Mayvin_systemic leadership

Practice-based learning: getting to know systemic leadership

What does a systemic leadership approach look like in daily operational OD work? In the first in a series of blogs, Mayvin Associate Patricia Van Overstraeten shares her insights from the Mayvin Practice Groups.

As a European systemic leadership practitioner for more than 11 years, Mayvin Directors James Traeger and Martin Saville were asking me a couple of weeks ago to write a blog on the model of “managing complex changes by systemic leadership”.

I was a bit hesitant at the beginning, but this morning on the Eurostar heading for London to participate in the first Mayvin Practice Group, the spontaneous idea came up to ‘cut this big elephant into slices’ and just get started with the first part for today, knowing that there will be much more to share.

Let’s call the first slice “how systemic leadership and I as an economist start to get to know each other” flavoured with my first take aways from this first Mayvin OD practitioner group.

A completely new world

We are back in 2002/2003 at a place called Hernstein, close to Vienna, with the possibility of joining a ‘Team & Organisational Development’ course, meeting amazing people like Prof Backhausen, Dr. Roswita Königswieser, Wolfgang Looss. So far, my connection with business consultants was as a client of ‘the big four’ being in the strategic development department of my former employer: driven by very hard facts, producing a lot of slides (which in the end disappeared never to be rolled-out into real life).  And all of a sudden, in Herstein, this peaceful quiet place,  a completely new world opens up: welcome to the systemic world, not even knowing that such a word as systemic exists!

Though struggling at the beginning to understand this ‘systemic black box’ and all the specific vocabulary, one thing is very clear: it never felt so resonant: all pieces falling together into one puzzle,  heart and soul screaming out loud and clear ‘this is it, this is what you are looking for for a very long time’. Not having the words to describe it so far yet feeling so happy to get the chance to embrace this systemic approach: a way of thinking and living.

Becoming a systemic leadership practitioner

From that special moment on, it was clear that there would be ‘no point of return’ and that it would be only a question of time, that the ‘systemic way’ would also fill in my professional life completely. This happened in 2007, and I started as a self-employed systemic coach and consultant after further in depth courses of systemic working and systemic group dynamics.

Besides working as an OD practitioner in daily life, I was at the same time a ‘Belgian foreigner’ in the German-speaking systemic community, knowing that there are two bigger systemic German streams: the Heidelberg and the Vienna School. Having my roots in the Vienna School, I was surprised at the wide range of scientific and academic disciplines the approach is based on. I learnt that a lot of the daily work of bringing the approach to life started at the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s at the Milan School of family therapy (a deeper diving into this will follow in my next blog).

With these ‘foreign’ routes in the German-speaking part of the systemic community, I started to look for English and Dutch literature on systemic working. I discovered that the anglo systemic way has other academic models, even more based on sciences and mathematics and IT models.

A daily systemic practice

Since that moment, to my mind systemic work in one place in the EU wasn’t the same as systemic work in another place in the EU. I wondered what a systemic approach looked like in daily operational OD work? Looking for answers to this question has been parked for a very long time, until the opportunity to explore it at today’s Mayvin Practice Group.

Let us jump back first to ‘systemic leadership’. In 2012, I noticed a growing interest and need to cross the German-speaking borders with the great systemic toolbox for daily life and ‘tailormade’ experiences for dealing with complex situations.

So we did, and once a year a multi-cultural group of participants, so far from Singapore to USA, participated to this 2 x 3 day module in Antwerp, with two non-native English speakers as trainers of the group. Each and every year we continue developing the program towards the actual challenges and changes we observe and each and every year it is like an experiment with plenty of learnings from and with each other.

Which brings me back to today and my most important take aways from the first OD practitioner group:

1. In the end, it´s all about attitude and the way we open up, or don’t open up, to see and sense things that until now we were not ready to see or sense.

2. That we DO speak a common language, ask similar systemic questions and have similar kind of things, such as ‘paradox’ interventions, in our toolbox.

3.  I had for many many years, out of the different academic models I never really understood, had myself the biggest border (or burden) in my own head: that of being caught in these academic models. I realised today that this is a blindspot and that in fact the practitioner part of it looks much more similar to the world I’ve known and practiced so far.

So now I’m sitting on the Eurostar, going back home tonight, being more than happy having started a deeper and wider exploring together with my UK colleagues on what really matters: our toolbox to implement into daily life!

What are your concrete experiences in dealing with the cross-border systemic toolbox for daily life? I’m curious and in case you too, let’s start this journey of curiosity together! I will be writing a blog after each Mayvin Practice Group session, to explore the elephant of systemic leadership, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Email me at or tweet us @MayvinLtd.