Metaphors are another way to see how our conscious or unconscious beliefs shape our thinking and behavior.  The questions at the end of this blog help us understand how we were framing the old metaphors, and how to use new metaphors within our modern, networked, unplugged environments to pull us closer toward true living systems leadership. 

Unplugged Leadership

Some of us remember having phones plugged into a wall or a time when computers needed to be linked with a cord to work. These images reflect the type of leadership we associate with command and control. People receiving a directive needed to be “attached” to their leader to know what to do.

Today, our phones and computers don’t need to be plugged in. We can connect anytime, from almost anywhere.  Members are self-organized so they can make decisions and initiate actions that serve the whole organization without being directed every step of the way by positional leaders.  This powers more equitable and collaborative relationships.

Distributive leadership reflects the dynamics of an unplugged, wireless metaphor since it’s distributed throughout all levels of the organization. Using this metaphor we unplug from positional leadership and look for leadership behavior throughout the organization, not just at the top. And we can look for more ways to manifest this type of collaborative leadership. 

Networked Leadership

Hierarchical leadership recalls a top-down, pyramid image comprised of leaders, managers, and less skilled labor.   Using a networked metaphor, however,  assumes that an organization is filled with connections and open systems of influence. It’s a metaphor for the type of leadership that relies on relationships –  influencing, learning, and organizing based on interdependence.

In a networked metaphor, positional authority gives way to authentic engagement with bottom-up innovation and self-organization collaborating with strategic direction and alignment. Software companies tend to have these networked cultures because innovation and learning flow through relationships, but any organizations whose competitive edge is driven by knowledge and innovation can benefit from strengthening their networked leadership skills. 

Living System Leadership

The living systems metaphor recognizes humans as living entities with emotion, consciousness, and complexity. Since humans make up organizations, organizations are also living systems whose dynamics are more like those we see in nature than those we see in machines. If we take the idea of organizations as living systems to the next level, we would be asking “what is my organization becoming?” and “how can I help my organization continue to evolve and discover its purpose?”

The traditional fusion of ego and positional leadership reflects thinking that an organization only exists to serve the individual leader and their wants or needs. The shift to thinking of organizations as alive with consciousness and purpose has huge implications for our thinking and our leadership behavior.

Reframing Questions for New Leadership Thinking

Building on these new metaphors, new leadership questions arise. Below is a table that reframes the principle leadership question, strategies, and challenges based on emergent, modern metaphors vs traditional systems frameworks.

What can I unleash?

  • Strategy: unleash energy and talent
  • Flows from the assumption that things are unpredictable and dynamic and that there are renewable and sustainable energy sources that are currently untapped in the organization

What do I need to control?

  • Strategy: control energy and talent
  • Flows from the assumption that things are predictable and controllable.

 What interactions will make this work? What is the largest possibility in this situation?

  • Strategy: Connect and integrate the organization and its external environment.  Work with the flow of the system to design sustainable change.
  • Flows from the assumptions that things are interconnected and holographic.

Who can make this work?  What are the boundaries?

  • Strategy: Reinforce the boundaries of the system.  Find the person in authority that can make change happen.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are independent and separated i.e. a closed system where variables can be known and controlled

 How do I welcome resistance?

  • Strategy: Resistance is incorporated and welcomed as diversity of perspectives/opinions that enhances the quality of decision making.
  • Flows from the assumptions that opposition is necessary for understanding and achieving wholeness.

 How do I avoid resistance?

  • Strategy: Resistance is eliminated, overcome, or shut down.
  • Flows from the assumption that opposition splits and any conflict or tension hinder productivity.

 How do I influence the field (or culture)?

  • Strategy: Keep the organization in motion.  Foster a culture that is constantly evolving, learning, and experimenting.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are complex, mutually shaping, and dynamic. An organization needs to adapt to thrive and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

 How do I influence individual actions?

  • Strategy: Build organizational structures and processes that control individual behavior and keep the organization in a stable and predictable state.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are simple and static.  A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

 How can I transform energy? How do I use the energy of the larger systems to help me design sustainable change?

  • Strategy: Design change in a way that is sustainable and once in place does not require additional resources
  • Flows from the assumption that things are made up of mostly space and are constantly dynamic and every organization has an excess of energy that is not currently tapped or that is wasted on processes or structures that don’t help the organization achieve its highest potential

How can I create change?

  • Strategy: Drive change through the system. Allocate resources and attention to ensure the change stays in place
  • Flows from the assumption that things are solid and static and require energy to shift the status quo and to keep the new status quo in place. Also flows from the assumption that we don’t need to conserve resources or create sustainable change

Thinking of leadership as wireless, networked, and a living dynamic helps us see how traditional leadership metaphors have shaped the way we lead and the assumptions we make about our organizations. Creating and testing new metaphors for leadership takes our thinking in new directions as we work through the disruptions of our time.