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System Vs. Individual? 5 Steps For A Better Way Forward For Refreshing Leaders

Kate Brassington brings the nervous system to life for leaders, and anyone under pressure. She published academic research in 2020, regularly blogs about this emerging field, and is the host of the Refreshing Leadership podcast.

 
Executive Contributor Kate Brassington

Why is it that so often it seems that individuals are blamed for being both the problem and the solution? Or that individuals seem to be pitted against the system? There is a huge power in any system, and we can learn better ways to work with it, not against it. This article aims to bring applied Systems Theory to life for a refreshing approach for leaders who are looking to tap into collective wisdoms, knowledge, and energies, to drive forward change for the better, produce business results, and to create great places to work.


Lego city on table

Individuals, collectives, and systems

An individual has a body and a mind. A collective does too. Its “body” is the societies, structures, and scaffolding that give it shape and identity. Its “mind” is its culture. (More on this Multidimensional Framework theory by Lomas et. al., 2014 below.) Systems Theory in Psychology suggests that individuals in groups/collectives/organisations are parts of a complex relationship “system”. 

 

Thinking at the level of the System (not the individual) is powerful. Here are some results from my coaching practice:

 

The couple that finally build a strong relationship that is unrelated to whether or not they stay together, avoiding further damage to each other or the children. 

 

The team that goes from a burn-out and dry-out culture, to a place where people love to work and staff retention is high (keeping recruiting costs low).

 

The senior leader who makes minor changes and totally shifts the environment for the rest of the team. Creating a supportive, rather than destructive atmosphere.

 

Ready to dive in? Let’s begin!

 

The power of a system

We all are told that dream work makes the team work, suggesting that a shared goal/dream is a key component to team success. Harmony in Teamwork is essential for this (which involves being able to solve conflicts and really get down to working together. For a great article on this by Esther Aluko, click here). 

 

But what if all this teamwork actually allows us to access a wisdom greater than the sum of our Parts? You can tap into this “third entity” (team, company, group of any kind. In this analogy I’m going to use the work company).

 

Think of it as if the company had a body and a voice, and you invited it to your next meeting. 

 

Because it sees the bigger picture, it is less likely to be bogged down in details and drama, and instead more likely to rise above daily tasks and grinds, drawing attention to what is needed to emerge. 

 

This wisdom is coming directly from the energy of the System. Listening and responding may be easier than you think.

 

The history of systems theory in psychology

A strong criticism of mainstream psychology over the last century or so, is that there has been too much emphasis on the individual. Individuals, it seems, are both the problem, AND the solution to problems! This fails to acknowledge that no individual operates in a vacuum. 

 

Modern theories, such as “Vantage Sensitivity” (de Villiers et.al., 2018) from the field of Social Psychiatry counter this individual-centric view. Instead it suggests that the human ability to rapidly sense into and respond to the environment developed as an evolutionary advantage that remains to this day.

 

The fields of Sociology and Organisational Psychology also embrace the idea that societies (groupings of individuals for a common purpose) are made of complex adaptive systems (e.g. Luhman, 1995). We know a system because it will have differentiated itself from the environment by holding and regulating boundaries. 

 

Even your family relationships are a complex and adaptive system! Early researchers such as Murray Bowen proposed Family Systems Theory back in 1978, and it remains a cornerstone of couple and family counselling to this day (for a great article on this by Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D. in Psychology Today click here).

 

Researchers in Positive Psychology (the study of what is “right” with you) grapple with how best to shift this focus away from the individual, towards a balanced view of the systems, environments, and complex networks that we all are within. My favourite is the Layered Integrated Framework Example (LIFE) Model (Lomas et.al., 2014) that maps out the multidimensional layers, from individual to global for both individuals and collectives. I used this framework in my research (first published in 2020) and simplify it for daily use like this: 

 

Individual

Collective

Mind (how individual thinks about itself)

Culture (how the group thinks about itself)

Body (structure containing the individual)

Society (structures that scaffold the group)

 

So it is no surprise that the fields of Leadership training and coaching have leaned into these evidence bases too, with organisations such as NHS UK evolving Systems Leadership approaches and interventions. 

 

Systems-inspired real-life leadership: 5 steps for refreshing leaders

OK that’s enough background and theory (can you tell I love this stuff?)! Here are 5 Steps to get to know the systems you are in and be on your way to becoming a Systems-Inspired Leader:

 

1. Get to know your systems 

Look around you at all the groups (collectives) you have been, or still are, part of. Grab pens and paper and draw them, or model them in Bricks, or sand, or draw on a whiteboard. (For some awesome research on coaching with bricks read this paper by Quinn et. al., 2021.) Starting with the smallest groups you are in, map out the systems you are part of - romantic partner, family, extended family, hometown, school, college, workplace, organisations, geographical region, country… and so on, right out to the world! You have just mapped the collectives you are in. What do you notice about the structures (boundaries and scaffolds) in each? What do you notice about the cultures in each (how these groups think about themselves)?

 

2. Get to know yourself

Grab a fresh piece of paper and map yourself out just like you did in step 1, but this time just for you. Note the structures of your body, what it needs to function, what makes it distinct. Then notice your mind. What voices are familiar in there? In what ways do you think? Notice where and how you are influenced by the Societies and Cultures you are within (from your work in Step 1). Notice where you are aligned and comfortable, or experience friction and difference.

 

3. Get to know the voice of the system you are leading

How to tap into the wisdom of the System is surprisingly simple, says Marita Fridjhon (Systems Inspired Leadership Coach). Open your mind, and imagine a new person coming to join your team (or company, or family etc) at the next planning meeting. Except they are a person with a difference. They are the company (or team, or group). They are an entity, and you simply imagine them as a person. Grab the drawing, models, or whatever you made in step 1, and place it at a seat at the table. You can now begin to connect with the third entity of the System. Get to know it! It is a powerfully reflective exercise where you suddenly get to hear the “voice” of the company rather than your own agenda(s). 

 

4. Ask powerful, open, questions

Let go of what you think you want. Instead ask questions like “What does (insert name of the group) see that we don’t?”; “What is missing” or “What needs to emerge next”. Get comfortable with provoking a thoughtful silence in the room. Because this is not about individual agendas or ideas, but about collectives coming together for something bigger (and I hope, better). It is outside what you think you “know”. We must listen more deeply to hear it. The answers are sometimes surprising. And always refreshing.

 

5. Hang out with other thinkers

Often these conversations are more powerful when we have an impartial listener to speak to. This is where the world of coaching has so much to offer. Because so often in modern life we have neither space to think, nor an impartial partner to think with! Yet magic happens when we talk out loud, in a relaxed and safe space. Our mind slows down and starts to observe its own thoughts, emotions, and drives. It makes connections. It makes sense of things in new and innovative ways compared to just being inside our heads. 

 

You can provide this for your team (whether you are a family leader, a solo-preneur, or a C-suite exec, and anything in between). But who provides this for you? 


I work 1:1 with people worldwide, a guide and companion as they explore these issues that have potential to make a real difference. Message me to explore how you can get professional coaching with me.

 

Trauma-informed leadership is systemic leadership

Being trauma-informed simply means we are aware of more than ourselves. We are tuned in to the “other”. We don’t assume. We are open, available, perceptive. To “see” the other person as a whole human. More than this, we see beyond the individual into the background systems that are acting on them. Discrimination, oppression, life stresses, traumatic experiences, wonderful experiences. It is Refreshing! 

 

Want to understand more about trauma, what it is and is not, and what it can mean to be a trauma-informed leader? Read my earlier article on Brainz. here.

 

You are the leader you are waiting for

Remember, when we talk about Refreshing Leaders, we're not just talking about those in traditional leadership positions. 

 

We're talking about leaders in all areas of life – in our communities, in our families, in groups. 

 

What defines a refreshing leader is something deeper, something that transcends titles and roles. It's about embodying qualities that bring about positive change while inspiring others to do the same. 

 

And it starts with you. 

 

Watch this space – Coming soon

I hang out on LinkdIn and Twitter / X, and host my podcast Refreshing Leadership, and my blog, on my website. You can contact me via the website to talk about coaching one-with-one for yourself or your team member, or to enquire about me speaking at your event in person or online. 

 

I’m working towards starting a Doctorate on trauma-informed leadership coaching next year. If your organisation would be interested in exploring partnering on this, get in touch! 

 

Through this year I’ll be publishing a series of articles with Brainz covering many aspects of Refreshing Leadership. Bookmark my profile on Brainz so you can read each article as they drop.

 

Please share this article, we need more trauma-informed leaders to make a better world together!

 

 

Kate Brassington, Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach

Kate Brassington is a Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach. Listed as one of the Top 10 professional coaches in Luxembourg by The For Better Institute, she coaches people all over the world from her attic zoom room. She helps leaders learn to withstand high pressure environments, while sustainably producing great results. Her mission is to ease suffering and get the fun back! 

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