This last week I went to the Carnegie Summit on Continuous Improvement. I sat in on Peter Senge’s workshop on System Leadership. I had not read his work or followed it since The Fifth Discipline and was quietly surprised by his latest thinking. I felt like I was in a personal coaching session rather than a workshop on systems leadership by the end of the day. He argues there are three core leadership “capacities”: co-creating versus problem solving (having a creative orientation); reflective conversation (seeing what we don’t normally see because we are too busy doing); and seeing the larger system (systems thinking and systems sensing). His bottom line: if we want to create changes in the education system, we need to create the space for change rather than trying to drive it. The heads were nodding when he said, “How many of you have tried to drive change with your teenagers. Does that really ever work?”
One of the exercises that we did was to think of a conversation that didn’t go well. We reflected on what prevented us from saying something (what didn’t we say and why) and the consequences of not saying what we really thought or not acknowledging what was actually said. Too often we get stuck in conversations, according to Senge, because we make generalizations about what was said versus use “observable data” (notice what was actually said). Needless to say, there was a lot of reflecting as part of the workshop but I found it refreshing! It was less about acknowledging all the problems that the system has created and seeing our own “handprint on the problem.” At the end of the day, we can’t create the changes we seek unless we look deep within ourselves and acknowledge our own biases, insecurities and our problem orientation versus a creative orientation. Giving more data and more training on continuous improvement processes to our staff won’t change the system unless we put a mirror in front of ourselves as leaders: What do these problems require of us? How might we lead from the inside out? Glad he was part of the summit!