“Average leaders have quotes. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system.” Thus says coach Urban Meyer in Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season.
Building systems is a vital aspect of leadership. Any team can keep themselves busy banging out individual tasks, but effective processes and systems often separate the good from the great, the diligent from the effective, and the faithful from the fruitful.
But what should you aim for when building a system? How can you recognize when you’re getting it right? Systems, processes, and procedures have many different purposes, and an effective system may be marked by many qualities, depending on the goal. But most simply, an effective system is accurate, natural, and beautiful.
An effective system starts with accurate, honest information—accurate statistics, honest evaluation, wise analysis. Systems must be built on reality—the actual situation, the real needs, the true resources, and of course, the ultimate goals. A system that’s intuitive and polished but uninformed might appear to work effectively for awhile, but will produce results that don’t accomplish the team’s actual goals.
Yet an effective system must be more than merely accurate. Home Depot can stock all the right tools and supplies we need for home improvement, but if the bolts are next to the plants and the shingles are stacked near the hoses, their system isn’t natural. It’s not intuitive. It doesn’t match our cultural categories of do-it-yourself home improvement; it doesn’t reflect the way we reason as western adults; it doesn’t fit the accepted logic of shopping. Most of all, it doesn’t accomplish Home Depot’s goals. The most effective systems start, but don’t stop, with accurate information. They also operate naturally and intuitively based on the goals of the organization and the people we’re seeking to serve.
Sometimes an accurate and natural but ugly system is the best you can do. But rarely. The most effective systems are also appealing and attractive, because they meet needs and accomplish goals in ways that resonate psychologically and aesthetically with those using the system. Layering beauty, taste, and micro-pleasures into your systems is an expression of hospitality toward those you serve. It’s a little oasis in the desert of labor, a little scenery on the tangled path of productivity. It even keeps people coming back, partially because of the pleasure of the experience (think about the predictable pleasantness of Chik-fil-A’s employees).
There’s much more to say about system-building, but not much less. Informed, intuitive, polished processes help leaders serve their employees, colleagues, clients, consumers, citizens, and congregations. For that reason, these accurate, natural, beautiful systems are a service to humanity.