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I have been studying systems thinking in my MBA class this semester and one of our recent sessions dealt with the relationship between adaptive leadership (a topic that forms the basis for an earlier unit in the MBA) and systems thinking. Quite clearly they are interrelated (the originator of adaptive leadership, Ronald Heifetz, is a systems thinker) and MBA students are expected to experience an ‘a-ha’ moment when completing this part of the course.

After class I gave some more thought to the connection between the two and had a go at mapping the core ideas of both. What follows is a simple model that I have put together containing common elements of Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s ‘adaptive leadership’ (Leadership on the Line) and Donella Meadows’ ‘systems thinking’ (Thinking in Systems, A Primer). I’ve grouped the elements into three distinct leadership phases for tackling an adaptive problem: empathise, ideate and intervene.

This three phase model aligns quite closely with the modern day practice of ‘design thinking’ (empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test) that has been adopted by many customer-centric technology companies (eg. Apple) as their overarching product/service development methodology.

The Adaptive Leadership and Systems Thinking Model

The Model (with explanation below):

adaptive leadership systems thinking model

Here’s my thinking with each phase:


In this phase, the leader adopts an open-minded ‘balcony’ view of the overall situation, allowing him/her to understand the machinations at play, without forming biased judgements or arriving at wrong conclusions as a result of being more fully immersed in the ‘mess’. The leader uses his/her emotional intelligence skills to build relationships with the myriad stakeholders and to understand the holistic and systemic challenges, without being tempted to jump in and react to problems that may seem to have a simple solution. During this phase, the leader needs to ‘listen to the song beneath the words’ and carefully look for forces that may not be immediately apparent: the hidden systems, the informal human networks, the ‘basic underlying assumptions’ (see Edgar Schein’s model of organisational culture) that often conceal the root cause of organisational problems. During this phase, the leader may seem ‘stand-offish’ to followers, who are often expectant of a more direct and interventionist approach from a leadership figure. The leader needs to resist the temptation to act prematurely and must remain neutral during this phase.


In this phase, the leader uses his/her strong interpersonal skills – particularly listening skills – to engage with the stakeholders, to collectively identify problems, and to formulate specific ideas about how they can be resolved. The stakeholders are made to feel comfortable through the establishment of a holding environment, a safe place, where they can openly share their views, problems and concerns. Complex issues are discussed, no topics or opinions are off limits, and all contributions are valued. This phase also sees the development of hypotheses, scenarios and potential courses of action, without any firm commitment to them as interventions. The ideate phase achieves ‘buy in’ from the team members as they are intimately involved in the process of diagnosing the problem and ideating for its resolution.


In this phase, the leader is responsible for targeting the leverage points and initiating educated interventions to resolve the problem(s), based on ideas formulated in the earlier phases.  The leader only enters this phase once he/she has a very detailed understanding of the situation, the systems at work, and the specific roles of the various actors. This is a difficult phase with the potential for conflict and loss for some stakeholders. The leader’s political savvy enables him/her to orchestrate the conflict and control the heat, whilst at the same time giving the work back to the team and providing a clear, visionary pathway out of the ‘mess’. Quite apart from assuming a dictatorial stance in this phase, the leader must remain grounded, continue to learn and never lose sight of the pursuit of goodness for the whole – only this way can sustainable change be effected.

Is it an appropriate ‘model’? In my eyes it is, but as we have learnt, models are inherently flawed and ‘fall far short of representing the real world fully’ (Meadows, p.103). It aligns broadly with the approach I take when starting a new managerial job and, whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a model that I will continue to apply in my leadership and managerial roles.


2 thoughts on “Empathise, Ideate and Intervene: A Model That Incorporates Adaptive Leadership and Systems Thinking”

  1. This is great stuff Clayton. Thanks for putting it together and sharing. Really enjoyed it.

    You may be interested in David Snowden’s work on complexity theory – his Cynefin framework would be quite useful to add to this synthesis as a way of helping in all three phases with developing understanding of context and therefore of the adaptive challenge at play.

    Here’s a link to a 2011 HBR article on the framework –

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