My annual visit to the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota is a personal tradition this time of year. After six months of working from my home office it was wonderful to drive for four hours and not end up in the same place I left! Being in a different environment and watching Lake Superior’s endless movement and wave action for four days has reminded me once again that life is always moving.

The water constantly moves, the wind is felt as it rises and falls over the days. Less obvious is the growth in the forests, where we track movement over days, seasons, and years. My heartbeat as I engage in a hike, the circulation of blood through my body and each breath all remind me (and all of us really) that people are living systems too.

Our organizations are filled with people and our organizational cultures are living systems. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that our organizations are living, moving systems as well. And yet  we seem to persist in seeing them as machines that don’t move on their own. Machines always need an external source of energy to get them moving. Leaders are one form of energy that need to initiate change and movement in an organization. That’s why we say change always starts at the top of the organization. Let’s examine our need to view our organizations as “machines” rather than the living systems they truly are, and the effect that has on our view of leaders and leadership itself.

The lure of control and mechanistic metaphors

In nature the ability to adapt and innovate starts with letting go of forms that no longer serve the larger function or purpose of the organization. Yet the lure of control continues to permeate our thinking about leadership. The assumption that an effective leader can control an organization and the people in it underpins much of our strategic thinking, our organizational processes and structures, and our traditional management theories.

Control in a living system is a myth. Living systems are interdependent and dynamic. Due to the constant shifting and complexity of interactions in a living system, control simply doesn’t work. Control only works when the organization and the variabilities in it are relatively static. This only happens in perfectly closed and bounded systems. When things don’t move, you can read the parts of the system, and develop a strategy to control the parts of the organization that will control behavior the whole system.

One of the reasons why traditional leaders hold on to the myth of control is that they benefit from thinking of their organization as an object. Objects can be controlled by their owner. A coffee cup, an object, is owned by a person and that person doesn’t need to consult with a coffee cup to move it to be more convenient for the owner. That makes leadership less complex and more controllable.

The problem is that people even if they are objectified by their organization are not controllable. When they are treated as an object – a cog in a machine, they feel it and resist it. They choose how they want to show up in their work, and often contribute a fraction of the talent and energy to their work. That is one of the reasons why organizations are filled with control mechanisms like performance reviews and job descriptions. Our organizations that are led from a mechanistic framework waste time, money, and human resources trying to control the people in the organization. It isn’t a sustainable way to lead today’s organizations.

Moving, dynamic systems require adaptation

Living systems are in constant movement. All you need to do is spend an afternoon in nature (or observe your garden) and you will be reminded that living systems are always in motion. The mandate for leadership in living systems is to learn how to adapt. We need to adapt to the situation because we cannot control the problem or people. Influence is a much stronger form of adaptation than focusing on control. When leaders lead with a living system framework, they reshape their assumptions and strategies based on dynamic movement and the need for active participation and engagement by people to help the organization thrive.

So, my trip to the North Shore was a wonderful reminder of how nature moves and how beautiful and dynamic it is. I can stare at the movement of the water and waves on the big lake and not be board because the scene constantly changes.

Are you wondering if you’re adapting or staying static, trying to control people and your organization? Learn about The Disruptive Report Card and see where you land on the living system scale.