Leading inclusive systems

“The key to abundance is meeting limited circumstances with unlimited thoughts.”

Marianne Williamson

So much of our time is spent looking through our own lens, busying ourselves with doing what we need to do, that we hardly ever take the time to step back. In the same vein, we spend far too much time managing the scarcities of life – time, capital and energy, for example – and finite resources in general. What if we shifted this paradigm to one of abundance, of infinite resources and wisdom? What would this change for the way we deliver, the way we lead, the way we interact and ultimately the way we show up in our systems? Often, we are looking to continue with the familiar patterns that have got us where we are – our strategies for so-called success – but are they regenerative, and are we thriving as a result?

Inclusive leadership: the spirit of abundance

 So, what is inclusive leadership and what are inclusive systems? I often ask leaders and groups this question, and it is one of my favourite moments, for two reasons: I learn something new, and I am bombarded with a plethora of different lenses and perspectives on the same topic. The best part is that there are as many different answers as there are people asked the question, because we all have our own experiences and perceptions. There may be varying definitions and vocabulary, but the human needs being attended to are the same: well-being, motivation and belonging as well as improved creativity, innovation and business results.

 Inclusive leadership is about finding more regenerative leadership strategies, which include restorative recuperation as part of our perception of high performance and allow us to fill our cup – our energy cup, our spiritual cup, our cognitive cup and our emotional cup. The aim is to give ourselves more ‘head space’ and a feeling of expansion, for only then can we be truly purposeful and strategic. Regenerative strategies include replenishing scarce resources so that they do not run out and leave us feeling depleted, dissatisfied and very often ‘deficient’ or ‘broken’. I think we are all familiar with the thoughts of “if I’d have slept more, I’d have done that pitch better”, or “if I’d have had three more hours to actually think about that, I would have been more effective”. It is not the system doing this to us, although the system keeps this type of behaviour in place, it is about us taking a stand for how we want to show up and how we embody our deepest values and the qualities we want to stand for.

For me, ’authentic leadership’ has become such a buzz word, understood to mean retaining the essence of who you are, taking a stand and translating that into the way you show up and the way you interact with people, whatever the situation. Wholly owning all aspects of your identity is never easy but navigating the complexity of our inner game is key to creating the conditions for people to thrive. There is no right or wrong, and what is authentic for one is not authentic for another. There is, however, nothing more inspiring than being beside someone who takes a stand consistently and respectfully for who they are and what they stand for, whatever and wherever that may be.

In fact, the aim to build powerful learning communities within systems is exactly this, a lever for more abundant and regenerative models. Learning from and sharing with other people creates a wealth of information for collective benefit and collective wisdom with a huge spill-over effect for leading transformational change. This is both fundamental for success and a great way of scaling humility and collaboration.

Dignity: mastering your inner game

 Leadership starts on the inside, and the more we deepen our understanding of who we are and what makes us tick, the more we understand about the human condition and how we can interact with ourselves and others. In a world where we are constantly automating tasks, this human layer is of paramount importance to sustaining business performance.

 The idea of wholly owning all aspects of your identity is beautifully illustrated in Donna Hick’s work on dignity and leading with dignity, where she explains the idea of ‘Mandela consciousness’ and how we are the sole owners of our inherent worth – the only person who can strip you of your dignity is you. Her work is based around her very powerful dignity model that we discuss in our recent podcast (listen here). Donna goes on to outline that dignity, and the assaulting thereof, gives a label to profoundly emotional human reactions that are impossible to articulate in difficult or conflict situations. In such cases, using the right language legitimises suffering, opens doors and starts discussions. This approach is applicable to and resonates in all arenas as dignity is the highest common denominator of humans, who all want to be treated as something of value. Indeed, the ‘D’ in DE&I could just as well stand for dignity, as we should all treat each other with dignity.

The various elements of the dignity model really enriched my thinking around inclusive systems and inclusive leadership and gave me a new lens through which to view authenticity, fairness, respect and empathy. This space that we intentionally create in both our inner and outer systems allows us to breathe and get curious about how we think, what we feel, how we lead, how we regulate our emotions and how we interact – a fractal dance of ‘being’ if you like.  

 Humble curiosity

Humility and curiosity are both key skills for the future, along with those stated in the WEF research from interviewing some of the world’s largest employers. Other key skills cited include: creativity for thinking imaginatively about complex problems; digital skills for mastering new forms of tech; collaboration for solving complex problems together; global citizenship and respect for people from other cultures; environmental stewardship to further understanding of the fragility of natural ecosystems; and actions we can take for sustainability. The research states that investing in childhood skills and creating this skills base early on in life could add $2.54 trillion to the global economy and in a more inclusive and systemic paradigm. If we want to scale these skills on a global level, we need to remain humble and curious. Ed Hess’s work on ‘humility is the new smart’ sets this stage incredibly well when he defines humility as a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate and not ‘all about me’, and that enables one to embrace the world as it is in the pursuit of human excellence.

 Remaining curious is key to keeping a distance between our own biases and those of the system and stepping up onto the balcony to observe and listen to other perspectives. It is a muscle we need to intentionally exercise, both individually and collectively, as we can so easily put off the training session until later and get lost in the daily rush of delivery, busyness, the need to ‘get things done’ and moving on to the next deliverable. Have you ever sat in front of a TED talk or a video you really wanted to watch and thought, “I’m not sure I remember that last part, but I really wanted to watch it”, or “I set aside this time for me to learn”? In reality, the slot is in your diary, but not in your head. This often ends in frustration and us reacting as opposed to responding to situations and people.

 An inclusive learning culture is based on leaders’ awareness of this requisite space and the ability to create these conditions for themselves, their teams and their networks. It is a space that feels safe, where there is curiosity, creativity, empathy and humility. This is not a quick fix – you can’t just rewatch the video and cognitively ‘figure out’ how to make things work. Tangible results take time, and the process is ongoing, but it benefits business and improves interpersonal relationships across the board.

Holding the paradox of polarities

 As we know, humans are not binary creatures, which is why we’re complex! The world is not binary in nature either, as it is a collection of different natural and now technological ecosystems that require us to think in terms of systems. We are constantly having to let go of the certainty of yes or no, possible or impossible, fast or slow. The solution is always somewhere in between, which means getting the best out of the two extremes without reaching the limits of either.

Each person’s reaction to complexity is different and therefore the navigation path looks different, but it is critical to leading inclusive systems. It prevents us from getting stuck in our own polarised views and gives us greater bandwidth for other things to unfold. It is the power of ‘yes and…’ as opposed to ‘yes but…’. ‘Yes and…’ is often used in innovation and design thinking methods to propose a different cognitive process and use the strength of positive lenses to find new and different ways of thinking and doing. This is imperative in the space needed for creativity, a space of curiosity and without judgement, an inclusive space in which everyone’s voice is heard and healthy challenge is the lever for innovation.

The four fundamental building blocks of an inclusive environment – empathy, psychological safety, co-responsibility and collective vision – do not guarantee an inclusive system and remain in a fragile equilibrium. If one of them is pushed aside, the system becomes less cohesive. I often liken inclusive systems and inclusive leadership to one of my favourite games, Jenga: if you are not deliberate and intentional about which piece of wood you pull out of the structure (system), and how and where you place it back into the system, then the tower falls over. If you ignore the tower and breeze past it, it can fall down. If you only focus on what you do with the bits of wood you choose and look after, the tower will become unstable.

This analogy can be likened to people in a system, and systems interacting as a whole – they must be dynamic, fluid and evolving. The oil for these systems is inclusive leadership, paying attention to what is happening in your team/system, taking time out to understand the roles of the different actors and what they are feeling and experiencing, and looking at the common goal from their standpoint as well. Leaders must deliberately build this capacity in the system to support the vision and culture required for these foundational building blocks. This is about changing habits and perspectives and the often ‘messy’ practice of such adaptive system challenges.

Finding your own model of inclusive leadership – because at the end of the day we are all different, although we have the same basic human needs – is the starting point for human-centred leadership. It is about understanding that whatever behaviour we display, we are all harbouring the same need for connection, recognition, belonging and a need to be seen, heard and valued. This requires taking a step back from the blame culture where we can clearly see the polarities (e.g. right vs. wrong, my fault vs. your fault, our budget vs. their budget, waiting for information, data or a decision from x). Collective finger-pointing happens very quickly in cultures governed by fear and can completely undermine efforts to create dialogue and psychological safety to allow a different result to emerge. As we move into a working environment where traditional boundaries are blurred and existing paradigms, leadership models and organisational concepts are evolving quickly, we need to intentionally reframe some of our existing mental models to allow more space, more curiosity, and more humility. We need to understand this individually to allow us to navigate this complex landscape collectively. What would happen if we changed the collective focus from fear to courage? What would happen if we moved into a mindset of regenerative abundance? What would happen if we embraced a culture of courage, compassion and care for well-being, productivity and, ultimately, competitive advantage? Why not give it a go and see what it brings.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course : https://bit.ly/HSP_TFV

Suzie Lewis

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