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LILA Theme 2020-2021: System Leadership

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LILA Theme for 2020-2021: System Leadership – Navigating Complexity at Scale

Each year, LILA focuses collective discussion and exploration around a contemporary theme that optimally encompasses members’ practical interests and illuminates challenges in the larger field of human learning and innovation. A fruitful theme is typically identified by criteria such as its resonance with members’ concerns, its readiness to be explored through multiple, interdisciplinary lenses, and its ability to frame and advance the experimental practices of LILA members. Based on member interviews, the discussions during past gatherings, availability of academic research on the topic, and the current social context, the theme for 2020-2021 is System Leadership – Navigating Complexity at Scale.

Systems Leadership creates the container that allows solutions to emerge over time. In that way, the process becomes the solution.

– JOHN KANIA, Managing Director at FSG

Organizations are complex systems, and they are facing challenges that cannot be solved easily, but rather require a whole-system approach. Though classic theories of leadership have focused on the power of the person at the top of the hierarchy to effect change, we recognize that today, more than ever, we need to understand whole systems in all their complexity – and how leaders can take the helm in spite of the challenges posed by such complexity.

To understand complex systems, we must engage new mental models that lead to a more dynamic and longer-term view of organizations. We must shift from focusing on the system’s parts toward practices that make it visible as a whole. To transform complex systems, we must update our leadership practices and learn how to engage in system-wide change. System leadership practices are ones that engage diverse individuals to work in collaborative, networked, problem-solving ways that also yield a new understanding of the system itself.

So, what does system leadership look like? How can we equip leaders in our organizations with the skills and tools to understand and transform the system at scale? Moreover, in our increasingly global and diverse organizations, how can we transform aspects of systems that perpetuate inequality and injustice? How can we create systems that leverage all voices and foster collaboration and trust?

This year, LILA will explore this theme through three different topics, each addressing a different element of system leadership. We will first focus on understanding system complexity and how groups within complex systems can become aligned to move together collaboratively; then we will identify and explore the core capabilities of system leadership; and finally, we will explore how to make progress on the complex challenges faced within organizations.

Fall Session: Understanding and Engaging Collaboration in the System

Given the scope of transforming complex systems, leaders need to have a deep understanding of complex systems and a deep understanding of the systemic issues they want to address. In order to engage a system, we need to understand how it currently operates, the paradoxes that may be at play, and the tradeoffs that may be involved in any given decision. Perhaps most importantly, we need to uncover barriers to collaboration so that they can be removed. Once we understand the system, we can envision different versions of the system – ones that shift the conditions that hold the old ways in place. Questions we will explore include: What are the barriers to understanding complex systems themselves? How do we engage the system, including its diverse networks, to activate collaboration and commitment towards our goals? What do conversations look like when we engage the whole system, such that all voices are heard? How can we ensure that all perspectives are valued equally within complex systems?

Winter Session: Developing Core Capabilities of System Leadership

System leadership involves thinking and acting in ways that are different from traditional leadership practices. Complex challenges cannot be solved through one-off, top-down leadership practices, in part because the solutions to the challenges are not known and the factors that influence the system often go beyond an individual’s or organization’s sphere of influence. Therefore, hierarchical leadership models and the assumptions about how change happens need to be updated. We should ask ourselves whether our leadership practices are “fit for the purpose.” In this session, we will discuss the core capabilities of system leadership and how these capabilities are developed. To give a preview, system leadership practices combine traditional leadership skills like strategic thinking, collaboration, and applying expertise with new practices that purposefully transform the system. System leadership also involves exploring our own worldviews, assumptions, and intentions so that we can shift our thinking when needed to influence the system.


Spring Session: Catalyzing System Leadership

Sometimes, it seems like the system we are trying to change has a “life of its own” – that no matter what we do, it is difficult to solve problems and make changes. One factor at play is that organizations by their nature involve diverse stakeholders who may themselves be interconnected. Therefore, leaders cannot solve complex challenges by themselves, focusing only on their specific function or even only on their own organization. In complex systems, leadership that supports widespread learning and action is critical. Learning while the world is changing around us can be challenging, especially because the feedback loops that are traditionally in place do not provide us with clear signals between our actions and the impact that they have. Hence, also critical for effective system leadership are feedback loops and reflective practices that support deeper learning among all stakeholders. The LILA spring session will look at how to catalyze system leadership to make progress toward organizational goals. Along the way, we will explore questions such as, how can we ensure that systems continue to change in the direction that we want? How can we maintain and build inspiration and momentum across systems?

LILA Summit: Navigating System Leadership at Scale

The LILA Summit will be the culmination of our exploration for the year. We will invite faculty and alumni to join us as we gather to consolidate our learning from the year, as well as infuse new ideas that help us navigate system leadership at scale.

Harvard Graduate School of Education