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Shifting Leadership; Shifting Paradigms, by Ruth Dobson

Shifting Leadership; Shifting Paradigms

Posted on April 4, 2017

‘How does social change happen?’ This question was posed at a leadership training residential which I attended as part of my Clore Social Leadership fellowship.  

It stuck with me.  I realised that in some form it has fascinated me since I was teenager studying history at school:  How does change happen - any kind of change, but particularly major societal or political change?

The Clore Social programme gave me a chance to re-examine my thinking around change, and particularly the role leaders play in working for positive social transformation.

Margaret Wheatley, in her writings on leadership, suggests: ‘We live in a world of complex systems… These systems are emergent phenomena – the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to them.  These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes.’

In my longer provocation piece I consider the implications for leadership if the causes of radical societal change are the result of systems that generate their own results.  How can we find agency and have an impact for positive change in such a complex world?

I suggest that the election of Donald Trump and Brexit are the consequences of the function of complex systems – systems that are failing.  These events are the result of intricate feedback loops that arise despite – perhaps even because of - concerted efforts of those working for change in the other direction.  

If this is the case, what can our response be?  

Drawing on the work of system thinking experts, I propose that there is a need for a different kind of leadership, one that no longer relies on the emergence of ‘heroes’, the strong leaders that we often idolise.  Instead we need leaders to act as hosts to facilitate others to find solutions.  We need leaders who genuinely embrace wider perspectives.  We need leaders who are exactly the opposite of Trump.

I also consider Donella Meadow’s suggestion that the most effective intervention in a complex system is the power to transcend paradigms and that the way to achieve this is to refuse to accept the status quo, and instead to loudly and publicly assert the reality of a different model.  Instead, we often find ourselves ‘Diddling with the details’ as Meadows calls it, tied up with the exact details of what impact this or that action will have, justifying this to funders and regulators.

Here we can aspire to be more like Trump: Trump didn’t care about the existing paradigm and certainly not about details.  He asserted a new reality, and claimed it.  Woefully, this reality is built on hate, exclusion and a version of human nature that believes in putting up barriers not building understanding.

I suggest our response needs to be on a similar level.  What could we do, how would we act, if we genuinely believed that we are not constrained by our existing paradigms?  What could we create if we exercised empathy, cared less about being a hero, and started to behave as if equality and inclusion were already the reality? Let’s start to claim that new reality.  

Ruth is a 2016 Clore Social Fellow; she developed this blog as part of her Fellowship. You can download her full provocation piece here. Share your comments and views below, or join the conversation with Ruth on Twitter. You can connect with her on LinkedIn 

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Ruth Dobson

Ruth Dobson

Corporate purpose & social enterprise specialist

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