Posted on March 28, 2019

Embracing the Individual-Collective Paradox for Systemic Leaders

The word “systemic” can, at first blush, evoke negative connotations or feelings, such as an association with bureaucracy. This kind of impersonal impression is, however, the exact opposite of what we mean when we talk about the systemic, especially in the context of systemic leadership for today’s organizations. The system is about human relationships. Systemic leadership is emerging as the best way forward because it gives leaders and organizations as a whole a way to adapt and stay agile in a changing world.

The truth is that, a mere few decades ago, the average lifespan of a company was around sixty years, whereas, nowadays, its between 20 and 29 years. That’s less than half! This is a result of many factors, but the unifying strand among organizations that are able to thrive and survive in the modern age is their ability to adapt, learn, and grow.

Because the forces of economic development and the like are outside of any one person’s control, the solution, likewise, does not rest in the individual. Yet it involves empowering individuals to come together, to form stronger communities and organizations, and to work at the systemic level to address systemic issues.

The Individual Collective Paradox

When I discussed systemic leadership with Dr. Peter Senge at the Systemic Leadership Summit, he put it in terms of an individual collective paradox. Dr. Senge is the founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., co-founder of the Academy for Systemic Change, and author of The Fifth Discipline.

The paradox is a result of the fact that these “larger processes are really outside of anybody’s control,” yet “individuals really matter.” Individual actions are neither responsible for nor offer a solution to the greater systemic issues that every organization must confront, and yet, like drops of water in a river, these actions compound upon themselves and each other to form the collective. This is where the power lies.

He concludes, “to embrace the paradox, that individual collective paradox, was why we eventually started using the term system leader.”

Individuals in the System

Now, let’s take some time to unpack this. While everyone in the organization, from the janitor to the CEO, plays their role and contributes to the overall health and wellbeing of the system, Dr. Senge explains that “some individuals are much better than others at fostering collaboration.” The key moment for the individual, that which is the essence of the systemic leader, is not directing and controlling; instead, it is fostering collaboration, getting people to work together and letting the system take care of the rest.

Still, a great deal of this impetus belongs to the individual. To be systemic leaders, individuals need “the courage to step forward, the willingness to take a risk, and the willingness to stick your neck out,” says Dr. Senge. Tomorrow’s systemic leaders will require many traits that we classically associate with leadership, such as bravery, but they need to channel these qualities into empowering the collective.

Organizational Learning

Systemic leadership is the best way to achieve organizational learning, which, as we noted above, is the best way for companies and organizations to achieve longevity. Dr. Senge asks, “Can you change sufficiently and rapidly so that you can be adaptive or survive over long periods of time?”

This involves “balancing the urgent and the important. How do we deal with the here-and-now in a way that we feel like we’re contributing something that matters?” It’s about facilitating the ability of the organization to continually assess its purpose, as making a difference makes sure that we stay relevant. The purpose of business is not to make money or short-term games; it goes far beyond that, to a purpose or vision. By keeping this in mind and working to instill this as a value in your organization, a systemic leader gives their organization all the tools they need to thrive and survive for years to come.

Charismatic Leaders

One of the most important qualities for systemic leaders is charisma. However, as Dr. Senge puts it, “very few people know what the word charisma means.” You may think that charisma is about charm, persuasiveness, or even an ability to get what one wants, but this actually misses the mark.

“It’s actually a term that comes from the church: your care-isms are your gifts. So, ironically, to be charismatic is to be someone who has dedicated their life to developing their own gifts. It’s quite the opposite of the image we often have of the charismatic person” continues Dr. Senge. We all have unique gifts, something special that we bring to the table, and the charismatic leader cultivates these gifts in themselves and in others. They then offer those gifts to the world—after all, charisma comes from the same Greek roots as charity.


If wrapping your head around systemic leadership or the individual collective paradox seems like a daunting task, don’t fret—it is. The thing that we need to remember is that the problems that our communities, organizations, and our societies are facing are complex, multi-faceted, and systemic issues that cannot be solved with simplistic solutions. Remember, few things worth pursuing are easy. The greatest rewards to come us when we are willing to dive deep, to put in the work, and this is exactly the promise that systemic leadership is offering to you.

Are you excited to try systemic leadership for yourself? Do you want to be a charismatic leader who is capable of empowering individuals in the system and facilitate organizational learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments below! Plus, if you have any questions, if you want to learn more about how to enact these strategies in your organization, or if you just want to say hi, please reach out to me via “contact” in the menu on the top right of this page.

If you would like to see the full conversation I had with dr. Peter Senge, you can enroll in my online school and access the video recordings and MP3 audio files of the Systemic Leadership Summit 2019, which ran from January 13-20, 2019. The Systemic Leadership Summit 2019 is available in my online school Lead Living Human Systems.