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How do your values impact how you lead?

January 30, 2013

By Mark Hannum

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage Principal Consultant Mark Hannum. He admits the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts to be useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series—Ed.

compassThe quest to find my place in the world took all sorts of forms. And a CEO I worked for early in my career loved watching me go through the pain of it all. In my worst moments, he would ask me where I went to college. When I replied, “Bucknell” he would always respond the same way, “Good school, what happened to you?” We must have repeated that little ritual 30 or 40 times. I always thought that might have been the reason why the entire management team went to MIT to learn systems dynamics and why I got sent to Dartmouth. I was being punished.

In any case, I didn’t protest and soldiered my way up to Hanover, New Hampshire, three times a week for four months. My supposed mission was to take a systems dynamics course and evaluate it for our larger corporate audience.

On day one of the course, in walks a tiny woman with a Slinky. Yes, the toy. No introductions. No syllabus. No lecture. She holds the slinky in her hand, turns her hand over, and lets the slinky go to bounce up and down endlessly.

“Why does it do that,” she asks? And a roomful of grade chasers jump to answer the question. And one by one she tells each student they are wrong. No one, she summarizes, understands that the key to understanding the Slinky’s behavior is in its structure. She was illustrating the core tenet of systems—behavior is a function of structure. The grade chasers groaned.

The tiny woman was Donella Meadows—one of the foremost environmental scientists of the 20th century, author of the book that gave birth to the sustainability movement and our understanding of global warming, teacher, farmer, and one of the most advanced thinkers in the domain of systems dynamics in the world. Without my knowledge or consent, I’d just stepped onto a roller coaster of a different kind. “What structure,” she asked each of us, “governs your behavior?”

As Donella illustrated with her Slinky, structure may be the least obvious part of a system, but its function or its purpose is the most crucial determinant of behavior. What is “Mark Hannum’s function or purpose?” she asked. My brain screamed “Hey lady, I didn’t come here to learn about me….I came here to learn systems dynamics.” Somehow she turned every lesson, every lecture, every demonstration into a personal exploration of who we were as people.

Donella never used the word “differentiate” as I had gotten used to with prior entanglements with systems thinking. Instead she took us in a different direction by talking about the importance of resilience—the ability to spring or bounce back into shape or position after being pressed, stressed, stretched, or hammered. She saw resilience as the measure of any system’s ability to survive, persist, and thrive in an ever-changing context.

She taught that systems thinkers are interested in the feedback between objects, not so much the objects themselves. She taught that resilience is a function of feedback in a system and that feedback is the system. Resilience arises from the network of feedback that works to restore a system around its balancing point or purpose. She also taught us about feedback loops that can help to restore or rebuild feedback loops. And even better than that, feedback loops that can learn, create, and even lead to increased resilience.

As time went on we learned why systems surprise us, and how they can trap us, and where we can find leverage and apply solutions. Not that finding leverage and applying solutions is all that interesting. Wouldn’t having the chance to actually form the system be much more interesting? Wouldn’t how you were forming, differentiating, and becoming resilient as a person or as a leader be much more interesting? How about questions such as: What governs our behavior? How do we become differentiated as a person or as a leader? How do we become resilient around that differentiation?

In Donella’s world, there’s a way to change a system to produce more of what we want and less of what we don’t. There is a taxonomy of leverage. And perhaps the highest form of leverage we have in human systems are our values. Strong values transcend all other forms of leverage in a human system. “Mark, what are your values?” she’d ask. “What is the source of your resilience?”

As a philosophy major at Bucknell, I’d spent four years abstracting the concept of values through Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Kant all the way through to Sartre and Heidegger. But I’d honestly not given “values” the kind of thought that Donella was challenging me undertake. And it wasn’t a process that I could complete in a four month long semester. Fortunately, Donella became a friend and a mentor. She engaged with me on my quest to find my values. As we talked, and talked, and talked, I learned, and grew, and found my values. And I’ve not be the same since. Tune in next week to learn more about the power of finding and living a values-based life.

Feedback:
If you don’t know what your values are you’ll never be the leader you want to be. So let’s hear it. What are your values and how do your values impact how you lead?

More about Mark:
Mark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.

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