The Role of History, Empathy, Action, and Leadership in Systems Change
By Jennifer Lyn Simpson
This article is excerpted from the KOAN method: Breakthrough Leadership for a Divided World, the newly released book by Integrated Work owner and CEO Jennifer Lyn Simpson.
Organizations, systems, and communities have legacies that can keep us mired in old patterns. The HEAL mantra helps us explore the past with curiosity and care so that we can build a better tomorrow.
While anyone who leads can leverage a mantra to cultivate environments that move people out of survival mode and into their most resourced and creative selves, those who are moving the needle on our biggest challenges and trying to lead transformation at scale must know how to help systems HEAL.
This means being able to connect with people at a level sufficient to acknowledge often messy, complicated, and even ugly truths about our history without getting mired in them.
It requires us to affirm those lived experiences and work to have real empathy for the lasting effects of the past.
That means we need to always be actively cultivating the practices that allow us to be sufficiently resourced to think creatively together so that we can come up with meaningful, situation-specific solutions and take action.
Here’s a look at each element of the HEAL mantra:
- HISTORY – What paths have we walked (personally, organizationally) to arrive here?
- Who has benefited? Who has been harmed? What more is there for me to learn? How can I connect?
- EMPATHY – How can we cultivate caring curiosity in the face of stories and experiences different from our own?
- Are there things we need to mourn or grieve? Are there things to celebrate? How can I affirm the collective experience?
- ACTION – Knowing what we now know, what new steps can we see to take?
- What meaningful actions can we take in service of a better tomorrow? How will we resource ourselves for the journey?
- LEADERSHIP – What qualities will be needed to get us where we want to go?
- What paths will this leader have walked? What resources or support will they need? How can I empower their contribution?
Transforming Communities and Systems
History isn’t always easy to look at. In a world where information was scarce, history tended to be told by the victors and was often rewritten as power and influence shifted. Today, information is everywhere and the tools we have for piecing together the past are beyond impressive, but most of what we find will challenge the narrative that many of us have held as truth.
Our experience of a divided world is, in part, caused by trying to elevate any one of those stories to supremacy. Recognizing that we each have only a small piece of the puzzle, we can relax our identity defenses and allow connection with each other at a level sufficient to cultivate real empathy.
Empathy can arise when we are able to stay in the discomfort of not knowing and shift to inquiry, allowing us to learn things that challenge some portion of an idea we hold dear.
Notice what there is to learn from those who have walked a different path. How does enlarging our understanding and making room for a bigger story make us feel? As leaders, how do we make space for grief or invite celebration? Can we sit with one another in feelings of sadness, anger, and joy?
Getting into Action looks and feels different from this place of connection and empathy. From here we can explore how to forge a future that is both aware of where we’ve been and rooted in commitments to building a better tomorrow.
In the face of new insight, or as potential solutions begin to emerge, it can be tempting to react impulsively, but the attention we’ve paid to history and the work we’ve done to cultivate empathy can help us avoid knee-jerk responses that might create new and unintended harms. This is where the ability to build caring containers for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences becomes critical as we consider whose voices ought to be included and whose experiences there are to learn from. Albert Einstein is widely quoted as having said that one can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them. It’s at this inflection point where we get to choose connection over division.
The choice to implement quick-fix solutions almost always paves the road to division and discontent, as some interests “win” at the expense of others. The path to breakthrough, on the other hand, is best carved by leaders who are able to look at the landscape from all angles and who bring diverse viewpoints and perspectives together to co-create mutually-thriving futures.
Leadership can take many forms. Sometimes it means leading from the front, being bold, and setting direction. Sometimes it means being the one who can listen quietly, taking it all in, hearing possibilities in the gaps, and offering just the right question or observation to shift collective thinking.
At systems-scale, cultivating empowerment and building momentum in the direction of a different future requires leadership to overcome the inertia of systems whose very reason for being is to endure. And, in a world that is at once as distributed and as connected as ours, no one person can hold all the cards or have all the answers.
Interested in more mantras to help reflect on your leadership journey? The KOAN method is full of powerful examples and tools to inspire you to be the leader our world needs to solve our most complex challenges.