What is a leadership system?

social systemIn September 2016 the U.S based – Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), sited a major automotive parts manufacturer and its staffing agency for repeated safety violations. The most notable of which was a robot that malfunctioned. A young woman, laboring to meet demands of leaders who required quota be maintained at any cost (usually at the expense of worker’s personal time and safety), stepped in to clear a sensor fault. It abruptly restarted, crushing her to death. She and her family had been planning a wedding. Now they were planning her funeral.
If we were to look at this organization, the chances are good they have policies and value statements designed to protect worker safety. Yet we all know, that statements are just that, statements, words on a screen, ink on paper. Words and policies will not keep anyone safe from a dangerous robot. It takes a designed and integrated leadership system to insure safe working conditions.
According to basic systems theory, a system needs three components to be a system (Thinking in Systems, A Primer, Donella H. Meadows):

  1. Basic elements
  2. Interconnections; and
  3. Central purpose or result.

However, because leadership is essentially a relational enterprise between human beings, we suggest modifying  the definition to include “a desired outcome or purpose.

Elements: Every enterprise leader manages three critical elements: workforce, customers, and knowledge & information. For example,for 150 years the Salvation Army has been managing society throwaways: alcoholics, prostitutes, drug addicts, the abused and others. Their belief system (what we will call their rules) determine how they manage those human elements. Everyone has three parts: body, soul and spirit. Transformation only happens when all three are managed. The Salvation Army is one of the world’s most iconic organizations. Peter Drucker referred to them as the most effective organization in the world, given their mission. How they manage resources and the rules that govern the management of those resources is a key to their long term and remarkable success.

Interconnections: are the relationships, the rules that govern those relationships and the routines that turn them into a system. Every organization has them. Some are formal (HR policy manual on romantic relationships between supervisor and subordinate). Some are informal (always schedule a meeting with the boss through her admin assistant and not through Outlook scheduler). Routines put action to rules. Paul O’Neil, while CEO of the Alco Corp made a rule. Any time someone was injured, the unit president had to report it to O’Neill within twenty-four hours and present a plan for making sure the injury never happened again. But he did not stop with just a policy. He turned it into a routine based on a reward: The only people who got promoted were those who embraced the rule..

Desired purpose or outcome. The first thing a systems engineer is going to ask when directed to design a new system is “what is the output” or “what is the system suppose to produce”? However, when it comes to designing leadership systems, we default to the lowest common theme. Make a profit. This is when robots kill people. Contrary to this model, a small regional hospital designed their leadership system around the central theme of “empowerment”. The leadership system’s most important product or output is empowered staff. One of the ways the system is measured, because all systems can be measured, is staff safety.
When all three elements are in place, there is a designed leadership system.

For a white paper on leadership systems design:

Leadership – Its a System Not a Person V5