Cultures of Purpose: Developing Systemic Leadership

By Sarah Rozenthuler & Edward L. Rowland
Originally published on LinkedIn, Oct 14, 2015

“Leadership is discovering the company’s destiny and having the courage to follow it… Companies that endure have a noble purpose” Joe Jaworski

spider-web-net-grid-silk-drops-dew-morning-dawnCo-creating purposeful organisations is a new frontier in organisational development. This post taps into the growing body of evidence about the financial, social and psychological benefits of creating “cultures of purpose.” It explores how leaders can attune their organisation to a rapidly shifting global marketplace and catalyse purposeful action by developing four core capacities of “systemic leadership.”

Leadership, always a hot topic, has been in the spotlight more than ever in the UK in recent weeks. With the Volkswagen emissions ‘scandal’, Labour leadership contest and refugee crisis, we observe that much of our media remains in thrall to the myth that leadership is simply about individuals or the ‘person at the top’.

The leadership challenges of today, however, are far too complex for any one person to solve by thinking and acting alone. They require diverse stakeholders to think, talk and co-create together in unprecedented ways. Leading in a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous environment, whether this is in an organisation, a political party or a union of nation states, is less about individual heroics and more about mobilising collective potential.

Leaders who can catalyse a ‘flow’ of leadership and purposeful action across a whole system are more likely to contribute to sustainable results. Below we outline — from our perspective as practitioners — four core capacities that will help leaders to demonstrate this ‘systemic leadership’. We will begin, however, by highlighting the newly emerging evidence that shows how aligning a system around a vibrant and noble purpose is core to its success.

The power of purpose

There is a growing business case that demonstrates how companies with a clear and resonant corporate purpose have several distinct advantages. Recent research by global consulting firm EY and IMD, a leading international business school, has found that purposeful organisations are able to:

  • Build trust more easily with their employees, shareholders and customers as their purpose guides principled decision-making.
  • Combat consumer concerns more readily and create brand advocates more widely through positive comments aligned with corporate purpose.
  • Generate competitive advantage more distinctly, estimated to be an increase of 17% of financial performance, due to enhanced reputation in the marketplace.
  • Demonstrate greater resilience by being better able to weather the storms of change such as shifts in consumer opinion, downturns in reputation and challenges to leadership.

To harvest these benefits, ‘purpose-beyond-profits’ (as it is sometimes called) must be the central driver of an organisation’s strategy, not an optional ‘bolt-on’. It needs to be strong enough that it becomes part of the organisation’s operating model and inspiring enough that it unleashes people’s energy.

As examples of what this can look like, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations researches 12 successful, pioneering organisations which operate – in his view – from a largely ‘teal’ level of consciousness and culture (in the developmental language of Integral Theory). For these organisations, purpose is not only an energetic wellspring that inspires and shapes direction. It also informs and transforms many business practices; strategy formation, product development, marketing, targets and budget setting, and recruitment.

Systemic leadership – Four core capacities

In our collaboration and consulting work together, we have identified four core capacities of systemic leadership that will change the game. We have drawn on over thirty year’s combined experience, our respective expertise in cutting-edge practices such as Systemic Coaching and Constellations, Dialogue and deep inquiry, as well as leading theoretical frames such as Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

When a critical mass of leaders embody these capabilities they will seed a new culture of purpose characterised by unified action, renewed energy and collaboration across boundaries. The four core capacities are:

1. Creating “containers” for generative dialogue

To create a future that is different from the past, leaders need to step into unknown territory. This calls for a diverse constellation of stakeholders to sense into the future that wants to emerge. This requires building “containers” or holding environments for courageous conversations where all the different voices matter.

2. Seeing the larger system

To build a shared understanding of a complex problem, leaders need to extend their awareness beyond the boundaries of their individual role, team or organisation. Seeing reality through the eyes of people in very different positions from their own helps leaders to generate new insights. When leaders take into account the hidden dynamics that operate beneath the surface of day-to-day interactions, they become more skilful at intervening.

3. Attuning to higher potential

When leaders attune their teams, functions and projects to the real reason for an organisation’s existence, this unlocks great potential for innovation and energy to achieve excellence. In our work we have seen how a noble purpose acts like a “magnet” that brings alignment to a system that has become fragmented. Instead of people pointing in many different directions, there is greater coherence in the decisions people make and the actions that they take.

4. Co-creating a new reality

Shifting from reactive problem solving to listening for what wants to emerge calls for an expanded capacity for collaboration. Embedding systemic change involves an ecosystem of stakeholders — customers, suppliers, partners and employees — coming together to co-create solutions. Somewhat paradoxically, this more collective and fluid approach calls for a clearer flow of leadership than in “command-and-control” cultures so that each person feels authorised to take purposeful action.

Emerging opportunities

In future posts, we will look in more detail at each of these core capacities for activating systemic leadership. We will provide examples from our consulting about how they can be developed in practice to strengthen a workforce, generate long-term growth and build cultures of purpose.

Please note that we are running a 3-day intensive, The Purpose Programme: Developing Systemic Leadership on November 24-26th in London. The programme helps participants develop the systemic leadership capacities to create cultures of purpose. Click here:

Further Reading

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (2014) Nelson Parker

The choreography of collective leadership

It’s been a great pleasure the last few days to be in the throngs enjoying the Edinburgh Festival. Established in 1947, the Festival was created to “to provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” through the transformative power of the arts. At a time when it’s all-too-easy to focus on the destructive and deluded behaviour of leaders, nations and organisations, the inspiration of dancers, actors, musicians, improvisers, poets and jugglers brings a welcome balance.

Another source of optimism is my observation that the nature of leadership is slowly changing. This comes from developments in research plus my own on-the-ground experience as a consultant working in international banks, energy companies and government agencies. Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as:

“The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems.”

More and more leaders I meet are consciously evolving a more participatory, inclusive approach. From our conversations, I understand that the relationships forged and the results generated from fully engaging a community of stakeholders—whether an intact team, a project team or a network of practitioners—really stand the test of time.

The challenge of collective leadership

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also highlight the challenges. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction and many leaders still operate on the basis of “command-and-control” despite its unpopularity. In my consulting work, I am also aware of theses pitfalls:

  • If roles are not clearly defined, it’s possible that people will engage in more “social loafing” and not pull their weight as they would in a more traditional, hierarchical structure.
  • If there is no mechanism for resolving disputes, these could be left to fester if leaders feel unable to enforce decisions.
  • If the collective gets to work but it’s unclear who holds the overall responsibility for results, this could undermine the whole enterprise.

Collective leadership is about a leader actively engaging a group of stakeholders to think and work together. They might develop a strategy, resolve an operational problem or identify a consensual future direction. The essence of distributed leadership is to access the collective intelligence that is already present in the system—and to apply it to whatever complex, collective issue is at stake. Each stakeholder has a piece of the puzzle to contribute, if they are given a chance to participate.

The enablers of collective leadership

There are many enablers of this shift towards collective leadership. These include:

  • An open-minded leader whose appetite to achieve extraordinary results is greater than their sense of self-importance.
  • (Somewhat paradoxically) even clearer lines of decision-making authority than in a traditional hierarchical set-up. The formal leader often remains the single point of accountability for the co-created outcome.
  • An expanded capacity for productive, and at times testy, dialogue. Dissenting voices are essential to burn off the dross of poor decisions and shine a light on leadership blind-spots.

Given these challenges, no wonder that a collective leadership approach is less mainstream and more marginal at the moment. The momentum is, however, gathering…

The choreography of leadership

Another enabler of collective leadership is to find a strong conceptual metaphor as a guide for action. Back at the Edinburgh Festival, I enjoyed conversations with Alison Williams, one of the authors of Bite – Recipes for Remarkable Research (see the link below for a free download). Alison explained how she and her fellow researchers experienced a breakthrough in their joint project when they hit upon the idea of writing a cookbook. It brought a practical focus to how to carry out innovative research—and made it fun!

With the idea of a powerful metaphor in mind, I went to watch Sweet Mambo, a dance theatre show by the award-winning German choreographer Pina Bausch. Despite her untimely death at the age of 68 in 2009, the dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, of which Pina Bausch became the leader in 1973, lives on.

In the programme for the show, the dance writer Graham Watts describes how Pina Bausch worked with her team of dancers to develop her co-productions, including her work World Cities. What follows is a description of collective leadership in action. Watts writes:

“The process was similar for each piece. The dancers would explore the city, gathering thoughts and observations, often prompted by questions that Bausch would pose to them, from the obvious (‘What do you like about Rome?’) to the less so (‘consider it from a mouse’s point of view’).

“In due course all these experiences would be brought together in the studio, representing many hours of ideas; by some alchemy Bausch would decide what to use, and then set about moulding all the chosen elements into a final shape…. Only towards the end of the development phase would everything be brought together – and all under Bausch’s final control.”

Each dancer’s experience mattered. Everyone was encouraged to participate. The richness of the co-creation arose out of multiple perspectives and experiences. Andthere was a choreographer who, with her eye on the whole, retained responsibility for bringing it all together.

When leaders see themselves—and act—more as choreographers and less as commanders, the dynamics really shift. When people are energised, engaged and invited to contribute, they give their most creative ideas, their most insightful thinking and their best energy. When leaders include their whole team and other stakeholders in developing the vision, operationalizing the strategy or even agreeing cuts to the budgets, there’s a pulse in the room that a leader would never experience by simply telling others what to do. With collective leadership, as demonstrated by Pina Bausch, the show definitely goes on.

For reflection

  • How does this metaphor of collective leadership work for you? What other metaphors come to mind?
  • Who could you include at your next meeting – someone whom you wouldn’t typically include but who may have a powerful contribution to make?
  • What unexpected question might you ask the people around you to engage their creativity (your equivalent of consider Rome from a mouse’s point of view’)?

Related links

 To download Bite – Receipes for Remarkable Research as an Open Access e-book:

To find out more about Pina Bausch, theatre dance and Tanztheater Wuppertal:


Collective leadership: From silos to shared intelligence

Published in the Network Review of the Scientific and Medical Network, Spring 2013

Before the meeting begins

There was ice in the air as the participants and I filed into the meeting room. Gone was the warmth of the informal conversations over coffee the team had just been having. People avoided looking at each other and their shoulders stiffened as they sat down.

I remembered some of the things that these executives had said when my co-facilitator and I had spoken with them a few days before: “We don’t trust each other”; “We don’t know what projects other people are working on”; “We have to compete with each other because opportunities for promotion are very limited”; “Our boss is aloof”.

When we’d spoken with the Team Leader, he told us about poor attendance at monthly team meetings. Morale was flat, and his team members were bypassing him by going to his boss for strategic guidance—and recognition. He needed to shift the dynamic but he wasn’t sure how.

As I sat amongst the team in the circle of 40 chairs, no table in the middle for any of us to hide behind, I took a deep breath. “Welcome”, I said, “to this session on Collective Leadership”. And off we went on our journey together.

While the story above, only slightly disguised to protect identities, describes some recent experiences with a team of senior leaders in an international organization, it could, however, capture the mood at the start of many a meeting. After facilitating leadership team meetings and coaching business leaders from the East and West over the last 10 years, I’ve found several themes to be very familiar:

– Poor communication, no strategic direction and ineffective decision-making.
– Lack of trust, rigid interactions and a cynical atmosphere.
– People working in silos and competing rather than collaborating.

These dysfunctional team dynamics are especially problematic in a global marketplace: the problems facing leaders today are too complex for any one person to solve. The issues this team were dealing with, for example—unsustainable population growth, environmental degradation and widespread pollution—are not limited to the borders of a single country or the boundary of an organisational department. Cutting a swath through these big, hairy issues requires a multitude of stakeholders thinking and talking together in unprecedented ways.

The challenge of contemporary leadership

In a recent article in the Network Review (Winter 2012), Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as “The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems” (p. 21). They note the growing antipathy towards heroic leaders and the increasing interest in collective or distributed leadership and working in partnership.

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also underline the current reality. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction, many organisations still operate on the basis of traditional hierarchies and the “command” decision style, while perhaps unpopular, seldom gets replaced with any clear collective decision-making mechanism.

The benefits of collective leadership

While I agree that collective leadership is a difficult “nut to crack”, I’ve also personally seen enough evidence as a management consultant to know that this form of engagement is not only worth pursuing, but decidedly possible. When a whole team is fully involved in thinking and talking together about thorny issues, drawing on leadership qualities sourced as a group rather than as individuals, the solutions developed and the decisions reached are profoundly different in quality and usefulness from the norm. Team members draw on each other’s strengths, deal with resistance at an early stage and consider longer-term legacy issues. The formal leader often chooses to retain responsibility as the single point of accountability, but the decision-making process, which draws on each person’s distinct perspective, creates outcomes that stick.

It is my observation that a central role of powerful leaders is to create the conditions in which others can find their voice—and express it. They encourage those around them to “go beyond their tribe” and break the pattern of silo working and competing. They deeply understand that each person has a piece of the puzzle, and that it is in the mix of diverse perspectives that innovative thinking emerges. In short, these leaders have the ability to access the collective wisdom of the people around them to create new possibilities. And the only way to do it is to talk!

Research on dialogue in high-performing teams

A compelling piece of research published in the American Behavioural Scientist (February, 2004) supports this view. Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy observed the conversations of 60 management teams, each of about 8 members, in a large information-processing organization. Their dialogue was recorded, analysed and evaluated across three key dimensions, explained below.

The researchers found that high-performing teams accessed their collective intelligence by talking together in ways that were distinct from low-performing teams. In the teams associated with greatest profitability, best customer satisfaction and highest evaluations by colleagues, the team members had developed three capabilities:

1. They asked questions as often as they asserted their own opinions (a 1:1 ratio between enquiry and advocacy).
2. They showed as much interest in others as they did in themselves, rather than being stuck in self-absorption (a 1:1 ratio between focus on self and others).
3. They made many more positive than negative comments, so that enthusiasm, encouragement and support far outweighed sarcasm, criticism or cynicism (3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity with 6:1 as the ideal).

When all three of these behaviours were demonstrated, they created an “expansive emotional space” in which the team interacted. The atmosphere was buoyant, trusting and resilient. By contrast, in low-performing teams where people did not feel connected with each other, the atmosphere was cynical, distrustful and tense.

Harnessing the power of shared intelligence

At the heart of my own consulting practice is creating settings where people feel safe and energised to talk about what really matters within the context of the meeting. They can speak their truth—and be heard—without fear of rupturing a relationship. In such an environment, people can take risks in their thinking, share their “half-baked” ideas and, together, come up with new insights that no one person would have reached by thinking alone.

To harness this power of collective leadership, where shared intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts, leaders need to be effective enablers of face-to-face interactions. We are social animals, after all. We make sense of the world around us by being in conversation with other human beings. When there’s a sense of “We’re all in this together”, it maximises the likelihood that we will make life-affirming and sustainable rather than life-destroying and reactive decisions.

Returning to the story I started this article with, my co-facilitator and I were heartened to receive the following email shortly after the team sessions from one of the participants:

“Last week we had our first team meeting after the Collective Leadership session. I must say that there was a noticeable difference. The first sign of change was when everyone rearranged the tables and chairs so that we all sat closer to each other. Most people came well prepared instead of deliberating the matter on the spot. We were able to discuss sensitive issues that required the cooperation and consensus of everyone and it all went smoothly. No one interrupted each other and many who didn’t speak much at previous team meetings were voicing their thoughts.”

From my work with hundreds of different teams, I’ve seen that the capabilities for having productive, performance-enhancing conversations can indeed be learned (and taught). What’s more, these are key skills not only for senior executives and corporate teams, but for everyone. Leadership can no longer be defined by the size of the budget you manage, the number of staff on your watch or the complexity of the project you lead. We all have the potential to be leaders, game-changers or wayfarers in whatever mission field we’re working, whether as a parent, school governor, senior executive, lobbyist or parliamentarian. Expanding our capacity to engage in life-changing conversations is beneficial for us all.