Ever since I read and understood the systems thinking , I began to rethink about many of the key concepts I had formulated in my mind since my younger days .One of these was the meaning and role of leadership from the systems view point .
An important foundation at the base of systems thinking is that the reality is neither given nor ever created alone by one person .It is co-created by a number of persons , interacting in complex ways in a system within a number of more complex systems.A forest is not just a collection of trees standing together .It is a system , in which different plants , animals and forms of life act and interact on each other and with outer environment.Reality can be understood , created and transformed only by understanding the systems.In systems , shared visions , mental models and team learning become critical.
My quest for learning about systems thinking led me to its origins in biology .It was only in 1970 , for the first time ,E.Kast and J.E.Rosenzweig applied general systems theory to organizations and management .They wrote two books on this subject:
1. General systems theory: Applications for organizations and management
2. The modern View: Systems and Contingency concepts.
About two decades after this , Peter M. Senge wrote his famous "The Fifth Discipline" which established Systems Thinking as the cornerstone concept of achieving modern learning organizations.Senge called Systems Thinking as The Fifth Discipline , around which all the remaining four disciplines revolve .Systems thinking forces us to rethink , redefine and reformulate the meaning of leadership, and of skills of leadership and transformation .
F.E.Kast and J.E.Rosen zweig have described the ' Five Primary Components'(sub systems) of an organization as follows:
1. Goals, Values, vision
2. Technical subsystems
3. Structural sub systems including organization design
4. Psycho social sub systems (mental model, HR)
5.Management sub systems (information flow; strategic planning).
A dynamic system is constantly changing and many variables interact with each other. In a dynamic system, leadership is a complex process with many unknown variables. Leaders must understand how organizations are co-created by others with us. Leaders must be open to employees self-organizing around new ideas.They must believe in the principle of equi-finality. Objectives in an open system may be achieved in many different ways and with varying inputs. Leaders need not search for the one Best Method.Leaders must simply express purpose, vision and values, and then leave freedom for responsible individuals to make sense of these in their own way.
Leaders must allow information to flow freely so as to permit multiple observers and multiple interpretations.Leaders make organizations open system and not closed ones.They develop organizational intelligence by obtaining adequate information from environment, about changes in environment.They acquire ability to process information, respond and change so as to maintain in a dynamic environment.
I give three examples to illustrate how information flow systems work:
Executive Information Systems
Decision Support Systems
Management Information Systems
Transaction Processing Systems
Example II: ERP: Enterprise Resource Planning Systems involving Finance/ Accounting/ HR/ Manufacturing/ Supply Chain/ Project management/ Customer Relationship Management
Example III: GIS: Geographic Information System.It can involve GPS: The Global Positioning System
(GPS Device gives Location on Earth.)
It is merging of (i) Cartography(ii) Statistical analysis
(iii) Data base technology
This enables us to formulate the meaning of leadership and Role of Leaders from a systems view point.The leaders
(i) Design purpose, vision and core values.
(ii) Design policies/ strategies/ structures/ information flow.
(iii) Design Learning Processes.
(iv) Teach view of reality at 3 levels- events, pattern of behavior, systemic structures.They teach us to distinguish between events and personalities on one hand and the needs and demands of the systems on the other hand .
(v) Act as stewards of vision/purpose/openness to employees self organizing around new ideas.Accordingly , we arrive at an
understanding of the skills required in leaders:
(i) To build/formulate shared vision
(ii) To challenge prevailing mental models
(iii) Systems thinking seeing inter-relationships and processes complexity, moving beyond blame avoiding symptomatic solutions high leverage.
(iv) To build a learning organization
(v)To build team learning
But I must clarify that one skill which is essential , and which systems thinking does not make obvious is Personal mastery .
Leverage points and transformation:Leverage points are places (in the system) where a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior.Some of the leverage points mentioned by Donella Meadows are paradigms/mental models, goals,rules,Reinforcing feedback loops,Balancing feedback loops,delays, Physical structures and buffers.
Systems way of seeing or thinking and reductionist way (looking at things in terms of events , personalities,Details, Numbers, Parameters)are complementary.The systems view point is generally oriented toward the long term view. That's why delays and feedback loops are important. In the short term you can ignore them.
I acknowledge with gratefulness that have been highly influenced for this understanding by stalwarts like Peter M singe,M. Scott Peck,Erich Fromm,David Bohm and Max De Pree.