So far, my columns have focused on the critical next generation of leaders whose diversity, authenticity, engagement, and readiness we are charged to scaffold; the complexity of the human systems we have the privilege to lead for this purpose; and on our subsequent responsibility to lead systemically for the inclusivity, intelligence, and effectiveness of our work.
Whether based on the seminal philosophers and their definition of our paradigms we discussed in my second column; on Block’s stakeholder analysis model and the strategic potential of working with opponents and allies we discussed in columns three, four, five, and six; on the transformative phases or emphases of the design thinking process and the power of their interdependencies we discussed in columns seven, eight, nine, and 10; or on the Bánáthy lenses we discussed in columns 10 and 11; it is clear that human systems are powerful and complex—two key characteristics of our professional communities that require our careful attention, our intentional empathy, our strategic inclusivity, and our collaborative leadership.
My last two columns assessed the complexity of our human systems through Béla Bánáthy’s system analysis lenses:
- A “still picture lens” or the parts, components, and/or members of the system
- A “motion picture lens” or the processes, interrelationships, and interdependencies between the parts, components, and/or members of the system
- A “bird’s eye view lens” or the subsystems, sister systems, and suprasystem of the system and its corresponding inputs and outputs.
In this column, I will focus on a specific but important application of Bánáthy’s lenses to our systemic leadership. One of the most complex aspects of our leadership work is our facilitation and scaffolding of the performance of members of our team. Throughout my columns I have argued that the outcome of our vocation, the one with which we also have been charged—our scaffolding of the preparation of a diverse, authentic, engaged, and ready next generation of leaders—is critical to our future and should thus actively involve members of all stakeholder groups our our ecosystems and of society. But, singularly, I have learned that how we facilitate and scaffold the systemic leadership of our team members can make or break our results.
If we think of our interaction with the leaders we have the privilege to lead, aligned with Bánáthy’s lenses, there are three important perspectives through which we should focus our collaboration with them:
- Instances (parts)
- Patterns (processes)
- Relationships (inputs and outputs)
I have found that focusing on these three key aspects of our partnership with the members of our team can facilitate our systemic approach to leadership.
The demands of our diversity of stakeholders, our institutional priorities, and the job and higher education markets are great and constantly shifting. Unfortunately, they constantly stress our seeming need to produce more. Every service, program, or interaction instance counts, but their greatest power is more likely to show up in their patterns than in their single events. Similarly, every interaction we have with our team members matters. But the depth of our impact in their leadership and their experience is likely to stem from the patterns of our presence, empathy, scaffolding, collaboration, and leadership.
A simple example of this is the potential of our focus on one instance as a solution to a student need or opportunity. This could lead to a program in which we invest significantly, but however successful it is or seems to be, there are inevitable student access or engagement limitations. We know that program series with diverse emphases, formats, and at diverse times and places are likely to democratize and add equity to our offerings. To borrow from the Universal Design for Learning model, this pushes us to plan and facilitate different means of engagement, representation, and action and expression in our offerings.
If we turn our attention to our work with our team members, as systemic leaders we should scaffold their design and facilitation of inclusive student-development facilitation patterns. And to support so systemically, we should focus on the patterns of engagement, representation, and action and expression we facilitate as part of their experience and leadership. We should be present with them every instance, but with a focus on the relevance of our leadership patterns and those in which they engage. Just as we all might recall learning that interested or needy students missed a fantastic program we put together due to facilitating it only once or in a standard format, we might also remember times when we have been given negative, constructive, or positive feedback on a single instance, ignoring a pattern of success and careful planning.
Systemic leadership should procure the vision that inclusive and strategic patterns bring.
If we take our analysis one step further, our focus as leadership cannot miss the impact that instances and patterns have on relationships and the power that focusing on relationships, beyond patterns, has on the professionals we lead. One instance is only one part of a pattern, and patterns have an impact on and are strengthened by a focus on meaningful relationships, including the support and trust that define them.
One valuable lesson I learned throughout my decade as a minister was the easily underestimated power of the “ministry of presence.” Chaplaincy visits, pastoral counseling, and some conversations with parishioners or youth I ministered left me speechless. I was often struck by the pain, struggles, sadness, or grief wonderful people had no choice but to experience and survive. So many times, all I could offer was my presence. And even decades later, I still hear from some of these giant role models of courage and survival that what I offered (even though I thought it was so little at the time) made a significant difference in their journeys.
Similarly, we might easily recall the impact that positive patterns like timely affirmation of our efforts and outcomes, or meaningful mentoring on professional development opportunities, or timely and caring constructive feedback on efforts that could benefit from improvement have had in our professional experience. Instances count, patterns matter, but the support and trust that an intentional relationship builds in the experience of our team members have the power of becoming a catalyst to the systemic leadership each of them needs to own.
So next time you interact with one of your team members, keep the following questions in mind:
- How can I provide the necessary presence to the leadership experience and success of this team leader?
- How can I focus on the patterns of their efforts and of the support I offer them, beyond the instances in front of us?
- How can I build a stronger relationship of support and trust with them to enhance their leadership experience and success?
Better yet, directly ask them these (or similar) questions.
Systemic leadership must facilitate and scaffold the systemic leadership of our team members. Our interaction with the leaders we have the privilege to lead should focus on the instances of their efforts, but importantly also on the patterns and relationships of their work and of the systemic support and trust we offer them.