Leading Systems Change from WithIn

The 4 Leadership Identities

What do we, as leaders, do differently to remake organizations and systems to perpetuate justice and inclusion rather than reinforce separation and discrimination?   

The WithIn Collaborative partners deeply with leaders and institutions who want to move beyond aspiring to racial equity in systems to actively working to achieve it.  Stepping into the work of changing systems is not just an additional set of activities and strategies; it is also a dramatic and intentional shift in how you show up in your own leadership.   

Some background 

In our early work together, we believed that the secret sauce to changing systems was an intentional mashup of people and tools. In our book, Leading Systems Change, we offered a literal recipe1 for supporting groups of leaders to come to know one another across their differences and to begin to co-create a path to a different future together. 

And this is a very different moment for those who intend to remake the world. After years of pandemic and racial reckoning, leaders are carefully managing their time, energy and patience. We believe that the fatigue and impatience we witness emerges equally from the years of loss, overwork and fear as it does from the frustration that the return to “normal” also includes a quick return to the inequities our institutional systems excel at producing.

The 4 Identities of Systems Leadership 

Today, WithIn continues to partner with leaders and communities to remake broken and racist systems. We strive to do that by supporting leaders to navigate the multiple systems they are in; their own internal systems, the networks and organizations that are the containers for their work, and the communities we all strive to serve. 

And, we want to make sure the tools and frameworks we offer do not imply that leaders are deficient or inefficient. Today, leaders do not need to be told to learn more, do more and be more in order to successfully launch change efforts.  Rather, our support should elevate the intuition, wisdom and relationships leaders already embody so that they are empowered to drive the work of systems change without delay or additional expertise. 

To that end, we have a new invitation to those remaking the world. We invite leaders to embody identities core to the work of systems change. The four identities we align with the work of leading systems are COACH, ANTI-RACIST, SYSTEM THINKER and DESIGNER. No doubt, there are others but these identities consistently emerge in our work with leaders and ourselves. 

The use of the word identity is deliberate. While not all of our social identities are elective, many are. We can choose to identify as a runner or as a spiritual human regardless of whether we run daily or align with any particular spiritual practice. We are playing with the idea that claiming an identity allows a freedom to adapt and adopt a set of intentional behaviors on the path to making change. 

And the shift we are making as consulting partners is from teaching to acknowledgement. We want to recognize the ways in which a leader already IS a coach, anti-racist, system thinker or designer and then invite them to expand their exploration and experimentation. Yes, there is always more to learn but true embrace and courage is more likely to emerge when you already see yourself as embodying your future self. 

We offer these identities for your consideration and feedback.

The 4 Leadership Identities

A COACH embodies curiosity, compassion and courage, and believes in the inherent power and wisdom that people possess to initiate bold, creative solutions. To inhabit the COACH identity, a leader is able to:

  • Invite our full humanity in order to cultivate authentic partnerships.
  • Promote awareness, alignment, choice and multiple ways of knowing.
  • Center resourcefulness and creativity in one’s self and others in service of dreaming all that’s possible.
  • Unlearn dominant culture norms that inhibit connection and tell us we are “not enough”.

A ANTI-RACIST sees, names, and disrupts racist actions, ideas and policies. To inhabit the ANTI-RACIST identity, a leader is able to:

  • Disrupt white supremacy in all of our systems and relationships.
  • Own our biases, our impact on others, and how we perpetuate systemic oppression.
  • Seek awareness of legacies of historical oppression and multi-generational trauma.
  • Practice compassion for self and others.

A DESIGNER is relentlessly curious about why their fellow humans do what they do in the face of roadblocks or uncertainty before beginning to explore and test new ways of being and creating. To inhabit the DESIGNER identity, a leader is able to:

  • Deepen understanding from engaging people and the world.
  • Learn and advance by doing, not just planning.
  • Work from curiosity and exploration; let go of the need to be the expert.
  • Deliberate on the questions as well as the answers.

A SYSTEMS THINKER is perceptive to how things are connected and seeks particularly to see their place in relationship to others. To inhabit the SYSTEMS THINKER identity, a leader is able to:

  • Seek awareness of your place in the system and how that relates to others.
  • Understand what you are best positioned to change
  • Make visible where power + inequities exist.
  • Align with others on what the system looks like + what needs to change to bring about a different future.

  1. 1. The recipe as told in our book, Leading Systems Change, which was written in partnership with Heather McLeod Grant of Open Impact:
    • Get the system in the room. Systems only change when all those who are impacted by them are connected and supported to be in deep relationships and move forward together.
    • Support the work of personal transformation but in community. To be impactful, leaders must understand their motivations, values, and challenges — and feel supported to show up bravely. Leaders must amplify their ability to be in a trusted relationship with others across race, gender, geography, sectors, history and life experience.
    • Provide structure and support for collaboration. Most leaders struggle for the time and space for creativity and reflection. Any change effort has to support time away from the day to day.
    • Teach leaders a mashup of tools and practices. There is no one discipline that can support a leader through the dynamic messiness of systems change work. Rather, we looked to learn and teach tools that would support leaders to traverse different elevations on the challenges they faced.