It has been widely said that, “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing.” Stephen Covey tied a more vivid picture to the concept when he observed, “management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” It is the ability to know “the right things” among all that might be done that sets leaders apart. This involves vision – vision that enables the leader to see the right things.
The view of a leader must be a systems view. It isn’t possible to catch a vision from some narrow perspective. The leader must see things in context, understand how they relate, see where the boundaries lie and understand what is and is not within the span of the influence of the group. Often a vision is more than a picture of existing reality. The leader must “dream” using imagination to reach beyond the status quo to a better solution. Robert Kennedy put the leader’s task into words: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’” The ability to dream that dream and ask “why not?” is particularly crucial to those involved in problem solving.
Sometimes the leader must create the vision – “dream of things that never were.” This draws on imagination and creativity. But most often, the more effective path is the one traveled by the leader who can draw on the synergy of group creativity and insight to be found in groups. Instead of assuming the responsibility for creating the vision this leader elicits it from the group, drawing them into the crafting of solutions and not just the process of executing the leader’s vision. This is the most common path for the systems engineer who would lead a design team.
But seeing the vision is not the end for a successful leader. A leader’s vision enables the leader to see the right thing – to know whether the ladder leans against the “right wall.” But it also allows the leader to “cast” the vision for others. The leader must not only see the vision but she needs to be able to make the vision live for others who would follow her. It is the singular responsibility of the leader to feed and nurture the vision in the sight of others. That becomes the engine that pulls the group forward along a unified path to progress. The vision must live in the minds of the group and the leader must sustain it over time. This enables the group to keep moving from what is to what can be.
Moving from the current reality always involves change and change is always difficult – even when the destination is clearly a better one. Change means conflict and conflict fuels change. But conflict can be dangerous in a group. Unmanaged (or unartfully managed) conflict can be destructive. It can tear at the fabric of the team and hinder or even stop the progress toward solving the problems facing the group.
What does all this mean for system engineers? The world of designing system solutions means that the existing system (or lack thereof) becomes the “as-is” and the vision of the “to-be” is the solution under design. To lead the design from the former to the latter requires the leader’s system view. System engineers are those people on the team uniquely positioned to have that view. They are not confined to the narrower view of some subspecialty but are specifically charged to see in systems and subsystems, in systems of systems and families of systems. So systems engineers begin in the natural position for leadership. They are first to catch and own the vision.
Where must systems engineers who want to lead effectively go from here? To find out, join us next week for the second installment of this article.