Leadership and System Thinking

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Learning Organizations, Leadership and System Thinking

Table of Contents

What is system thinking?
Organizational background
Bureaucratic versus the Learning Organization
System Thinking: How does it relate to the Learning organization? System Thinking and the new leadership

Learning Organizations, Leadership and System Thinking
Having in mind that the purpose of this course is exploring individuals and organizations as learning systems, I wanted to deepen my understanding of how systems thinking, the fifth discipline mentioned by Peter Senge, relates to and affects the office of leadership and organizational learning in different social, political and economical contexts. Social, political and economic tensions have throughout history been a catalyst for individual and organizational learning and change. Of the five disciplines that Peter Senge presents in his book “The Fifth Discipline”, system thinking, he says “is the corner stone for organizational learning” (Senge 1990, p. 69), and it’s the most important of the of disciplines in fostering awareness during times of change, turmoil and uncertainty. Today, with globalization, ecological changes, diversity, consolidations and the constant rise of new technologies; change and adaptation to new systems demand more that ever new goals, new standards, and most of all, new proactive and visionary leadership that can meet the challenges of the multidimensional complexity of modern organizations. Today we need learning organizations and new leadership. By definition, leadership means being ahead of the rest, and as such, it is visionary, forward-thinking and targeted to proactive strategies (Bennis, 1989). In terms of learning organizations, Senge (1990), states that the basic meaning of a learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future, and “System thinking”, his fifth discipline, is fundamental for the growth and complexity of today’s organizations in a world that is in a constant and rapid change.

What is system thinking?
System thinking came out of the system theory and system dynamics. System theory was proposed in the 1940's by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who was both, reacting against reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science (Bertalanffy, 1969, p. 9). He defined a system as an entity which preserves its world through the interaction of its parts. The American heritage dictionary defines a “system” as: “a group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent elements forming a complex whole”. In his studies, Bertalanffy (1969, p. 9) questioned the application of the scientific method to the problems of Biology, because it had a limited mechanical vision of cause and effect, and it was not applicable to complex living organisms. He reformulated old intellectual incomplete paradigms such us the analytic framework that came from Descartes and Bacon; and the clockwork paradigm for understanding the universe of Newton, and created a new paradigm that is more proper to understand the world around us, the “system theory” paradigm (Bertalanffy, p.9 1969). He emphasized that living systems are open to their environment, interact with their environment, and are able to acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence. The end result is a continual evolution that creates structures which act across all branches of science (Bertalanffy, 1969).

System dynamics on the other hand, was founded in 1956 by MIT professor Jay Forrester. Professor Forrester recognized the need for a better way of testing new ideas about social systems. Systems dynamics he said "allow people to make their understanding of social systems explicit and improve them in the same way that people can use engineering principles to make explicit and improve their understanding of mechanical systems” (Aronson, 1996). Based on both...
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