I often encourage people to see their organization as a living system and use that framework to lead from. However, it has become clear to me that people don’t always fully understand what I mean by that phrase. So, I began reflecting on physical experiences that have helped my ability to feel the “livingness” of any system I am working in. Each example that came to mind centered on the movement of wind – my metaphor for leading with the livingness of a system or leading against it. Here are three experiences that make this leadership framework a little simpler to understand and embrace.
A bicycle in the breeze
I used to live in the Fargo, North Dakota / Moorhead, Minnesota area, where there is almost always a 12 to 15 mph wind. While I was living there, I biked almost every day. Deciding which route to take at the beginning of the ride became an essential skill. It was always better to go out riding against the wind and have the wind at my back upon coming home. Sometimes, though, the wind would shift, or I would get the prevailing direction of the wind wrong. When that happened, my journey out would feel easy and joyful. But when I would turn to go back home, I would realize that the wind had been at my back and that I was now riding into the wind. When you are moving with the wind, things are easier, as there is a force helping you get where you want to go.
Floating with the currents
Biking wasn’t the only sport that helped me learn to feel the living pulse of a larger system. Hot air ballooning also helped me understand the experience of working with wind versus against it. When you are on the ground preparing to go up in the balloon, you feel wind. However, when you get in the basket and rise above the ground, you no longer feel the currents. One unique feature of hot air ballooning is that once you are up, the balloon is traveling at the speed of wind, so you don’t feel it as you move. It is quiet and sometimes difficult to fully understand your speed because you don’t experience the resistance of standing still against the wind.
Wind in the sails
The third experience that embodies movement with a living system is sailing. The fastest way to get someplace in a sailboat is to have the wind at your back with your sail at a 90-degree angle to the boat. This is called a run. With this technique, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going because it is one of the quieter positions in sailing. The best way to try to determine your speed is by the size of the wake your boat is making behind the stern. You feel like you are going faster when you are tacking going against the wind. It is noisier and you are using the wind and the resistance of the sail and center board to angle your boat into the wind.
Leading change with the help of the living system
When I do change work in organizations, I now (metaphorically) sense when wind is present, creating a “wind chill” form of resistance. When I sense this, I ask myself:
• What am I not paying attention to in terms of the direction the living system wants to go?
• How can I shift the dynamics of the change work to align more with the livingness of the system?
• When change is going smoothly (i.e. the quiet balloon ride), what do I need to understand or listen to so I can build on this success?
In all, when we work with a living system, it will help us go where we want to be. We just have to open ourselves to let the system help to strengthen our leadership framework.