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Systemic leadership: a must for organisational transformation

In this blog Philippe Bailleur and I aim to build upon our previous blogs about Systemic Leadership, particularly the last blog. In our work with organisations we meet leaders who can roughly be divided into four types. Through the years we have discovered that theoretically built models have been developed based on this observation. That allows us to write this blog with firm conviction. Literature uses various labels for these types of leadership. In this article we chose for respectively:

  1. Destructive leadership There are leaders who are barely or not capable of sustaining their organisation (or the part of the organisation they are responsible for). If they do succeed, there is significant human damage and lots of ‘waste’ as it’s called in lean terminology. We still come across these managers too often and usually in organisations that haven’t reached a highly competitive market yet.
  2. Reactive leadership There are leaders who are capable of keeping their organisation stable, but only when the situation remains stable too. Change results in tension within these leaders and thus in the organisation. This type of leadership works perfectly in stable environments, but when change is necessary things begin to get rocky.
  3. Creative leadership There are leaders who are capable of constantly improving existing organisations, finetuning them to the changes in the market. They do this in an inspiring way. These leaders are already excellent at their jobs.
  4. Systemic leadership There are leaders who are capable of transforming an organisation and let it grow beyond its existing form. These leaders are in great demand and it requires a great deal to evolve to this point.

An increasing number of organisations is becoming stuck because their leadership hasn’t evolved to the point of systemic leadership. Furthermore, we know that organisations cannot grow beyond the level of the leader(s). This had been researched and proven before. Organisations that wish to survive in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) must be capable of transformation. Systemic leadership is a necessary condition for this ability to transform.

Because we’ve trained and coached countless leaders towards systemic leadership throughout the years, we’ve learnt step by step what the biggest themes are that have to be worked on to reach that level. Moreover, we constantly see these themes reflected in ourselves. You can also read about this in our previous articles on this website. Following our previous blog we will continue our discussion of the theme transference, a crucial theme in the development of systemic leadership.

Transference evokes countertransference

A disproportionate, emotional response from an employee (one that doesn’t match the actual situation in character or intensity) is usually a signal that transference is at work. Often the employee in question is no longer capable of responding from a mature perspective. The appeal of such an emotion is strong: it feels like you’re being sucked into something. When you, as a leader, don’t realise that this is transference at work (and thus has to do with the employee’s own past) you’ll probably react instinctively. This response to transference is called countertransference and is rarely effective…

Systemic leadership means that you, as a leader, learn to deal with this in a more effective way, namely as follows:

  1. you learn to feel and signal what happens in your body (because you’re connected to your body);
  2. you recognise your ‘first instinctive move’ in certain situations of transference (because you can transcend your impulses)
  3. you can slow down and not react according to your first instinct (because you can contain your impulses, complex emotions and tension)
  4. you choose your response, resulting in options when you find yourself in situations of transference!

It requires willingness from a leader to look inwards and first learn to recognise his own patterns of transference. Questions that can help are:

  • For which triggers am I personally (more) sensitive as a result of my past and experiences?
  • Which transference do I evoke in other people?

How do I recognise transference in employees? Read our previous article Transference: you’re in it before you know

  • How do I respond to transference, without responding with countertransference?

The previously mentioned forms of leadership vs. transference

It speaks for itself that this level of self-reflection isn’t present in the category of destructive and reactive leadership. These leaders often respond impulsively and therefore inhibit development and growth.

In the category of creative leadership you may expect leaders to at least have more insight in their first impulses. However, their self-image is regularly formed by their qualities and there are blind spots when it comes to their ‘shadow sides’. As a result they often only listen to what fits into that positive picture. Creative leaders are often great managers, but usually don’t possess enough transformational power. They are not yet sufficiently in contact with their blind sports and less inclined to request feedback, especially when it might be a threat to their self-image.

Systemic leaders have taken the effort to embrace their blind spots and ‘shadow sides’. They see patterns of transference (also their own) as opportunities to grow and are aware of their instinctive responses to certain situations. They are able to distinguish between what is theirs and what belongs to the other and claim ownership for their part. This has enabled them to react effectively in situations of transference with their employees.

Why is this theme important in the context of leadership development?

Hierarchical work relationships always evoke transference and this becomes stronger when the leader emphasises his authority or when organisations follow a strict hierarchical form;

  • But also when leaders ‘don’t respond’; think of the trend towards more self-regulation. This creates a kind of vacuum that becomes filled with all types of negative projections or fabrications towards the manager, but also between colleagues;
  • Tense situations, such as assessment interviews or crucial projects, also make people more sensitive to transference. When people feel less safe, the door opens for transference and countertransference. Concrete examples are reorganisations, mergers or large change processes.

That’s why systemic leadership is crucial in order to guide organisations through transformations. Complex emotions are triggered and it’s like a pinball machine full of incentives that can lead to transference and countertransference. If this isn’t dealt with properly organisations can stagnate in the undercurrent  …

A concluding example

We’d love to illustrate this last point with an example.

Bart grew up in a family where ‘not settling for anything less than the best’ was the standard. His parents decided what was best for him. Bart went on to study business administration at university because his parents felt he shouldn’t settle for anything less after doing fantastically at secondary school. He would have preferred to become a primary school teacher, but oh well… Bart’s manager Annelies lets him do his own thing, which is difficult for Bart. It makes him insecure – he isn’t used to making his own decisions. So he visits Annelies at least several times a day to ask for advice or reassurance. Annelies recognises Bart’s dependant behaviour and is also convinced of his abilities. That’s why she returns the decision and responsibility to Bart again and again, who becomes increasingly angry. Finally the bomb goes off: “You’re the manager here!”, Bart shouts. He expects Annelies to tell him what to do. He counts on Annelies’ authority and guidance, just like his parents used to give him.

How can a leader deal with this effectively?

  1. Accept transference In the example above Annelies can choose to give Bart what he asks for: acknowledgement and guidance. This might be effective for a while, for example in a starting period to make him feel at home. In the long run it doesn’t contribute to Bart’s development. It can even be counterproductive is Annelies continues this strategy for too long, because Bart will feel ‘small’, just like he used to at home.
  2. Refuse transference Annelies doesn’t respond to Bart’s appeal and makes it clear that she’s not his mother. Maybe not in so many words, but by making the pattern visible. For example, Annelies can point out Bart’s behaviour, without judgement. She can also tell him what his behaviour evokes in her. Bart will then gain insight in his pattern and the transparency needed to discuss mutual expectations and responsibilities can develop.
  3. Frustrate transference By giving an opposite response than requested. In the example above that is what happens: Annelies constantly provides unsatisfying answers or lets Bart run around in circles. Her goal is to stimulate his autonomy and ‘force’ him to make independent decisions and take initiative. If Annelies chooses this option it’s a good idea to pick a suitable moment to explain why she does this. In the end it isn’t the goal to frustrate Bart forever!


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