Dave Odom: System leaders don’t solve every problem

Illustration of people thinking and talking


As an institution grows, the role of its leaders shifts. System leaders see the big picture and equip others to do the work, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

A pastor friend once called in a panic. Each Sunday in the worship gathering, the visitors outnumbered the members. This pastor had called several people in the denomination and at his seminary to ask for advice. Their response was the same: “Every congregation wishes for such a problem.”

Good to know, but not helpful.

Growth is what nearly every congregation and agency wants. Yet growth creates a set of challenges we aren’t always ready to address. My friend was struggling to adapt a system to welcome so many newcomers, ensure safety in the burgeoning nursery and nurture community among the outnumbered regular attendees. His denomination was prepared with suggestions about how to grow the number of people in worship -- but not what to do once that succeeded.

Leaders of large-scale organizations or systems don’t solve problems; they create the conditions for others to work on problems and learn from each other.

How do leaders need to adapt to an increased scale of attendees, clients or money?

Early in ministry, many of us were rewarded when we solved problems. We were praised when we directed a successful project and accomplished goals. We learned that leaders overcome hurdles, get things done and inspire others.

But the same skills that help a leader execute a project often hinder her long-term management of the project. At some point, one person cannot hold all the answers, solve all the challenges or know all the stakeholders.

Growth in scale requires what organizational leadership expert Peter Senge calls system leadership. In the winter 2015 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Senge and colleagues name three capacities system leaders must develop and practice:

  • Seeing the larger system
  • Fostering reflection and generative conversation
  • Shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future

In a 2013 survey, CEOs of global companies told Duke Corporate Education that in today’s world, challenges are harder to predict and knowledge is less reliable. Duke identified three capacities that leaders must develop to navigate the current context:

  • Perceiving
  • Sensemaking
  • Choreographing

Notice that both Senge and Duke emphasize the leader’s ability to pay attention and help others move forward. Leaders of large-scale organizations or systems don’t solve problems; they create the conditions for others to work on problems and learn from each other.

This can be a significant shift for the people we lead. They often bring us problems and hope we will solve them. In our heads, we hear the refrain, “That is what we pay you for,” even when no one is saying it.

Instead of solving the problems himself, a leader should focus on creating the conditions for the team to work. He can hand the problems back to the team, helping its members reflect on underlying causes, reframe the issues, expand the vision and identify resources.

In Exodus 18, Moses encountered similar challenges as the leader of Israel in the wilderness. His father-in-law, Jethro, came to visit and noticed that Moses was exhausted by holding court, as the people brought every dispute to him for resolution. Jethro suggested that he organize the Israelites into groups and establish a system of leaders to handle most of the issues.

There is a key difference between knowing about the problems and solving the problems. A system leader is connected to what is happening -- through fostering reflection, asking questions and assisting with evaluation -- but not directly responsible for actively resolving a challenge.

The capacity to see what is needed on a larger scale requires some distance from the daily tasks. Leadership expert Ron Heifetz famously calls for leaders to “get on the balcony.” One has to develop practices of reflection, reading, listening and watching that include multiple viewpoints in order to be a system leader.

Some years ago, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity experimented with hiring corporate executive coaches to work with newly elected bishops. After a year, we convened the coaches to ask about their experience.

The most common observation was that the bishops were as gifted as any of the CEOs with whom these executive coaches had worked. But the bishops had far more tasks to do and problems to solve than any CEO with whom they had worked. The ecclesial organizations were set up in such a way that the bishops were not able to do much of the perceiving and choreographing required of a system leader.

That sounds a lot like the Moses situation.

Pastors of large-membership churches face a similar problem; it is hard if not impossible to carve out “balcony time” when a pastor’s priorities are to lead worship, prepare educational programs, attend meetings and provide pastoral care.

Creating the space to behave as system leaders will be painful and require support by multiple people. An important step in the process is finding the language to describe the desired leadership behaviors.

As you embark on a new style of leadership, make time to reflect on how it is going. Talk with other leaders trying the same approach. Include time on meeting agendas to reflect with your staff. When meetings are over, think back on your presence: What contributions did you make? What insights did you offer? What did you learn?

Since many of us have practiced solving problems for many years, a good step in the change process is to define what success looks like as a system leader. If you spend half your time looking at the big picture, encouraging reflection and co-creating the future, you are mastering system leadership and creating the conditions for others to do the same.

My friend with the overwhelming number of visitors decided to convene interested members. They described their observations, discussed how the changes were affecting the community, defined problems and devised plans for sharing work. In hindsight, they realized that most of those plans were short-term. They had to revisit the situation in six months and again in six more months before they were able to devise a sustainable way of working.

System leadership represents a change of mindset. Its impact shows up over time. It allows for growth of the leaders as individuals and of the size of the system.