The ethics of systems leadership

When you consult to a system who is your client? How do you know if you are doing the right thing? What constitutes doing good here and who decides?

These questions are often asked. By definition the situation is complex with multiple organisations and individuals with differing, sometimes over-lapping, sometimes competing interests all at play. What is happening is viewed through the lens of each participant’s position and history. This filters perceptions of what you should be doing, what is correct and what is needed. You cannot please everyone all the time. Some, may be all, will question what you are doing or criticise your approach.

So what should you do?

Francisco Varela in his lectures in Bologna drew the distinction between a detached, critical morality based on prescriptive principles and pursuing an active and engaged ethics based on a tradition that identifies the good. There is a difference between a reflexive action, changing the mood of a conversation through a comment or smile just because it feels to be going in an unhelpful way and a deliberate one such as considered reflection on events.

Both are helpful, both are valuable, but we tend to focus more on the latter, and develop the skills for such ‘process’ rather than trust our innate wisdom and go with what ‘feels’ to be right.

So when we are in a messy environment, I draw from Varela the encouragement to do what feels right. In trying to satisfy any particular client interest I am by definition taking sides. In trusting my gut response, what feels the right thing to do, I know that whatever happens, I have acted ethically. If you try to satisfy whomever you perceive to be the client, you tie your self in loops, second guessing, chasing the right thing as it morphs in front of you.

This may not make you popular, it may end your engagement, but it means you can live with yourself. And more often than not it takes you into exactly the right place, unlocks similar ethical honesty in others and leads to the breakthrough everyone was searching for.

That is why I read Varela, and commend these lectures to you.