Created by Marc Chmielewski

Of Machines and Footballers

Both the content and delivery of our leadership training are consciously based on a systemic understanding of leadership and management.

By 'systemic' we mean the theoretical and practical approach formed from the union of (1) recent sociological systems theory (N. Luhmann et al), (2) constructivism (H.v. Foerster, P. Watzlawick, B.G. Bateson et al) and (3) process-oriented therapy and consulting (systemic family therapy, solution-oriented consulting etc.) which for some time now has become established in management and organisational theory.

We have chosen this approach because we assume that:

  • it currently represents the most powerful way to describe and interpret leadership and organisation in its increased degree of complexity and interdependence
  • it holds a store of ideas and perspectives that are best suited to meeting the main challenges of leadership today– creating meaning and orientation, organising communication and decision-making in an intelligent way, dealing with complexity, uncertainty and constant change
  • it offers a range of effective leadership tools and forms of intervention that can be used by leaders to adjust their leadership activity in a targeted and solution-focused way.

Taking a systemic view of leadership means
clearly disassociating yourself from
a traditional understanding of management and leadership.

The central elements of the systemic concept of leadership and management are seen most clearly in the differences from a traditional understanding of leadership and management. At the core of the traditional approach lies the familiar model of linear control that stems from technology and business management. Organisations, and thus the people who work in them, are viewed as controllable entities whose behaviour can be predicted in accordance with an input-output or cause-and-effect model. A leader is expected to arrive at a calculable result (output) by means of a certain input (such as precise planning of a task, clear instructions, unambiguous goal-setting or detailed mapping of a change process). If this result is not achieved, either the form of input is optimized ('better' instructions, 'more precise' goal-setting etc.) or the blame is placed on the people: the employee is incompetent, shows resistance or is quite simply the wrong person in the wrong place, or the leader is not charismatic, strong, assertive or goal-oriented enough.

In the traditional understanding of leadership, two schools of thought are combined:
(1) Organisations are more or less controllable 'machines' that can be regulated using laws of business management and technology and
(2) Successful leadership is primarily a matter of personality. This traditional understanding of leadership is mirrored in leaders’ excessive ‘heroic self-concept’ (R. Wimmer): the claim to have everything under control; frequent, direct control of tasks that have been delegated; a preference for directive intervention; blaming others and so on. It is easy to see the frequent cases of leaders feeling overwhelmed and 'burned out' as the direct result of this mechanistic, heroic leadership model.

The systemic approach is based on a fundamentally different concept of leadership.
As a leader in a company, you are dealing with living psycho-social systems. They are fundamentally different from machines. Essentially, living systems are largely controlled from within and their behaviour cannot be predicted and controlled by means of unambiguous cause-and-effect relationships. For this reason, communication within them works differently from technical communication. A given input does not always result in a predictable output; it often results in precisely the opposite, as every manager will testify. How someone reacts to a certain statement ("Bob, one of your objectives is to complete this project and so I expect …") depends totally on his specific patterns of perception and interpretation, his way of thinking, his current emotional state and so on. Or to put it another way, his own inner world and his way of constructing reality.

In a similar way, social systems, such as organisations, business units or cultures, operate autonomously and are internally controlled. They consist of individual acts of communication, which over the lifetime of a social system are condensed into communication patterns and rules and form shared mental models (values, beliefs, expectations etc.). Thus communication creates worlds beyond the individuals involved. Like all social systems, companies and corporate units develop their own patterns of thinking and communication, typical values and behaviours that influence the behaviour of managers and staff (often unconsciously) and at the same time create a lasting context that is not linked to individual people. This is referred to as 'social identity’: autonomous rules and structures enable an organisation to run and reproduce itself and at the same time distinguish it as an independent system, separate from its environment.

How a given Business Unit will react to a Board decision, for example, is not determined by the Board members but by the established mental model, the typical pattern of interpretation and behavioural routines in the Business Unit. Leaders in organisations are therefore always confronted with the paradoxical demand of taking on responsibility for the behaviour of complex systems that are largely self-governed, i.e. they cannot be controlled from outside using cause and effect. The appropriate metaphor for leadership is not the captain steering his ship through rough seas nor the charismatic, visionary saviour but more the coach of a soccer team.

He can neither score goals himself nor determine what each player does on the pitch at any given moment – quite the opposite: once the game gets going, it proceeds in a self-organised way within the framework of certain rules and with limited possibilities to influence it from outside. Therefore, a good coach will not attempt to control individual players or the game as a whole directly but will try to get the team to play together intelligently along agreed tactical lines. Using common agreed objectives and behavioural rules he creates a framework which guides each player. In other words, he organises self-organisation. The success of his leadership is never completely due to him alone but is always a joint effort. The team that manages to adapt and coordinate the behaviour of its members better and more quickly in constantly changing and uncertain situations is the team that wins – this may work best if the coach is in bed with flu.

The success factors of a winning team are therefore not to be found in a foolproof master plan or highly detailed milestone plans but in

  • a shared mental map (regarding goals, tactics and roles)
  • communication, including the ability to communicate continuously about non-functioning patterns of behaviour
  • role flexibility
  • the willingness to take on responsibility and take decisions
  • the feeling of being part of an attractive story told by the coach.

It is the task of leadership, using the factors listed above, to create a context in which the team can govern itself. Transferred to the Movendo Consulting approach, this means that we act as experts in the creation of consulting, learning and change processes and support our clients in developing the rules of the road that ensure lasting solutions in their particular context.


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