How can we think differently about leadership? Re-framing purpose – Part 2

Re-framing purpose.

Central Idea: Leading change requires understanding the system’s goals and underlying values (its politic). We cannot lead effectively in the 21st century without a pivot to purpose; without surfacing hidden goals and values, and using this insight to reframe purpose and action.

When talking about systems that are characterised by multiple goals, we refer to them as purposeful systems. Many goals in purposeful systems are hidden or tacit, and are influenced by drivers in other parts of the system. For example, while many commercial organisations try to be mission-driven towards community or environmental wellbeing, the need to address shareholder requirements (as enshrined in the Corporations Act4) may come into conflict with these goals, depending on what the priority of a diverse set of shareholders is. This insight challenges how we view “purpose”, as it highlights that there may be many different objectives at play in any given situation.

To lead in a purposeful system, we need to pivot to purpose. We need to reflect and clearly identify our own goals, aligned to our value systems, and read those against the goals we identify in the systems in which we operate. If we are not clear about our own purpose, we can be unwittingly pushed in directions that run contrary to our purpose.

Leadership renewal requires challenging the simple idea of a singular “goal”, and then defining, creating or finding spaces where different (often competing goals) can be held together in creative but viable tension, that does not inhibit beneficial change.

Change is brought about by:
1. the defining of purpose and goals that are necessary to achieve this change;
2. an adaptive process of navigating the path towards them, and;
3. managing the complex and conflict-ridden space between the tensions amid those goals.

The aim is to maintain the system in a viable state for meeting its purpose and being able to work towards its goals. All action towards goals requires some sort of change, whether it is adaptation to resist intervention, or to break through resistance itself. Similarly, taking no action does not inure the system against change – implicit goals drive change as much as explicit ones. This is precisely why decision-making informed from complex systems knowledge is so important for leadership today.

Cybernetics allows people to displace the dominant view and see a system from different angles and perspectives. It allows people to see how the goals inherent in those different angles and perspectives can interact and steer that system in different directions. This liberates us to see the idea of leading change from new and helpful angles, roles and places. It allows us to understand how relationships, responsibilities and reciprocities influence the behaviours we see at individual, organisational, community and even global levels.

Our theory of leadership builds on cybernetic principles, enabling us to address the key challenges of seeing the system as the unit of analysis (Re/Defining Leadership) and pivoting to purpose through a clear articulation of goals (Re/Framing Purpose).

Stay tuned, next up in this series of extracts, we will bring you – Why Cybernetics? And why now?