Meaning and purpose: Is it in our leadership systems?


In the final blog of our Leading with Meaning and Purpose series TPC Leadership partners, Andrew McDowell and Hilary Harvey discuss systems leadership and how to create meaning and purpose for the whole system.

Systems leadership

We create leadership structures with the aim of optimising performance, creativity and communication, but many organisations overlook how both meaning and purpose fit into the equation.

Andrew McDowell, a Partner at TPC Leadership, sheds light on the matter. “Great systems leaders help people understand where their roles contribute to a shared purpose, and they also create opportunities for people to make meaning from what they are doing together.”

We have explored how both meaning and purpose are essential qualities in our personal leadership, our relational leadership and our team leadership. And all of these levels of influence affect our systems. But what else can we do?

Meaning in the mechanisms

Organisations are always in motion, but our systems have the power to make that movement feel either like mere activity or meaningful progress. Systems leadership often involves helping people realise how far they have come, and where they’re going and what they are contributing to.

“It’s not just about ‘my role’ anymore,” says Andrew, “it’s about the overall system and how I’m impacting it.” He recalls a time when he worked with the top 300 senior leaders in a large organisation. “When they had the opportunity to see how they and their team were one part of the mechanism that contributed to the collective activity of others and an overall purpose, they were much more likely to engage and enthuse their teams to that end.”

No one wants to feel that their work is just about keeping cogs turning, they want to see the how the cogs fit into larger cogs, the engine whirring, the ground passing quickly beneath them towards a destination and the horizon drawing closer.

Andrew explains that good systems leadership is about “creating opportunities to celebrate people’s success, to share their achievements, and to have opportunities for further development.” But it’s also, he adds, “about engaging differently with stakeholders and beneficiaries of whatever that work is.”

More than ethics

In most companies, there’s an emerging consciousness around the importance of sustainability and making a larger difference through what they are doing that extends just beyond the immediate goals of the organisation and stockholder value.  Progressive businesses are looking at developing meaningful alignment with more globally oriented initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s more than contributing to a charitable cause. It’s more than mitigating the impact of profit-making with a few ethical considerations.

Through alignment to the SDGs, companies have the opportunity to align their strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, anti-corruption, labour and environment; infusing their companies with ideals and actions that advance societal goals.  It’s about showing everyone across the system that they are moving the needle of how they operate as an organisation and how they are collectively contributing to how the world could operate. “We’re at a critical point in human history,” says Hilary Harvey, Partner at TPC Leadership, “we need to be taking faster action towards achieving our Global Goals, and are running out of time to minimise the devastating effects of climate change. I feel strongly that systems leaders need to be thinking into the long term, and help their organisations and systems play their part in addressing the most important societal and environmental challenges that are part of our reality.”

If you are part of an organisation that is consciously aligning to a Sustainable Development Goal or something else that matters on a social or global level, and your leadership team is effectively communicating the intent and how you are part of something, it creates a very clear message to people that they are meaningfully contributing to a wider purpose.

The systemic impact of aligning around a purpose is not just about the feel-good factor, it has a tangible impact.  For example, Ernst & Young recently published some preliminary findings indicating that companies that are “purposeful” have been shown to outperform the stock market by 42%; and that companies without a sense of purpose clearly articulated in their mission, underperform the market by 40%.

Andrew adds, “What’s interesting is that it can’t just be words on a page. Purpose-led organisations need purpose-led leaders that support people to integrate the sense of purpose into everything they do.  Whether the system is infused with purpose and can people feel connected to it or not, often comes down to the quality of leadership they experience”

Looking further in every direction

So what are the obstacles? “People get stuck in silo thinking,” says Andrew. “They keep their heads down sometimes. They focus on achieving individual goals, or reaching KPIs or delivering their part of the business’s required contribution. But they miss the bigger picture.”

“Systems leadership requires people to look up, to look across and to look through,” says Andrew. “You can only appreciate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when the whole is made more visible. A musician only understands the importance of the score before them when they have an appreciation of the entire orchestra”.

While it’s obvious that leaders need to adopt a systems view; it’s less obvious that there is tremendous advantage in helping other people see the bigger picture and the wider purpose. Our structures need to give people a vantage point so that they can see it too. Otherwise, it’s very challenging to keep playing your note effectively if you don’t understand how it contributes to the overall music being produced. But when the purpose is clear, and people understand their role in contributing to it, meaning can be felt across the entire system. Every member of the orchestra finds their swing. And you’ll have a hard time telling anyone to stop.

“Consider the system leader of the orchestra – the conductor,” says Hilary, “it’s their responsibility to help each and every musician stay aligned to the purpose of the piece which is to convey a particular message from the composer. The conductor needs to guide the musicians in the different instrument sections to work together harmoniously both within their section in combination with other sections. They work proactively with the section leaders to build this alignment and trust them to create this within their teams. To make matters even more complex, the best conductors encourage creativity and interpretation at an individual level and blend this seamlessly to create a collective experience that is incredibly powerful, both for the musicians as well as the audience. Imagine if our systems leaders were able to learn to do this within their own organisations, creating a powerful sense of meaning and purpose both for clients as well as employees.”

Want more insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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