.
T

hree years ago I went through a basement renovation that didn’t go as planned.

I had signed up for a cosmetic project and instead uncovered a potential massive underground plumbing issue only after I removed the flooring. It wasn’t technically a problem then but it was clear it would be a problem in years to come. And the worse it would get, the more damage the whole house would be subject to. I had a decision to make: rebuild pipes that no one would ever see and cut back the cosmetic renovation to stay within budget, or build an impressive looking suite and pray for the best.

My final decision was influenced by renowned system theorist Stafford Beer who stated: “...the purpose of a system is what it does.” This means that the foundational capacity that allows a building to fulfill its purpose is where the investment needs to be made. No one may notice or care, but the building’s core systems matter more than the wallpaper.

Of course, it would have been easier for me to dismiss this tenet when renovating if I didn’t feel a strong sense of ownership and obligation to do what is best for the long-term. Would I have made the same decision if I was focused on flipping homes?

There are several reasons why we have a culture of decision-making that prioritizes pretty countertops over plumbing. Despite the corporate fixation on being supposedly “strategic,” most decision-makers default to short-term, reductive decision-making processes. This is because they are often disincentivized from putting forward solutions to problems we know exist but don’t provide an immediate return on investment. As a result, many of our leaders rarely evidence a sense of genuine ownership over the long-term consequences of their decisions.

However, in the wake of a global pandemic exacerbated by systemic failures, humanity will need a new normal that focuses on enabling systems to do what they are meant to do.

We need leaders who understand what true ownership means. I call this systemic leadership

Systemic leadership ultimately serves everyone, and as a result, requires the contribution and commitment of every person within any given system. To that end, we would benefit from adopting a new understanding of ownership that is less mechanistic and more systemic. That means recognizing that psychological ownership empowers people to carry a deeper sense of responsibility over the health of each part of the system while equally caring for the health of the relationships that flow between these parts.

Getting there requires a paradigm shift that moves from the concept of legal ownership, devoid of collective and long-term accountability, towards true ownership that is based on responsibilities. “We own it so we can do whatever we want with it,” is a common fallacy that confuses unbridled freedom with purposeful responsibility. With an average three-year tenure of many executives in government and the corporate sector, any structural incentive to stay the course in realizing the kind of systemic transformation our institutions require right now, is missing. In other words: no one wants to take the risk of investing into new plumbing if they aren’t incentivized, and especially if it’s faster and easier to install pretty flooring and not pay too much attention to what lies beneath.

Rather, the kind of transformative ownership I am describing requires an ecological, generative, and generational mindset. Ecological, in this context, meaning recognizing that the system within which we operate only enjoys health when all of its components are relatively healthy and properly integrated. Generative, meaning a system that is capable of reproducing and self-sustaining its value. Generational, meaning that we recognize that our ownership is tethered to the legacy of our decisions, and is not simply bound to present-day outcomes.

Our current challenge is to create the conditions that nurture a deep sense of collective responsibility among concerned citizens, civic leaders, corporate executives, and everyone in-between, while recognizing that the value of today’s good work will fully manifest generations down the line.  

To take the long view, and steward a future better than the present, systemic leadership cannot be practiced by a few. Systemic leadership is about looking at information in holistic, generative terms. It is about playing the long-game, together, and recognizing systems as complex, living beings where each of us is tasked with sustaining its health.

While many of us spend time perseverating over what we stand to lose if we shake up the status quo, we must equip the next generation with the courage, fortitude, and honesty required to work on the deeper structural issues we have been ignoring as problems we face become more intertwined and complex.

This remains true for any system, from the highest levels of decision-making infrastructure down to the very nuts and bolts that underpin the purpose of a home’s core plumbing. The power of systemic leadership is that it can be practiced when leading a country, a Fortune 100 company, or a renovation project at home, and it is incumbent upon us to apply its principles to build the future we require.

About
Tyl van Toorn
:
Tyl van Toorn is the Co-Founder and CEO of Watershed Partners, a strategic advisory focused on multi-stakeholder alignment and systemic transformation. He has worked with and across public and private sectors in Europe, Asia, and North America.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Building a New Model of Ownership Through Systemic Leadership

Photo via Joel Filipe via Unsplash.

September 28, 2021

We must equip the next generation with the courage, fortitude, and honesty required to work on the deeper structural issues we have been ignoring as problems we face become more intertwined and complex, writes Coeuraj's CEO Tyl Van Toorn.

T

hree years ago I went through a basement renovation that didn’t go as planned.

I had signed up for a cosmetic project and instead uncovered a potential massive underground plumbing issue only after I removed the flooring. It wasn’t technically a problem then but it was clear it would be a problem in years to come. And the worse it would get, the more damage the whole house would be subject to. I had a decision to make: rebuild pipes that no one would ever see and cut back the cosmetic renovation to stay within budget, or build an impressive looking suite and pray for the best.

My final decision was influenced by renowned system theorist Stafford Beer who stated: “...the purpose of a system is what it does.” This means that the foundational capacity that allows a building to fulfill its purpose is where the investment needs to be made. No one may notice or care, but the building’s core systems matter more than the wallpaper.

Of course, it would have been easier for me to dismiss this tenet when renovating if I didn’t feel a strong sense of ownership and obligation to do what is best for the long-term. Would I have made the same decision if I was focused on flipping homes?

There are several reasons why we have a culture of decision-making that prioritizes pretty countertops over plumbing. Despite the corporate fixation on being supposedly “strategic,” most decision-makers default to short-term, reductive decision-making processes. This is because they are often disincentivized from putting forward solutions to problems we know exist but don’t provide an immediate return on investment. As a result, many of our leaders rarely evidence a sense of genuine ownership over the long-term consequences of their decisions.

However, in the wake of a global pandemic exacerbated by systemic failures, humanity will need a new normal that focuses on enabling systems to do what they are meant to do.

We need leaders who understand what true ownership means. I call this systemic leadership

Systemic leadership ultimately serves everyone, and as a result, requires the contribution and commitment of every person within any given system. To that end, we would benefit from adopting a new understanding of ownership that is less mechanistic and more systemic. That means recognizing that psychological ownership empowers people to carry a deeper sense of responsibility over the health of each part of the system while equally caring for the health of the relationships that flow between these parts.

Getting there requires a paradigm shift that moves from the concept of legal ownership, devoid of collective and long-term accountability, towards true ownership that is based on responsibilities. “We own it so we can do whatever we want with it,” is a common fallacy that confuses unbridled freedom with purposeful responsibility. With an average three-year tenure of many executives in government and the corporate sector, any structural incentive to stay the course in realizing the kind of systemic transformation our institutions require right now, is missing. In other words: no one wants to take the risk of investing into new plumbing if they aren’t incentivized, and especially if it’s faster and easier to install pretty flooring and not pay too much attention to what lies beneath.

Rather, the kind of transformative ownership I am describing requires an ecological, generative, and generational mindset. Ecological, in this context, meaning recognizing that the system within which we operate only enjoys health when all of its components are relatively healthy and properly integrated. Generative, meaning a system that is capable of reproducing and self-sustaining its value. Generational, meaning that we recognize that our ownership is tethered to the legacy of our decisions, and is not simply bound to present-day outcomes.

Our current challenge is to create the conditions that nurture a deep sense of collective responsibility among concerned citizens, civic leaders, corporate executives, and everyone in-between, while recognizing that the value of today’s good work will fully manifest generations down the line.  

To take the long view, and steward a future better than the present, systemic leadership cannot be practiced by a few. Systemic leadership is about looking at information in holistic, generative terms. It is about playing the long-game, together, and recognizing systems as complex, living beings where each of us is tasked with sustaining its health.

While many of us spend time perseverating over what we stand to lose if we shake up the status quo, we must equip the next generation with the courage, fortitude, and honesty required to work on the deeper structural issues we have been ignoring as problems we face become more intertwined and complex.

This remains true for any system, from the highest levels of decision-making infrastructure down to the very nuts and bolts that underpin the purpose of a home’s core plumbing. The power of systemic leadership is that it can be practiced when leading a country, a Fortune 100 company, or a renovation project at home, and it is incumbent upon us to apply its principles to build the future we require.

About
Tyl van Toorn
:
Tyl van Toorn is the Co-Founder and CEO of Watershed Partners, a strategic advisory focused on multi-stakeholder alignment and systemic transformation. He has worked with and across public and private sectors in Europe, Asia, and North America.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.