The forgotten aspect of systems leadership

Mark Vernooij
Article by: Mark Vernooij
The forgotten aspect of systems leadership

After the recent World Economic Forum Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai, Managing Director Lee Howell argued for the need for systems leadership. For quite some time, the World Economic Forum has been a key promoter of systems leadership as a tool to deal with the complex challenges of our times – and rightfully so.


Systems leadership focuses on the importance of knowledge: for example, knowing the differences between risk and uncertainty, understanding how to interpret human error, or knowing the risks of hindsight bias. Systems leadership also focuses on the skills that people need to develop. We see this in the research of Lisa Drier who with her colleagues created a systems change framework consisting of five elements (Convene and commit, Look and learn, Engage and energize, Act with accountability, Review and revise).


While knowledge might be difficult to understand and skills are not easy to build, none of them seem like rocket science. So why is it that we see so few leaders being effective at systems leadership? Often, an “ability” is described as the combination of knowledge, skills, and mindset – and mindset is exactly what has been forgotten in the discussion of systems leadership.

systems leadership
Mindset is what has been forgotten in the discussion of systems leadership. #mindset #creativeleader #systemschange #systemsthinking #leadershipdevelopment Click To Tweet

The impact of mindset

During our lives, we all go through various stages. We transform from babies to children to young adults. In her book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Jennifer Garvey Berger refers to these different stages of our brain as “forms of mind.” These transformations are like operating system upgrades, but for the brain: suddenly, people can handle more complexity with less effort. The first upgrades from 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0 are like auto-installs: they happen regardless for most people.

After stage 3.0 (what Garvey Berger calls the “socialized mind”), people need to work hard to upgrade. This is less about knowledge or skills. According to Garvey Berger, “Our adult changes tend not to show up with new skills or a new physical growth spurt. Generally, you can see them most easily when you get really interested not just in what someone knows but in how he makes sense of what he knows.”

People in the 3.0 mindset can self-reflect on their actions as well as others’, and they are able to put aside their own needs for the needs of the group. This enables collaboration and collective action. The major limitation of those with a 3.0 mindset is they rely on the group for norms and rules and struggle to form a decision when faced with conflicting signals.

In In Over Our Heads, American psychologist Robert Kegan calls the 4.0 mindset the “self-authored mind.” In this stage, people no longer depend on the opinions of others and the automatic adoption of the mission and values of those that surround them. Instead, they’re able to evaluate, reflect on, and define their own mission, values, and self-worth. It’s only in and after this stage that people can start dealing with complex problems. This is where we see powerful changemakers emerge.

systems leadership
It's only in and after Robert Kegan's 'stage 4.0' that people can start dealing with complex problems. This is where we see powerful changemakers emerge. #adultdevelopment #leadershipdevelopment #mindset #changemaker #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

But in a complex and ambiguous world, holding on too strong to our own values and beliefs, regardless of where they come from, can prevent us from learning and having the ability to hold multiple perspectives about “how the world works.” That is why upgrading to a self-transforming mind – stage 5.0 – is crucial. “People with this form of mind are always searching for the next thing that might challenge a deeply held belief system. They spend less time creating and defending a particular vision of themselves and more time letting life transform them,” Garvey Berger writes. “They are jazz musicians riffing along with others rather than believing life can be rehearsed and perfected.” These people can bring people along on a new and uncertain journey with optimistic, constructive energy, understanding and respect for what is, and high ambition for what could be.

Lisa Drier and her colleagues hint at the importance of personal transformation and leadership qualities like collaborative leadership, integrity, respect, a learning mindset, open-mindedness, awareness, compassion, understanding, and wisdom. But none of these “horizontal” qualities can be properly understood or developed without understanding and developing “vertically” through the 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0 forms of mind.

Research by Bob Anderson shows that leaders who make it to the 4.0 and 5.0 mindset are two to nine times more effective leaders than those in a 3.0 mindset. Unfortunately, at least 75% of all adults haven’t done the hard work to get beyond 3.0, while less than 5% have reached stage 5.0. No wonder most leaders feel in over their heads trying to create systems change in the face of today’s complex problems. To continue the computer analogy: they are trying to run Windows applications on an MS-DOS operating system.

To “upgrade” your mindset to become an effective systems leader, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.