Leadership for Living Systems: Purpose, Participation, and Feedback

By Devin Vodicka

Given the dynamism and agency that is inherent in living systems, influence can be exerted from anywhere and at any time.  In Learner-Centered Leadership I shared how this view reframes leadership from a role or title to how we exert influence through our relationships.  At the heart of this influence is relational trust which requires consistency, compassion, competence, and communication.  With this mindset, each of us can be servant leaders and in my experience some of the most impactful leaders in education have been custodians, office staff members, food service workers, parent volunteers, and students.  Each of these cases reinforces the idea that formal authority is not a requirement for leadership. 

Many of our management systems, including hierarchical reporting and well-defined roles with external accountability in the form of performance evaluations, are rooted in a mechanistic mindset.  The mechanistic view of inert parts is always fighting against the second law of thermodynamics within which entropy degrades performance over time.  Examples of that phenomenon are the buildup of rust which requires an outside agent to apply treatments so that gears can remain in motion.  

Living systems have different needs and the “actors” within a living system have the agency to influence themselves and their environment.  

Living beings develop in their maturity which influences the development of living systems.  Covey describes a “maturity continuum” within which we move from dependence → independence → interdependence.  An example is the dependence of an infant on their family for basic needs such as food and shelter, a teenager who seeks to exert their independence (often in the form of rebelling or resisting authority), and an interdependent adult who has created their own unique family structure by choosing a life partner.  

So while a mechanistic view requires outside activation to continue functioning, in a living system the goal is to promote developmental maturity that promotes movement towards interdependence. Therefore leadership is about being in service to promoting the development of others.  While this does require a combination of feedback, including addressing the “shadows” directly, for the most part this growth does not occur through directives.  When we think about our own powerful learning experiences, they seldom occur when we are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.  

Learner-Centered Leadership, Devin Vodicka 2020

Real growth and development requires the three elements of Learner-Centered Leadership: purpose, participation, and feedback.  A personal example for me would be my efforts to make the basketball team in high school.  As a kid I absolutely loved basketball and being on our junior high school team was a fabulous experience.  Unfortunately for me, I was very small, slow, and even in junior high I was one of the last players to get into a game and I mostly sat on the bench.  I was a late bloomer who didn’t really start to grow in stature until high school.  At the end of 8th grade I was not yet five feet tall. 

As a 9th grader I started to get taller and I tried out for the freshman team at our high school. The last spot on the team came down to me and one other player and on the last day of tryouts I was the final cut.  It was heartbreaking for me but I was determined that it wouldn’t happen again.  I offered to be the team manager and I showed up at every practice, went to every game where I kept score and tracked stats to share with the coach, and I devoted myself to being a better player.  One day the coach mentioned that our team didn’t have many great shooters and I realized that I could spend the practice time by myself perfecting my outside shot.  I spent hours and hours working to get better and by the middle of the season the coach asked me to join the practices with the team.  I continued to improve and by the end of the year the coach told me that he had made a mistake by leaving me off of the team.  

As a 10th grader I achieved my goal of making the JV team.  While it probably helped that I had grown to be over six feet tall, my greatest strength was my outside shot and I became the team’s three-point specialist.  Basically that meant that I was sent in at the end of a quarter to launch a deep shot if needed.  Even though I didn’t play much, I had an immense sense of satisfaction in making the team and felt like my hard work had helped me to achieve my goal.  

In this example, my purpose was to make the basketball team.  While I improved through individual practice, the participants in my journey included not only myself, but the coach and the other players who helped me to improve.  I received feedback along the way, sometimes difficult to receive (such as when I learned I had been cut from the freshman team) and other times affirming (such as when the coach started to include me in the team practices).  

When we recall powerful growth experiences in our lives it is not hard to identify our purpose, participants, and feedback.  We can think about these three elements at the individual and at the collective level and it is at the collective level where leadership occurs.

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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