The Story of Us: Five Ways to Develop Systems Intelligence

Eric Polite II
4 min readMar 22, 2021


It’s never easy to lead. But in today’s divided and uncertain climate, it’s exponentially more difficult. The stakes are high. Now more than ever we need leaders with courage and compassion; awareness and curiosity.

If you have invested in expanding your self-intelligence and cultural intelligence, you are still missing one key aspect of exponential leadership: systems intelligence.

Systems intelligence is a conscious awareness of your connection to the external world. To borrow from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is critically important because when you understand how everyone and everything is interconnected, you create opportunities for enlightenment — to see the big picture. When we begin to view the world through this lens, we see our role and responsibility in a new light.

At its core, systems intelligence is about the betterment and improvement of human life — not just at work, but in the world.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to gaining systems intelligence is ego. When we distance ourselves from those we are meant to serve or seek personal gain at the expense of others, we perpetuate division. It is also revealed when we don’t invest in ourselves or our work, or when we persist in jobs that don’t fulfill our highest value.

So I invite you to take note of the systems you occupy. How are they shaping you? Systems have power, but it’s critical to realize that you still have agency. Systems don’t have to dictate who you are and how you show up. You have the power to manipulate and shape those systems.

So how can you cultivate systems intelligence?

Eliminate Toxicity in the Workplace.

If you’re saying to yourself, “My workplace isn’t toxic,” another way to reframe that is, “My workplace isn’t toxic for me.” And the question is, who might it be toxic for? One of the most important realizations surrounding systems intelligence is that if it’s powerful for you as things are currently constructed, that system likely does not work for someone else. So there’s an invitation to create something better, but it requires us to think beyond linear or analytical terms.

Create Opportunities for Rest and Renewal

Many of my clients work in “go, go, go” cultures where there is a constant sense of urgency; sometimes real, sometimes not. But when you create moments for rest and renewal, you have time for reflection. You are allowing time to get clear about what you’re doing and, more importantly, WHY you’re doing it.

Be Socially and Environmentally Responsible

You can’t possess systems intelligence and NOT think about how your actions and decisions are affecting the world around you. This approach essentially quadruples your bottom line, not just measuring profits but also thinking of the planet, people, and purpose.

Focus on Sufficiency Rather than Scarcity

The scarcity mindset will always create division. When you fear that someone else’s gain directly erodes yours, you will always be looking for ways to diminish or deplete others. Know and believe that you have enough and that you are enough, and that everything you need is accessible. Show up with the curiosity and empathy required to access the tools and resources that are at arm's reach.

Act with a Profound Sense of Responsibility

When you lead and manage, people are literally putting their lives and livelihoods in your hands. Treat that with the respect that it deserves. Honor them in your actions and your words, be impeccable in your agreements, and make commitments that people can believe in. Be authentic and genuine as consistently as you can, and show and share a vision that inspires and motivates.

Systems intelligence requires you to think expansively about how your reality, your success, and your story are connected to someone else’s story. There’s the story of ME, the story of WE, and then there’s the story of US. You can co-author all of those.

When you willfully look for opportunities to co-author new realities and new possibilities, you pull more people into your story. It’s important to not see other stories as better or worse, or judge those stories by their covers.

If you do all of these things, I promise you, your team, and your organization will be rewarded. As managers and leaders, it’s important that we look at life as an interconnected, interdependent system — or a network of systems that collide, mingle, and amplify one another. Systems intelligence is an invitation to collaborate across systems for the benefit of us all, but it demands an acute awareness and ability to see how systems play out in us and with us.

Systems intelligence can feel a bit complex, nuanced even. The best way to learn is through doing. Of the five practices highlighted above, which one is most critical to your team right now? Which one resonated with you, or feels like low-hanging fruit? I encourage you to try one on.

This process encourages you to see things at a different level than before. Systems intelligence provides some unique opportunities for leaders. It also brings some challenges, but healthy challenges that force us to construct and deconstruct what might not have worked as well, or might not have worked for ALL.

Systems intelligence is about seeing your humanity reflected in others, and building relationships, community, and connection with that in mind.



Eric Polite II

I help managers lead with the confidence and competence to create thriving workplaces that unleash individual and collective potential for greatness, everyday.