The most extraordinary leaders I have had the privilege of working with all have one thing in common: they consider multiple perspectives when under pressure. Instead of reacting to the pressure, they stick to core principles and values which guide their decisions based on the right thing to do for all. Systemic, visionary thinking is a key competence which has helped each of the leaders I’ve worked with produce extraordinary results even in the most pressured situations. Intelligence does not distinguish them from their peers; rather, the meaning they make of circumstances and the way they think about responding to events is what contributes to their extraordinariness. Their primary motivation is to contribute to something larger that themselves, something which serves the greater good – not just their own personal interest. Putting things into context and keeping the bigger picture in mind is an effective strategy for dealing with pressure, though that’s easier said than done! Remaining clear-headed requires discipline and practice. A conscious systems-thinker will understand that there are different perspectives for solving multiple problems, while simultaneously managing long, medium, and short-term organisational outcomes. As a result of today’s business demands, leaders are expected to inspire with vision, to get results, to engage a multitude of stakeholders, and to make decisions that serve the short-, medium-, and long-term interests of all. They are under constant pressure to do more with less, get more results with fewer people and less cost. Consequently, many leaders and managers fall into the trap of putting pressure on others. The pressure becomes a vicious cycle when people begin to overcomplicate to prove their worth. The leaders who understand systems thinking and sustainable productivity tend to bring out the best in others. They balance short-term, bottom-line results with longer-term organisational results. They inspire others by openly sharing what matters most to them. They mentor others into sharing their own purpose and vision, and acknowledge contributions for the good of the whole. They role-model decision making in the context of the wider system and consider longer-term consequences of decisions made today. Achieving this requires more conscious leadership as opposed to reactive, financially focused decision making with only short-term outcomes in mind. Developing systemic thinking and focusing on sustainable productivity is more than just changing behavior. It starts with understanding our own internal motivations: what makes us tick, and the thinking that goes into the conscious impact we choose as a leader. It means challenging our beliefs and assumptions, the stories we tell ourselves. Typically, leaders today will make the assumption that what got them to where they are today is what will help them be successful in the future. The trouble is, the future is not like the past and the world is more complex than it has ever been, so to be successful in today’s world means becoming more agile, adaptive to change, more comfortable with ambiguity, and managing the inevitable pressures of more complex work environments. Most of us in a crisis situation default to fire fighting to fix the problem. The challenge is resolving the crises, most of which become crises because of previous hasty reactions to an issue or problem. Unfortunately, many leaders and managers today find themselves running from one fire fight to another without the time to step back. To break the cycle, the first thing to do is metaphorically take a step back by slowing down the immediate impulsive reaction to ‘fix it’. This slowing down involves taking a breath (or several) and consciously taking a wider perspective in order to connect the dots across the systems – dots that would not ordinarily be connected when coming from a knee-jerk reaction under pressure. Leaders should ask themselves these questions:
- “How does this problem relate to the entire system or organisation?’
- “What are the positive consequences of an immediate decision – to the organisation and broader community, to the business units, to individuals, and to me?”
- “What are the likely unintended negative consequences of reacting immediately – to the organisation and broader community, to the business units, to individuals, and to me?”
In a world predominantly governed by the bottom line, the pressure we feel to fix things in the short-term takes precedence. So what happens is we react more and more, faster and faster because there are so many things coming at us at once. Our reactions speed up. When this happens, we unconsciously miss the interconnections between situations and problems and we are unable to see the bigger picture. This then compromises our ability to make informed, conscious decisions that take into consideration the short-, medium-, and long-term. The most effective leaders are role models, mentors, guides and coaches for their teams. Managers need to help their teams to slow down the decision-making process, take a step back, and consider the problem in light of what else is going on. Conscious systems-thinking leaders are the ones who help their team understand how their effort makes a difference every single day/ When people are acknowledged for who they are as much as for what they do, they tend to give discretionary effort: they are motivated, they work without being asked to work, they contribute ideas and take initiative, and they tend to rise to the occasion when the pressure is on. The old ways of developing our leaders is no longer enough to help them cope with the increasing complexity we are facing. By remaining problem focused rather than outcome focused, our leaders will continue to struggle to make effective decisions in the face of mounting pressure and crisis. Leaders need to cultivate new ways of thinking and managing under pressure. What’s required is an evolution in leadership, where our leaders evolve their consciousness to include systems thinking and relating in order to break down complexity and focus on achieving sustainable productivity, where they see the interconnectedness of decisions. We need leaders that will look and think beyond the short-term context into the future, often including multiple stakeholder interests.