What changes do we see when we view our organizations as living systems? How does the organization and its employees benefit when we lead from a living systems mindset?
Our assumptions impact how we lead and how our employees see themselves within the organization. Nature is a living system and it operates differently than a man-made object. Nature is designed to be efficient, effective, require engagement, and reward cooperation.
How a Living Systems Mindset Shapes our Thinking
Living systems have several dynamics that, when applied to our practice of leadership, reshape our thinking.
Connected and Interdependent
Picture a forest ecology or a mature prairie. If we were to visit any of these places to observe the environment, we would see how things are connected to each other. There is no separation in nature; species interact with the larger ecosystem. External forces like sunlight, wind, rain, and gravity impact the individual plants and species and the ecosystem itself. If we saw our organization as a living system, we would focus on the quality of our relationships with each other and between the organization and its external environment.
Designed to Support Life
Living systems are designed to evolve naturally with information. Nature uses specific design principles to organize around a higher purpose; to create conditions conducive to the future generations of life. What if we led from the framework that our organization or community is designed to support the life of our current and future employees, the community, the world we live in, our customers, and our supply line? What a difference this metric would be from the short-term metrics of how our stocks are doing or the current quarter’s profit!
Measured by the Leader’s Advancements for Future Generations
I was recently asked to reflect on what the SOUL of leadership was. Often, we measure the legacy of our leadership based on what we contributed or created within the organization we led. What if we measured our legacy based on how our organization contributes to the quality of life of future generations? We would pay more attention to how our actions affected the quality of life of future generations.
Living Systems Self-organize
One of the ways nature requires engagement is through self-organization. Living systems are designed to depend on self-organization. When an organization is filled with people who can initiate and organize their own learning and work that aligns with the higher purpose of the organization, there is ongoing adaptation that occurs daily. This means that people are constantly problem solving and supporting solutions that they help to create.
Nature is a highly resilient living system. It has 3.8 billion years of experience and adaptation that makes it a wonderful mentor and muse in helping us see how living systems behave.
Implications of a Living System Mindset for Your Organization
If we led from a living system mindset, we would see these shifts in our thinking and practice:
Seeing Connection as Essential
Relationships would matter. We would prioritize relationships with external partners, internal stakeholders, and the environment. We would be active observers of feedback from the external environment and learn from feedback. We would use it to reshape decisions, change designs, and change direction as needed.
Be Designed to Adapt
Adaptive behavior is normal for living systems. It isn’t something that we only do when we are in trouble. Living systems are skilled at making small and continuous shifts so it remains a good fit with its external environment.
Unleashes Instead of Controls
Nature depends on self-organization to continually adapt and to remain efficient and productive. It doesn’t create hierarchical structures and add layers of bureaucracy to processes. It assumes that individual actors in the system can self-organize and will actively support the higher shared purpose of the system. The leadership and management goal are to develop and unleash self-organization rather than control people.
The Living System will Help if You Let it
A living system mindset in an organization supports adaptive change if the direction is aligned with the higher shared purpose of what the living system wants to move toward.
Our language, behaviors, and decisions become a road map to assessing if we are leading with a living system mindset. Do we manage to unleash and coach our employees? Do we seek out and respond to feedback, or do we try to ignore or dampen it down if we don’t agree? Do we value and grow positive relationships between each other and our outside environment? These are some of the metrics to which living systems pay attention.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net