Systemizing Leadership

Systemizing Leadership

The mental model that I use with clients to both simplify and broaden their leadership focus.

How do you know if you’re doing a good job as a leader?

Is it about pure performance? How much do other people’s opinions on your effectiveness matter? Or is it just a gut feel thing on whether you’re doing well or not? Perhaps some combination of the bunch?

What then do we do when our gut tells us to do something that will adversely affect results in the short term? And what if our people think we should do something quite different?

I encounter leaders wrestling with these questions weekly. Many wishing for a clear, concise guidebook to light a simple path forward.

But leadership is inherently complex, incredibly nuanced. The job begins in forming simplicity from this chaos.

Mental models can be a friend here. Farnam Street defines a mental model gracefully with:

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

Some mental models we naturally apply to our life, often because we were taught and applied them growing up without even realizing we were doing so. Visit a casino and probabilistic thinking might kick in. Faced with a high-investment decision and opportunity costs comes into play.

Others mental models - like the one I'm about to show you - will take some practice to learn how to work with. Applied regularly it can reframe your entire leadership experience.

I - WE - IT

The most useful mental model for navigating the complexity of leadership that I have found is I - WE - IT, a simplified version of Ken Wilber's integral theory.  A way to consider all of the complexity of leadership and organization building into three unique perspectives.

  • The I is the perspective of the personal, the individual. This is you and this is that person over there. It includes our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives. The mindset, beliefs, and experiences that shape how you show up.
  • The WE is the perspective of the relational, the collective, the group. Relationships between people, teams, organizations, and communities. This includes your internal team, your board, your customers and any other stakeholders in the business. The WE is about connection through shared understanding and meaning.
  • The IT is the perspective of the impersonal. These are the systems being shaped by the I and the WE. There is a large span here from your business processes to the industries we disrupt to the world that we impact. It's the strategy, the tools, the finances, the workflows, and the tangible business results.

A System for Leadership

The I, WE, and IT model simplifies, but more importantly it frames leadership as a system. Each dimension interconnected. All three in an endless interplay with one another.

An example can help here...imagine that there is a shift in your strategy for the coming year (this is an IT perspective change). The change would need to be communicated to and ideally embraced by the team (WE perspective). And each individual will then have their own internal beliefs (the I perspective) form around the strategic shift.
Continuing further...that person's beliefs will reshape how they interact with others (WE) and ultimately drive the results (IT) of the new strategic direction. Those results will then shape the future of the organization (i.e. hiring, firing, morale, funding, acquisition, IPO, etc.).

Every decision made impacts throughout the system.

And so, viewing any decision through each of the three perspectives makes it a useful tool on its own. But the real power of I - WE - IT is in the macro-view. If company building is a system of three dimensions then the job of the leader becomes quite simple: make the system more efficient, more effective.

How to Notice and Improve an Inefficient System

Healthy organizations orient toward equal development across all three dimensions. One that lags means the entire system suffers.

Let me show you how...and as I do see if you can spot which dimension might be lagging for your team.

When the I and the WE overshadow the IT

Prioritization of the I and WE dimensions at the expense of the IT results in a kumbaya around the campfire organization. There's an unmistakable feeling of togetherness. Individuals are happy. There's a sense that what we're up to is important, meaningful. And yet, not much is getting done.

Process and structure are treated as inconveniences to be avoided. Any attempts at mandating them will be quickly dismissed, labelled as "bureaucratic" and antithetical to the good times we're having.

But an underdeveloped IT, means the good times won't last long. A lack of results and accountability makes the entire organization unsustainable. One of two paths are likely for the organization:

  1. The lack of results are never truly acknowledged. The organization experiences a slow, steady decline until one way or another (ex. fire sale, shutdown) it comes to an end.
  2. Attempts to remedy the lack of results focus on adding more resources - namely people. The kumbaya around the campfire gets more and more crowded. Chaos begins to reign without the structures to organize people. Both the I and WE dimensions begin to regress as feelings of community and purpose fade. Those who remember reminisce about the "good old days." They hint at a belief that the best days are now behind us.

If any of the above rings true, a few questions to consider for prioritizing the IT:

  • What is our mission? How do we aim to impact the world?
  • How might we develop structures and processes to support our mission AND honor our sense of togetherness and individuality?

How can we use our strong sense of I and WE to communicate about and refine new structures or processes that we try?

When the I and the IT overshadow the WE

Prioritization of the I and IT dimensions at the expense of the WE results in a "gotta get mine" culture. It's meritocracy on steroids with each individual oriented toward their own results. Other people and their ideas are seen as an inconvenience. Collaboration is rare. Rather, every decision feels like a pitch contest to be won.

The siloing of the organization is a clear sign that the WE has being under-prioritized. Humans have a natural hunger for community. When community is lacking, people create silos to have some semblance of a tribe. You'll see an "us vs. them" mentality sweep through the organization. This is weak, fractured culture.

Persistent communication challenges are another symptom of an undeveloped WE. Information isn't flowing. Who owns what is often unclear. The blame game ensues.

When the WE is underdeveloped, the system as a whole eventually is impacted. Individuals grow frustrated and disillusioned by infighting. Leaders in particular will suffer as they feel the internal pressure of disconnection build. Morale drops, the company's impact and results follow.

Questions to consider for organizations wanting to prioritize the WE:

  • Who are we? What makes us us? (These are just beginning to scratch the surface on clarifying your culture)
  • How might we prioritize connection between each other? What conversation could we have about this?
  • As a leader, how do I show up in relationships? How am I prioritizing what I want or what the company needs over the relationships themselves?

When the WE and the IT overshadow the I

Prioritization of the WE and IT at the expense of the I is a recipe for burnout. You fail to scale alongside the organization. The pressure builds. It feels there’s no choice but to put in more hours, more energy. The business takes over your life. You can sustain only so long.

When the I is underdeveloped, your mindset will show you. Read the following and consider which of Carol Dweck’s worlds you live in:

In one world (the world of fixed traits) success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other (the world of changing qualities) it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

Do you operate from a fixed or a growth mindset?

Most everyone who reads that question instantly presumes that - of course, I operate from a growth mindset. But do you really? Often the quick presumption rather than true reflection is proof that your ego is grasping at yet another way of “proving you’re smart or talented.”

It’s worth being honest here because the fixed mindset eventually catches up to you. You’ll become the bottleneck for the organization’s growth. Frustrated with your ineffectiveness, you’ll throw more energy and hours into the work to compensate. The additional effort might momentarily mask the problem, but the same problems will trip you up again and again. You’ll give more and more for the work and for the team. You defer living the life you want to a future time once you've “done” enough. This is the dark side of hustle culture: convincing ourselves that self-sacrifice is ok, even a necessary part of building a company.

But a leader can grind only so long before burnout. When they do, both the business (IT) and the people (WE) are left rudderless.

Questions to consider for prioritizing the I:

  • What mindset do I operate from? How can I try on a growth mindset right now? What is there here to learn?
  • How might I identify my own blindspots so I can improve upon them?
  • What is my personal vision for myself and my leadership? What is the gap from where I am to where I want to be?
  • What am I feeling right now? Even as I read these words, what story am I telling myself about who I am or how I need to be?


Each of the above three scenarios are quite common. And there's also one more - especially common in high-growth startups - to be aware of: when the IT overshadows both the I and WE. The business' success becomes paramount to all else. Any negative impact to individuals (the I) or the collective (the WE) becomes seen as perhaps unfortunate, but necessary.

The result is an obsessively outcome-focused, corporate, bureaucratic workplace. It's business at the expense of people. Not a business worth building. There's no soul in the IT alone.

Efficient Systems, Healthy Organizations

I - WE - IT not only helps you identify weaknesses in the system but also the leadership path for addressing inefficiencies:

  • Develop the I through commitment to inner growth; challenging long-held beliefs; making the unconscious more conscious; and taking personal responsibility for change.
  • Develop the WE through culture building; creating time for connection; clarifying who we are and why we’re here; and reinforcing the values that you all shared.
  • Develop the IT through identifying support structures needed; experimenting with new processes; solidifying those that serve;  and accepting responsibility for the organization’s total impact in the world.

By creating a more efficient system you create a healthier company. Patrick Lencioni's case for exactly this in The Advantage is wonderful:

The vast majority of organizations today have more than enough intelligence, expertise and knowledge to be successful. What they lack is organizational health....An organization that is healthy will inevitably get smarter over time. That’s because people in a healthy organization, beginning with the leaders, learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion getting in their way, they cycle through problems and rally around solutions much faster than their dysfunctional and political rivals do. Moreover, they create environments where their employees do the same. In contrast, smart organizations don’t seem to have any greater chance of getting healthier by virtue of their intelligence. In fact, the reverse can actually be true because leaders who pride themselves on expertise and intelligence often struggle to acknowledge their flaws and learn from peers.

Healthy beats smart by creating an environment where the I, WE, and IT can collectively thrive and offers a systematized way to create a healthy, successful company. A place of work that honors who you are and how you want to live. A place of work where people feel a sense of connection, purpose, and togetherness. A place of work where the strategy, processes, and results make both the business and our world sustainable.

We need more places of work like this. I - WE - IT can guide our way.

Thank you to my colleague, Simon D'Arcy, for his thinking on some of the impacts of de-prioritizing dimensions of the I, WE, and IT.