Our traditional leadership frameworks were primarily developed and written in the 20th century. The 1900s also saw the rise of organizations. So many of our deeply held leadership assumptions were informed and formed by this context. Hence, management and positional leadership blurred together since most of our research on leadership was done on business leaders.


The 21st century is experiencing a paradigm shift from a machine-driven organizing metaphor to a biological-driven one. This shift to a century of biology means that our organizations must be understood as living systems – dynamic evolving organizations that are filled with energy; instead of machines – inert and directly controllable.


Rethinking Today’s Leadership

This shift is why I wrote Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018). In a century that works more like a biological system instead of a mechanistic one, we need to rethink everything about leadership. One of the areas we need to examine are the traditional leadership questions we use to build strategy and get things done in our organizations. Here are the new leadership questions for a living system.

Instead of Asking:

What do I need to control?

Try Asking This:

What can I unleash?

Our traditional question of what do I need to control comes from the assumption that your organization is inert. Therefore, to generate movement, you need an outside power source and a leverage point to start the work. Organizations designed from a mechanistic framework, like most of our organizations in the 20th century, are built on single causality. “A” causes “B” and “B” causes “C”.


In the 80’s and 90’s, we used logic models that named these cause and effect trails for our organization. The way this impacted our leadership and management was to look for or create control points that could leverage change, like the ignition switch in a car. This leadership question flowed from the assumption that organizations are predictable and controllable.


However, this focus on what you need to control in your organization works against the dynamics of a living system. When you think of your organization as a living system, the system is dynamic and already filled with energy. It doesn’t need an outside power source to get it moving, it is already in motion. Therefore, when we focus on controlling an organization that is a living system, it interferes with the energy that is naturally flowing through and within the system.

What Kind of Leadership can You Unleash?

The leadership question for living systems is “What can I unleash?” This shifts the deep background assumption of leaders and reminds us that we are working with a living system instead of an inert one. When we ask: “What can I unleash?”, we look for the energy flows and talents that already exist in our organizations and on our teams.


By unleashing talent, positive energy, or creativity, we get the system to help us achieve our goals. We aren’t all alone trying to control all the dynamics of the organization – which is hugely time-consuming and draining. In a living system, we are most effective and efficient when we co-create with the system and the people in it.


Living systems are unpredictable and dynamic. There is a surplus of energy that is renewable and sustainable. This energy is currently untapped in traditional leadership practices. However, we have all worked on or know someone who worked on a high-performance team. These teams are fun to be a part of. People on the team know and acknowledge each other’s unique strengths and work together to innovate or create remarkable results.


This is what unleashing talent looks and feels like in a living system.


Putting a Plan into Action

Living systems cannot be controlled! They can be influenced. The more we try to control a living system, the more the system and the people in it resist.


Here are some questions to ponder:

  • Have you worked in a system that focuses on controlling people and the organization? If so, what was your experience like?
  • Have you worked in a team or organization that was focused on unleashing instead of controlling? If so, what was your experience like?
  • How do you show up differently when your leader or manager seeks to control vs. unleash?


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. www.kathleenallen.net