Leadership Imperatives for Complexity #4


Be a part of the system you seek to change

Complexity is messy. When we encounter a messy problem, most of us tend to pay attention first to “the problem” as something separate from us. For example, if the quality of public education in my town has declined, I look at things like school financing, teacher preparation, curriculum, etc. I implicitly define the problem as “out there.” While those things surely deserve attention, I’ll be more effective in making changes if I also consider myself as part of the system and thus something that might be changed to shift the system.

Bill Torbert is fond of saying, “If you want to be part of the solution, be part of the problem.” This suggests that in addition to looking at the problem that’s “out there,” we also need to look at ourselves in the system. Ghandi was also pointing to the need for us to pay attention to our own role in the system when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There is a constant dynamic exchange of information and energy between the context (out there) and the self (in here). The context affects me and I affect the context. So it’s important to pay attention to both.

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This widening of attention starts with simply becoming more aware of what’s going on inside you. Begin by noticing these three aspects of your experience.

  1. Thoughts.
    As you listen to the “audio inside your head” more consciously, what do you hear? “This is so overwhelming” or “If only he wouldn’t do that” or “No sweat. I got this.” Much of this content is streaming through our heads without conscious awareness. Just start to notice it without judgment.
  2. Emotions.
    Become aware of your feelings, from minor frustration to the heights of joy. The “big four” – sad, mad, glad, scared – make a good starting point. Try doing a one word mood check with yourself several times a day to improve your awareness. Maybe every time the phone rings or you open your email app. (For more distinctions about emotions, see Plutchik’s “Wheel of Emotions.”
  3. Sensations.
    I used to describe myself as “living from the neck up” with little or no awareness of embodied sensations. Maybe that fits you too or maybe you are more somatically aware. In either case, you can tune into sensations by looking for differences in temperature (e.g. cold hands or warm brow), pressure (e.g. soft eyes or tight shoulders) and movement (e.g. tingling in your toes or an itch on your hand). (To learn more about accessing your somatic sensations, check out Mandy Blake’s free “Stress to Serenity Challenge.” 

As you develop your awareness of your thoughts, emotions and sensations, you open up the possibility that you can choose your state independent of what’s happening around you. That’s the heart of resilience. And with that resilience, you can choose to embody your preferred future consciously. (More on that in a future post.) And THAT will change the system around you.

We define ourselves as part of the system we seek to change, not outside it. Then we notice our state and work with our state to change the system. Not instead of seeking change “out there” but in addition to that. Look inside yourself AND find the balcony view of the system. That lets you put that exchange of information and energy between self and context to work.

For more on complex social problems, see this excellent article in Systems Thinker