IdeaXchange

Systems thinking: Life-enhancing business through leadership

Many of society's biggest challenges are systemic, meaning they comprise a system of interrelated problems. So how can leaders connect the dots and create effective solutions?

Change is one of the most challenging elements of life within an organization. To sustain a change agenda moving away from behaviors and decisions that are life-destroying to becoming life-enhancing, the nuances of both corporate culture and the patterns of human behavior need to be understood. This requires systems thinking, also called visual seeing and thinking skills.

I sat down with Fritjof Capra, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists and systems theorists, to discuss the implications of systems thinking for business, leadership and society.  

In Capra Course you speak to the biggest crisis of our time—that we are not just experiencing a sustainability crisis, but a crisis of perception. What is this crisis of perception? And how does it differ from a sustainability crisis?

Fritjof Capra: Two key aspects of the crisis we find ourselves in are that it is global and that its many facets—energy, the environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war—are all interrelated and interdependent. None of these global problems can be understood in isolation; they are systemic problems. To understand and solve them we need to learn how to think systemically—in terms of relationships, patterns and context. You can call it a sustainability crisis, because all of its facets are obstacles to a sustainable society. But this does not describe the fundamental nature of the crisis. It is rooted in the inability of our leaders to see our problems as systemic problems and to design appropriate systemic solutions. This is why I call it a crisis of perception.

How does this crisis of perception influence human life, leadership and business?

FC: Most of our business and political leaders are unable to "connect the dots," to use a popular phrase. They fail to see how the major problems of our time are all interrelated. Their so-called "solutions" tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system—for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health or climate stability. Moreover, they refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations.             

You talk about how the life-enhancing organizations can only truly flourish when the economic system has been changed from one of life destroying to one of life enhancing. Can you explain the term life- destroying and life-enhancing in terms of business and leadership?

FC: Every human organization has a dual nature. It is a legal and economic entity, designed for a specific purpose, and it is also a community, or a cluster of communities—informal networks known as “communities of practice.” The organization’s aliveness resides in its communities of practice. Life-enhancing leadership recognizes and legitimizes these informal networks; life-destroying leadership suppresses them.

Is it a utopian dream to think that the current business and economic environment can be changed to be life enhancing? How would you speak to people who hold power, so they can understand the importance and implications for them if we stay in a life-destroying economic model?

FC: So far in our conversation, I have mentioned the crisis of perception and systemic thinking. This is not all there is to the problems of our time, even though it is my main focus. The other part (which I also address in the Capra Course) is values. Most people in power want to hold on to it, and even to increase it, valuing short-term personal financial gains higher than the well-being of communities and future generations. In other words, there is a clear lack of ethics in our business world and in our politics. Ethical behavior is always behavior for the common good. How to speak to powerful people about this is not easy. I would say, we have to show them the relationship between behavior for the common good and sustainability. If they continue to only care about “what’s in it for them” in the short run, they will destroy the future of their children and grandchildren, and ultimately of their business.

How can leaders and people of all walks of life support the change toward a life-enhancing economic system?  

FC: In our daily lives, we make hundreds of decisions that are either life-enhancing (sustainable) or life-destroying (unsustainable). Do I recycle my bottles and plastics, or do I throw them away? Do I use a paper or a cloth shopping bag? Do I drive, or do I bicycle (or walk) for short distances? Do I eat mostly beef or mostly vegetarian food? Do I let the water run while brushing my teeth, or do I use a cup? In business, sustainable actions should be encouraged and rewarded (symbolically and financially); in government they should be supported by ecological “tax shifting” (reducing taxes on work and raising them on environmentally destructive activities).

It is complex to create leadership transformation within corporations. What are some of the key areas to be aware of and keep in mind, when working with expanding perceptions and change within business and leadership?

FC: The main challenge, in my view, is how to bring life into human organizations. The best way to do so is to acknowledge and legitimize the role of the living networks, or communities of practice, in every organization. This includes recognizing the creativity inherent in all life, which manifests in the spontaneous emergence of novelty, and to facilitate and reward that emergence. Facilitating emergence is now increasingly being recognized as a new form of leadership.

The topic of power is particularly interesting when working with executive leadership and business. What have you found characterizes the old type of power and how is the new power different?

FC: Basically, there are two kinds of power: power as domination of others (the old type of power) and power as empowerment of others (the new power). Whereas power as domination is most effectively exercised through a hierarchy, the most effective social structure for power as empowerment is the network. In a social network, people are empowered by being connected to the network. In such a network the success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole. Any enrichment of individuals, due to increased connectedness in the network, will also enrich the entire network.

How do we change power structures within an organization or institution or even cultural system of a nation?

FC: All these power structures are already changing. The global civil society, where many of the leaders are women, and the vast number of social media are all exerting the new type of power as empowerment. The youth of today has been growing up with and within these social networks and, while often fighting the old type of power, they are used to network empowerment as power of a new kind.

How can a leader of a mid- to large-size company integrate these thoughts and perspectives into the business?

FC: This is already being done in many companies, which can serve as useful models. They tend to have decentralized structures (a shift from hierarchies to networks), self-organizing teams, communities of practice, and so on. The best-known is probably W.L. Gore & Associates. They are a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative, and they have no traditional organizational charts. Mondragon, the world leader of the coop movement, is based on a philosophy of participation and solidarity. There is also an umbrella organization called “Holacracy,” which promotes a structure of self-organizing teams that has been adopted by many companies around the world.

Fritjof Capra, PhD., is a scientist, educator, activist and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society.

Sandja Brugmann is a sustainable communication expert, business and leadership advisor, international speaker, author and named one of the "world's leadership gurus" by Danish Executive Leadership Association.

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