist, first approached Marita in December 2018 with the idea of creating a guide for leaders which would incorporate the principles behind the ICF-accredited Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™) series. Systems coaches have been using these concepts for over two decades to support transformational change.
The result of the collaboration is a fresh, systems-based approach to leadership with Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) at its core. Leaders are better able to create the strong web of relationship required to tap into collective wisdom and skillfully navigate conflict, complexity and change. In a world that is becoming increasingly more complex and fast-changing, this is powerful.
In this interview, Frank and Marita talk about why Systems Inspired Leadership applies to social change as well as business, why relationship matters, and how using these tools to shift the paradigm of leadership can help address the complexity of wicked problems the USA now faces.
What is Systems Inspired Leadership?
We’ve defined Systems Inspired Leadership as the ability to create and lead from the system. We assume that the answer is there, waiting to be revealed. That's quite something! It's really working with the system, tapping into what is trying to happen, emerge, and helping what's trying to happen to and inviting it into open expression. get to the surface.
My purpose is constantly evolving, and shapes so much of what we do in our work. It's heavily influenced by having grown up in South Africa during the apartheid era. That was a system in a constant state of emergence which influenced my entire childhood, and probably set me on the path of systems thinking. Individually, there was simply not enough we could do to make enough impact - it had to be a systemic shift. It was that awareness that relationship matters, combined with a systemic view. That became my true North Star.
My purpose statement is that I’m an energetic wind that raises the consciousness of people. The wind is invisible, but there when you need it. I have a catalyst quality that comes through, and I've always been interested in helping people grow.
How is Systems Inspired Leadership different than traditional approaches?
We contrast Systems Inspired Leadership with what's called top-down leadership - the assumption that the leader knows all. The world has become too Volatile Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) for one person to have all of the answers. You need to tap the wisdom and experience of everyone.
In classic change management, you define where your organization should go, come up with a roadmap on how to get there, and set milestones. That's appropriate for many changes.
Systems Inspired Leadership taps the system to help unfold the emerging change, and that is a completely different beast. It's a complex thing because it is a co-creative process. You sense together what is emerging. You are the dreamer, and also the facilitator. There is magic in Systems Inspired Leadership, because the emergence is something that is there waiting to be born.
While one person may be the leader in title, leadership is never accomplished in isolation. Leadership is a role. At any moment, any one of us may step into it. The biggest differentiator of Systems Inspired Leadership is that answers are always available from collective input and the system itself - rather than only from the individual leader.
We really do hold that relationship is the currency which drives organizations. That sense of belonging allows us to co-author what is trying to emerge, no matter what the challenge. It is the ability to hold that web of connection that will make or break our success.
It's always been needed. As we are unfolding and innovating, we can see the places where it was missing in the past.
How does Systems Inspired Leadership apply in the context of the USA?
The USA is in a massive state of emergence in so many different ways. It's disruptive. I use the metaphor of the redwoods burning - some things need to be eradicated. We still don't know what is trying to emerge. For us as change makers, that principle of emergence is really important - what is trying to happen here? Perhaps it has been trying to emerge for decades. There may still be a lot of redwoods that need to burn.
The question then is - how can we bring the tools that live within Systems Inspired Leadership and Relationship Systems Intelligence to the table? Some of it is around using the skill of reading the emotional field - feeling, seeing and sensing who you have in front of you, and meeting that group or that person where they are. And then, to navigate - whether it's conflict that needs to be managed, or ventilation that needs to happen. There’s an awareness that something is trying to shift. We don't know in which direction. So how do we own the chaos and help unfold it and create safely for it to occur without blocking it? The more blocking that occurs, the more disruption will happen.
That’s the meta view of what is trying to emerge with the system in this country. It may look a little bit different in other countries, but it's a global experience. In so many places, there is something in the way that things used to be which needs to be burned down. As always, there are skillful and unskillful ways of doing it.
Our role is to hold a steady space for this emergence. What's trying to happen? What's useful about this? What is it that we say no to, and how do we say no without mimicking the very thing that's people are standing up against? It's a complex piece that doesn't have clear answers yet.
Frank, I’m curious about what you see from the outside.
You can look at the USA from within. For me, the racial tensions immediately come up. On a larger level it's the USA as it used to be - the world leader. Now, there’s competition and finding a new place in the world order. Both work on the same principles. I would put forward the systems-inspired rule - everyone is right, only partially. That sounds like a really simple statement, five words or so, but there’s such deep truth in it.
If everyone lived from that principle, the world would really look different. It allows you to be open to the perspective of another and even to step into the shoes of that other person, to experience that reality. We also hold that polarization, or a fight, means that ultimately people have been insufficiently heard. Their contribution - as an important voice of the system, and therefore a systemic expression - have been ignored.
Sensing the system, hearing the system, and seeing the system allows the emotional field to soften. Polarization happens when you identify with a role, but roles belong to the system, not only to individuals. There is intelligence within the system, which we trust to find intelligent solutions going forward. Hopefully it’s not in a destructive way, but at times that happens just as it happens in nature.
Part of my experience sitting in deja vu is - it feels like on some levels that this is almost worse than what I experienced in South Africa during apartheid. From a Systems Inspired Leadership perspective, a few things are important.
One is that we need to be at choice in terms of who and what, is mine to interact with. Who are the people that are mine, in beginning to navigate some change? Certain people aren’t mine. I will agitate them more than I will create change. So who am I equipped to have a conversation with? To maybe make a shift?
I am not evolved enough to work with certain people. When I say I can't work with them, it's not because those people are not worth working with. It's me. I need to evolve even more to be able to even sit down with that person. It comes from a place of humility, not from a place of power.
That person that I can’t work with - there’s a part of that person in me as well. I am irritated because he is not Teflon to me. That’s the work that we started with Arnold Mindell when we worked around terrorism. What does the terrorist in me look like?
Working online, we find that when there's an unstable connection, somebody’s frame will freeze. Right now in the United States, we have frozen frames. When I say we have frozen frames, I am talking about bias. When I see a police officer, I may have a frozen frame about who the police are. White people often have a frozen frame about people of color.
So it comes down to - who is mine to interact with, and where do I need to bring in another team member to do this interaction? What are my frozen frames? Where are my biases and blind spots? Let my team tell me.
Absolutely we need to take back systems inspired leaders into our group environments, and business environments as well.
One well-known tool we can use to explore polarity is called Lands Work, basically exploring the reality of the open entity. In polarities, you have at least two entities there. We talk about Relationship System Intelligence evolving from Emotional Intelligence - the reality for you, what's it like in your land - and then to Social Intelligence, what's the reality in someone else's shoes?
If you can do that in a relationship context, then you understand that there may be different realities in different subgroups. It can be sunshine in one part of the system and storming in another. Doing this Lands Work, really experiencing what it's like and being open to that is a glimpse of empathy that softens the field. That really creates a willingness to let go of what you're attached to. Visiting other countries and other cultures is really important, because you see there's not just one way, there are a million ways. And it's not that one way is good. On the contrary - there are a million good ways.
Can you live with it? Can you be curious about it? Can you enjoy it? It shifts a lot. This is only one of the tools we have, and there are many more.
I want to distinguish between polarity and conflict. In conflict, we have the process of ventilation. We ask people to speak out without interrupting them and without it being interactive. People take turns speaking about the conflict that they feel. Ventilation is hearing each story without interaction. A different way to do that is to visit the land of one team or experience.
When we talk about polarity, it's a softer piece. There was a situation that Faith and I were in, where we were going to be with people who were in very different places from us around politics. Part of what we did was to literally sit down and create the social contract of how we wanted to be in those conversations. What are the topics that are off the table? We're not going to agree about those, so we're not going to talk about that. They're off the table. What do we want to talk about? What would be useful to know? We call the creation of that social contract the Designed Team Alliance. We identify the things that will be so difficult that we're not even going to talk about them, and put them aside.
We decide on the topics that we can talk about where we think we will grow one another. Then, what is the atmosphere that we want to create while we’re having that conversation? Creating the Designed Team Alliance is really the social contract of how we want to be together while we are having a conversation about something that may be difficult.
It’s a really strong go-to that needs to be built into just about every engagement that we have.
Let me build on that. While it seems that polarity and conflict are actually not things to aspire to, they are actually beautiful things. Polarity simply means that there are two sides. One person can be very visionary, while another might focus on completion. One can be deeply philosophical, while another can be light. And it's beautiful to have them both, and to work with them and to have them in your system.
In terms of polarity, there's nothing wrong with it. Our world has polarities and that's fine. The challenge and invitation is to be fluid, to expand your range, to occupy both sides and to deploy each when needed. The same is applicable to conflict. We hold conflict as a signal for the system, that there is something better. How can you get to what is better in an intelligent way? Not by fighting, or in a way that is creating frustration and draining energy.
That's the toolkit we offer to the world.
When we use the word edge, we are referring to much of our work which is influenced by Arnold Mindell and the Process Work Institute in Portland, Oregon. He brings theories from quantum physics and philosophy to this work.
Edge is what divides what I can identify with from that I cannot identify with - that which is foreign to me. If I identify with myself as a generous leader, that's the primary. If I then get feedback that I am not a generous leader, I am faced with an edge. I can't identify with that. What we hold in edge theory, and the way in which we use it, is that the unknown place holds information that I need to incorporate. So an edge really is that dividing terrain between that which is identifiable to me in the moment, and that which I don't want to consider.
Edge happens all the time.
I need to credit Leslie Morse, one of our Agile people here in the USA, who first started talking about the Minimal Viable Edge (MVE). That really is the edge that I can get my team to cross - that is possible for them to do successfully, and where we begin to get traction.
An example of Minimum Viable Edge comes from when we virtualized our courses. Our Minimum Viable Edge was to immediately make the Fundamentals of ORSC course available, because it had already been virtualized for a university. That gave us the time to begin work on Intelligence, which was the next Minimum Viable Edge. If we’d said we had to have all five courses ready by the end of next week, that would have been setting us up for failure.
In the USA, the Minimum Viable Edge is probably to commit to being in conversation with those with whom collaboration is possible, and trust the law of non-locality. It’s part of what we doing with our Candlelight Initiative. We are looking at how we can be in conversation. Those are our people, those are our pieces that we can work with. Then we begin to expand that net and begin to work with other coach training schools. How can we collaborate with them? How do we begin to work collectively?
Racial issues are one big area we need to address. With systemic racism, we actually have access points and we can do something.
There is another issue - an attack on what we know as democracy. To some extent, that is scarier than the racial issue. I don't think any of us quite know how to address that one yet. That’s the one that feels like it's running the bus at the moment. We don't even know how to slow the bus so that some of us can get on. We don't know what is trying to emerge. That's the big edge - we can't even see what's on the other side.
So it is simply continuing to be in conversation with people and thank goodness, we are surrounded by people that we can be with in that conversation. What's trying to happen here? Does the whole thing need to break down? Does the country need to burn up? Is it really is on that level?
The USA is not operating in isolation. It's part of of the larger world. There's also an edge there. All of our big issues are global, whether climate or economy or poverty. China has come up as a big force, and so has India. How does the USA reconcile with that? How do we build bridges rather than putting up walls?
In nature, you first make sure that the entity is okay. And if the entity is okay, you start collaborating with other entities. I feel we are in the state currently where we need to collaborate with other entities. Countries are a fiction. If you fly over the world, you don't see any borders. It's just a human invention. So that's certainly an important edge for the world, and also for the existence of our species.
Human growth and organizational growth are often imposed by crisis. Your partner dies, or something happens with your children, or you move to another city. You grow most during difficulty. That’s only part of it. If you really feel inside, you can also get excited about it. Take the book - there was a longing in me to co-create the book together, but it’s also scary to put it out in the world. There's both an attraction and it’s scary as well. An edge can also be attractive, and it's good to step into challenges that you might not think are possible.
When we talk about systems being in a state of emergence, if we don't pay attention to the signals of emergence, it becomes an emergency. In the case of systemic racism and privilege, we have had signals repeated to us for centuries. When it is not addressed, the signals will become stronger and more serious and eventually it becomes an emergency that will create more and more chaos and death.
Even when you are faced with a wicked problem, you can still make a difference.
Being a systems inspired leader does not make you a god or a prophet. There are times and places where the answer is not available yet. That is the essence of what you need to be able to hold as you sit in the fire of that with your team, and that is what we are being asked to do in the USA at the moment.
To begin developing yourself as a systems inspired leader, connect with the competencies. That's the key thing, to connect with the one you are attracted to - whether it's engaging with the system, working with creating conscious and intentional relationships, dealing with conflict, co-creating systems inspired safety, or exploring what we call the Third Entity.
We hope that people will really start to see all of the systems. Everything is interdependent. When we start seeing the world in that way, things shift. Your own meaning-making becomes completely different because you feel held by something bigger. It creates so much benefit for yourself personally, for your organization, and for the world.