Leadership and Systems Thinking
Col. George E. Reed, USA
eaders operate in the realm of bewildering uncertainty and staggering complexity. Today’s problems are rarely simple and clear-cut. If they were, they would likely already have been solved by someone else. If not well considered—and sometimes even when they are—today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. Success in the contemporary operating environment requires different ways of thinking about problems and organizations. This article introduces some concepts of systems thinking and suggests that it is a framework that should be understood and applied by leaders at all levels, but especially those within the acquisition community.
It is insufficient and often counterproductive for leaders merely to act as good cogs in the machine. Leaders perform a valuable service when they discern that a venerated system or process has outlived its usefulness, or that it is operating as originally designed but against the organization’s overall purpose. Sometimes we forget that systems are created by people, based on an idea about what should happen at a given point in time. A wise senior warrant officer referred to this phenomenon as a BOGSAT—a bunch of guys sitting around talking.
Reed is the director of command and leadership studies at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He has 25 years of experience as a military police officer. He holds a doctorate in public policy analysis and administration.
Systems Endure Although times and circumstances may change, systems tend to endure. We seem to be better at creating new systems than changing or eliminating existing ones. Sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term “goal displacement” to describe what happens when complying with bureaucratic processes becomes the objective rather than
Defense AT&L: May-June 2006
focusing on organizational goals and values. When that happens, systems take on a life of