Perspectives: System and Self

In the Quiet Leadership research, before i wrote the book, i asked people about ‘kindness’, about how they think it ‘works’, about where it is ‘spent’, and at what ‘cost’. In general, people describe kindness as being an interpersonal force, more so than an Organisational one. It is deemed to be spent, between two people, more than in any other context. And valued as such.

Probably that is no great insight, that people are more likely to be perceived as kind than systems: kindness is, after all, a cohesive force more so than a purpose led one. And whilst kindness may not be an exclusively human trait, it is certainly one of our better ones.

The Quiet Leadership work is interesting, but potentially also misleading. It focuses on the ‘self’ in the system, and in ‘leadership in the smallest of actions’. In it’s conception, it’s probably hard to argue with it: it speaks of how we should act in small ways, as small as our actions to one other, but to do so with an awareness that all of us (even the good ones…), cast a shadow. It’s a pragmatic view of Organisations as being full of diverse people generally acting in what they perceive as the best ways, but without a universal calibration of what ‘best’ really means. It is, in other words, a very human story, with a hint of redemption.

The weakness is that it speaks of how we aggregate up, from ‘self’ into ‘system’. Indeed, we do so – this is really just a description of culture – but it may mislead in that there is an implicit assumption that ‘self’, plus ‘self’, plus ‘self’, will add up to a better system. Which may be true, but may not. Culture is, after all, a synergistic system, not an additive one. Each ‘self’ acts upon the other, but not in one direction, nor in a unified way.

I could argue that it’s the best we have: some systems are, on balance, ‘good’, even allowing for the fact that ‘good’ is largely, although not exclusively, a subjective judgement. So any action we take that is more likely to tip us towards ‘good’ is… well… good! But not deterministic, because social systems at scale exhibit peculiar behaviours. They do not ‘add up’ logically.

Individual behaviour is held within social norms and constructs of consequence and exclusion, which we learn (and also call ‘culture’). So people may change, but a system may not. Unless it fractures, or collapses, into a new Dominant Narrative, a new dialogue structure about how one may be ‘good within a system’.

The key forces acting upon this are probably aggregation (voices hearing each other and coalescing), prototyping (of new potential language and behaviour), and investment (people must, somehow, care). So for example, the Extinction Rebellion movement allowed people to come together (through social collaborative technology), to develop a language, art and ritual of protest (glueing themselves to things, climbing things), and an investment (of risk, or identity).

Perhaps that is the next aspect i should explore as i evolve this work: a different view, from the systems level. Perhaps the two converge somewhere down the line.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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