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Given the total lack of evidence that developing leaders actually results in better organizational performance, maybe it is time to convert what we know about leadership. The model says that by accumulating individual power and influence we earn a trip to the C-Suite. Instead, we should be developing strong leadership systems that focus on maximizing customer value.


John Maxwell is as good as anyone about insights into leadership. But the tagline to his bestselling book: 21-Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, may give us a clue as to why our thinking about leadership is wrong. It states: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. With this model of leadership, the primary function of leaders is the accumulation of organizational power and influence by getting personal followers. The problem, is that the focus is on the individual leader and not the needs of the organization, to say nothing of the customer.


Focus on Developing Great Leadership Systems.

Under this model, leadership is understood as a system that is interconnected with other systems and the leader submits everything she controls (elements), and builds critical relationships (interconnections) to deliver maximum value (purpose or function). It is not about leaders and followers. It is about leveraging the highest value of each interconnecting system to provide the maximum total value to the customer, patient, or student.

All organizations – governments, nonprofits, hospitals, commercial, manufacturing, high tech, and educational – all operate in systems. For example, hospital operating rooms operate in a world of interconnected systems. There is the admitting system, the diagnostic system, the technical systems, the surgical systems, the facility system, the surgical support system, the purchasing system, and many others. When individual leaders, understand they lead within a system that has been intentionally designed to deliver maximum value, then and only then can mission be attained.

Practical Impact

In his book, The Power of Habits, author Charles Duhigg tells the story of the Rhode Island Hospital. Even though it was a leading educational hospital and Level 1 Trauma Center it was also a place of feudal fights where nurses were pitted against surgeons. Nurses even had their own color coded method of identifying surgeons they worked with. Quoting Duhigg: “Blue meant ‘nice,’ red meant ‘jerk,’ and black meant, ‘whatever you do, don’t contradict them or they’ll take your head off.’ ”

Duhigg recounts the true story of an elderly man who was brought in with a Subdural Hematoma. Immediate surgery was required. Ignoring repeated caution from the nurses, the surgeon stated: (Quoting Duhigg): “If that’s what you want, then call the fucking ER and find the family! In the meantime, I’m going to save his life.” Within two weeks the man was dead. The surgeon operated on the wrong side of the man’s head. It would be easy to say that the fault was the surgeon’s and he should be dismissed, (he was). However, over the next four years similar accidents occurred for which the hospital paid $500,000 in fines.

The good news is that changes were made. It might be obvious to say, they implemented check lists and other procedural changes to improve patient safety. However, the stronger reality is that they challenged, broke and then transformed the entire leadership system. Leaders become subservient to the requirements of a system rather than every leader establishing their own operating procedures. The result was a dramatic drop in errors and a prestigious award for Critical Nursing. Where the old leadership system put the surgeon at the top of the pyramid with virtual unquestionable authority, the new system empowered everyone around the care of the patient – delivering maximum value. Duhigg concludes with an example of a routine surgery performed by an experienced and well trained surgeon. Before he started he went through a check list but missed a minor point. In response, the youngest and least experienced nurse pointed out the error which was welcomed by the surgeon.

A leadership system, therefore, is the system that connects leaders, and organizes the elements they control with the critical relationships to produce the desired outcome – maximum value. With the example of Rhode Island Hospital and the old system, surgeons had enormous and virtual dictatorial power, which often came at the expense of their patients. Under the new system, the surgeons recognized the nurses as part of a total system of patient care. The result was more medical value provided to the patient. It was not a matter power and control. It was about delivering to the patient maximum medical value for their health.


The largest challenge to thinking about leadership as a system is the hundreds of books and training courses that provide rich formula driven approaches to personal power and influence. A simple search on Amazon books about “leadership” and 200,000 titles will come up. Same search on “Leadership Systems” and 16,500 titles come up. Virtually all titles on leadership places the individual leader at the center of the story. A review of one title found 50 different traits of effective leaders. Any combination of Jesus, St Francis of Assisi, Aristotle, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Winston Churchill would never be able to adequately demonstrate all 50 traits.

A good example for the weakness of modern day thinking on leadership is an outstanding book by Stephen Covey, Speed of Trust, the one thing that changes everything. the problem with it is this: if an organization has a system that destroys trust, how can any one individual, especially one just emerging as a leader, ever change an entire organizational system? For most, the system itself will kill any attempt to create a culture of trust.


First Steps

Determine the requirements of the system. We just did this with a local hospital. When asked about the requirements of a leadership system – the lights went on – both form them and us. As a community based hospital they determined that the focus or the requirment of a leadership system was the empowerment of their staff, their patients, and their community. The implications were massive. From this basic requirment, we then identified critical behaviors and activities of leaders, then a plan to train and deploy the system and then the final – how to measure it. Basically they determined three measures for their leadership system:

1) Staff safety;

2) Patient safety;

3) Engagement with the community.

Each of which is easily measurable.

Comments Welcomed: Dan@PraxisSolutionsNP.com


Mr. Theo Yu, MPA, a doctorinal candate in Transformational Leadership from the Bakke Graduate University.

This article was originally published by: Management Exchange, an online community dedicated to reinenting management in the 21st Century. It can be viewed in its orginal format at: