Leadership Spotlight

A System Focus

A stock image of a fountain pen pointing to the word "leadership" in a dictionary.

Leaders know that the many definitions of leadership make it difficult to agree on one. However, they probably all consider responsibility a main component. A worthy discussion centers on the important next question: Responsibility for what?

Effective leaders have responsibility beyond their group, project, or assigned tasks. They have a wider view that allows them to see the bigger system. A major figure in organizational development wrote that systems thinking is “a discipline for seeing the wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships, rather than things, for seeing patterns of change, rather than static snapshots.”1

What do we think of leaders who “stay in their lane” and get results? We consider them highly and often even promote them. We encourage and reward this behavior because it falls into the paradigm that if every group does its job well, all pieces working together results in success. I certainly agree that every part of a system accomplishing its objectives is a worthy goal. However, every group individually doing its job well may not be enough. Such organizations need an all-knowing manager at the top who has the perfect plan.

In today’s fast-changing, complex world, all leaders in the organization must be “system aware” and “system responsible.” The opposite of this is the “Not on my watch!” leader. Such individuals care about matters only as far as they reflect on them and their responsibilities. These leaders engage in competition internally for them and their team. They want success for their people and projects because it bodes well for them, and they take gains in their part of the system at the expense of other parts of the system. We no longer want these leaders in our organizations.   

So, how do we get leaders to be system aware and system responsible? It starts with an organizational culture change where everyone sees and understands the wholes and interrelationships. That alone is a huge undertaking. But, once established, incentives and disincentives must align with system success. Rewarding anyone or anything not helping the system must stop. Those who demand that things are done correctly “on their watch” should no longer have a “watch.” Agencies should replace those leaders with ones who say, “That is not how things are done around here.” How things are done is the actual organizational culture regardless of the words in the mission statement hanging in a dusty frame on the wall.

Back to the original question of responsibility, leaders should be responsible for and responsive to the system—the challenge is getting them to see and understand it. They are just part of a cog in the wheel, typically a pejorative. Instead, leaders should say it with pride because the cogs make the wheel go around.

Supervisory Special Agent Cory McGookin, an instructor in the Leadership and Communications Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.


Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency, 1990), 68.