Leadership and Systems Thinking Go Together Like PBJ for Long-Term Success

Summary: Here is how Systems Thinking connects with leadership. Visionary leaders triumph by using Systems Thinking.

Dear Dr. Sylvia,

My company is now entering a new level of development. We are tops in helping others market their online programs.

Of course, I want us to be successful in the long term.

Therefore, please give some examples and advice on growing and thriving using Systems Thinking.

Indeed, I can see how tough it is to get folks to think systemically.

Yet, I want to master this mindset, and I value all the help you can offer


Eyes wide open

Dear Eyes wide open,

Leadership and systems thinking are two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get right to how you can guide your team for long-term success.

All things considered, when they come together, remarkable things can happen. Systems Thinking equips leaders with a unique lens through which they can view the world—a lens that reveals hidden connections and incredible opportunities.

For example, picture this: Imagine you’re a ship captain on the high seas, where there are treacherous waters. Leadership is about how you steer the ship. Systems thinking is the compass that keeps you on course, helping you navigate complex, ever-changing conditions.

Systems Thinking can help turn around a struggling company.

As an illustration, here is a story about a company my team and I worked with for many years:

In the business world, Scott took the reins of a struggling auto parts organization. He took over when his father retired.

Unfortunately, the company was bleeding money, morale was low, and the competition was fierce. This situation felt hopeless. Yet, Scott fought to turn things around.

Rather than resorting to knee-jerk reactions, he and his executive team delved into systems thinking.

As a result, they analyzed the company as a complex system. Soon, they recognized that its financial woes were symptoms of deeper issues. Scott and his executive team mapped out the company’s processes, identified inefficiencies, and examined market dynamics.

They looked at pattern repetition, where they kept doing the same things and getting negative results.

Above all, first, use the traditional SWAT analysis from a systems perspective: chart what works and what is in the way of success.

Moreover, they started to graph the patterns and see where they had ignored doing the same things repeatedly.

Then, these leaders considered the core patterns of how the teams interacted with each other.

Time was spent addressing the quality of the written words in e-mails and texts. They considered how decisions were made and how they came to agreements.

A significant area was how the conflict was handled. It became apparent that many shouted out upset while others were prone to stuff down their anger.

Thus, new skills were instituted to help all employees handle stress more effectively.

Also, much was learned when they tackled communication with vendors and customers.

Ultimately, all this was mapped so they could see the whole picture and not simply make superficial changes that had no lasting impact. They saw how employees who left the company angry were “trash-talking” the culture, and nothing had been done about it.

Furthermore, they could now see they did not do proper exit interviews, hurting them.

While initially looking for pattern repetition, this took more time than merely “solving the immediate problem of cash flow,” it paid off in the long run.

With this holistic perspective, they implemented changes that addressed the root causes of the company’s problems. It wasn’t about cost-cutting alone but optimizing the entire system. Slowly but surely, the company began to thrive. They attracted new customers, motivated their employees, and saw profits soar.

Developing Systems Thinking Competencies is vital for team leaders to point the way.

In short, here we discuss the crucial competencies for effective systems thinking. We also explore these competencies through stories that illustrate their significance.

Story 1: The Curious Entrepreneur: Self-awareness and mindset shift

Meet Alex, a young entrepreneur with a tech startup. In the early days of his venture, he focused on his product and its features. However, as challenges emerged and the business grew, Alex realized he needed a new perspective. He embarked on a journey of self-awareness and discovered the power of a systems-thinking mindset.

The Transformation: Through introspection and reading about Systems Thinking, Alex recognized that his linear thinking was limiting his ability to see the bigger picture. He started questioning his assumptions, embracing ambiguity, and seeking feedback from his team. This shift in mindset transformed Alex into a more effective and adaptive leader.

Key Takeaway: Self-awareness and a willingness to shift one’s mindset are essential competencies for systems thinking. They enable leaders to recognize when their traditional thinking patterns might hinder their ability to address complex challenges.

Key Takeaway: When stressed, it is often the first line of defense to solve the situation as fast as possible. That is merely to diminish stress, not for the best results.

Building systems intelligence means living with stress and anxiety in the short term.

Story 2: The Insightful Manager

To demonstrate, Sarah, a mid-level manager in a manufacturing company, faced a recurring problem: production delays that disrupted the entire supply chain. Frustrated with firefighting and quick fixes, she developed her systems intelligence.

The Transformation: Sarah started by studying the production process, mapping each step, and identifying interdependencies. She engaged her team in discussions about potential bottlenecks and explored the impact of changes in one area on the entire process. Armed with this systems intelligence, she developed a comprehensive strategy to optimize production, reducing delays and improving efficiency.

Key Takeaway: Building systems intelligence involves dissecting complex systems, recognizing patterns, and understanding cause-and-effect relationships. This competency empowers leaders to make informed decisions that consider the broader system.

Key Takeaway: Behavior patterns learned in our original organization, the family show up in our present organization, at work.

Story 3: The Adaptive Nonprofit: Cultivation of a Learning Organization

Similarly, Emily, the executive director, noticed a decline in donor support and student engagement at a nonprofit organization focused on education.

In addition, rather than resorting to quick fixes, she decided to nurture a learning organization. They looked at past successes and failures, present plans, and how they will impact the future.

The Transformation: Emily encouraged her team to view the organization as a dynamic system that needed constant adaptation. They implemented regular feedback mechanisms, conducted retrospectives, and embraced a culture of experimentation. Over time, the organization became more agile and responsive to the changing needs of its stakeholders, leading to increased support and engagement.

Key Takeaway: Cultivate a learning organization and foster a culture of continuous improvement. This is where feedback is valued. Learning from failures is encouraged, and adaptation is the norm. This competency enables leaders to navigate uncertainty and complexity effectively.

Key Takeaway: The language of accountability is filled with “I statements” rather than finger-pointing “you statements.” The culture of “JUBLA” (judgment, blame, attack) became one of listening and asking open-ended questions for clarity and collaboration.

Story 4: Systems Thinking in Teams: The Empowering CEO

As the CEO of a large corporation, Mark understood that systems thinking was not just an individual competency but a team effort.

Most importantly, he wanted his entire leadership team to embrace systems thinking.

The Transformation: Mark initiated training sessions and workshops on systems thinking for his leadership team. He encouraged them to apply systems thinking principles in their decision-making processes and problem-solving efforts. As a result, the leadership team became more collaborative, adaptable, and adept at addressing complex challenges collectively.

Key Takeaway: Encouraging systems thinking in teams involves individual development and fostering a collaborative environment where team members can collectively analyze and address complex issues.

Key Takeaway: A leader does best when they can speak last and probe further by asking his executives to “Say more” rather than taking on the issue of solving the problem too soon in a group session.

Systems thinking includes looking at ingrained behavioral patterns that no longer sustain success.

In conclusion, we’ve explored how self-awareness, a mindset shift, building systems intelligence, and cultivating a learning organization are vital competencies for effective systems thinking. These stories show how these competencies can transform leaders and organizations, enabling them to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

By all means, as you continue on your journey to mastering systems thinking, remember that these competencies are like tools in your leadership toolbox. Developing and honing them will empower you to approach challenges holistically and strategically, leading to more innovative solutions and tremendous success.

Lessons can be learned from the initial struggle to succeed using Systems Thinking.

  1. Seeing the Bigger Picture: In both stories, the leaders looked beyond surface-level problems and saw the broader system. They understood that tackling symptoms without addressing underlying causes is like putting a band-aid on a wound without treating the infection.
  2. Empowering Teams: These leaders didn’t act alone. They engaged their teams in the systems thinking process. This collaborative approach generated innovative solutions and fostered a sense of ownership and commitment.
  3. Adaptability: Systems thinking encourages adaptability. When leaders understand the intricate dynamics of a system, they can adjust their strategies as conditions change, much like a skilled sailor altering their course based on changing winds and tides.

Your journey as a Systems-Thinking leader makes a significant difference for all employees.

As you embark on your journey of leadership enriched by systems thinking, keep these stories in mind. They illustrate the transformative power of this mindset.

Above all, we will explore practical tools and techniques that will empower you to apply systems thinking to your leadership challenges, just as these leaders did.

Let’s continue to delve into how systems thinking enhances leadership, address common leadership challenges through systems thinking, and explore real-world examples of leaders who successfully applied systems thinking to overcome complex obstacles.

Systems Thinking Enhances Leadership

Above all, leadership, at its core, is about guiding a group of individuals toward a common goal. Systems thinking enhances leadership by providing a holistic perspective, enabling leaders to:

  • See the Bigger Picture: Systems Thinking equips leaders to understand the interconnectedness of elements within their organization, industry, or environment, allowing them to make more informed decisions.
  • Identify Root Causes: Instead of merely addressing surface-level symptoms, systems thinking empowers leaders to uncover and address the underlying issues that drive challenges.
  • Anticipate Consequences: Leaders who think systemically can better predict the potential ripple effects of their decisions, ensuring they align with long-term goals.

Common Leadership Challenges Addressed by Systems Thinking

1. Problem Solving

The Challenge: Leaders often encounter complex problems that seem impossible. Traditional approaches to problem-solving may provide temporary relief, but the issues persist.

The Solution: Systems thinking encourages leaders to dissect problems, examining their components and relationships. Leaders can devise more effective and lasting solutions by identifying the root causes and systemic patterns.

2. Decision Making

The Challenge: Decision-making can be uncertain, especially when multiple variables and stakeholders are involved. Leaders may struggle to foresee the full impact of their choices.

The Solution: Systems thinking provides a framework for considering all relevant factors and understanding how they interact. Leaders can weigh the potential consequences of each decision, leading to better-informed choices.

3. Change Management

The Challenge: Implementing change within an organization can be met with resistance, and the intended improvements may not materialize as expected.

The Solution: Systems thinking helps leaders assess their organization’s intricate relationships. Leaders can facilitate smoother transitions and realize the desired changes by involving key stakeholders.

Systems Thinking can help leaders achieve remarkable results.

  • Collaboration: Connect with diverse groups to better understand complex issues.
  • Long-term Impact: Systems Thinking enables employees to make changes with far-reaching benefits.
  • Empowering Teams: Involve your team in problem-solving to foster a sense of ownership and motivation.

In conclusion, as you embark on your leadership journey enriched by systems thinking, remember that it’s not just a tool; it’s a transformative approach that can help you overcome challenges, drive innovation, and lead with a more significant impact.

Next, we’ll explore practical tools and techniques that will empower you to apply systems thinking to your leadership challenges.

In addition, contact us at sylvia@ceoptions.com to be on the initial list for a free copy of “Systems Thinking as a Superpower,” which will be available soon.

To your success,

Sylvia Lafair

PS. Keep thinking holistically. For example, our certified coaches worked in complex situations as engineers, educators, healthcare professionals, human resources, media producers, sales, and marketing executives before becoming Pattern Breakthrough Coaches. They can help you move to systems thinking effectively. It will save you lots of concern and struggle. Please contact sylvia@ceoptions.com for more information.

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Sylvia Lafair

Creative Energy Options