Systems Thinking: My Introduction

We are taught to break apart problems… we pay a hidden, enormous price.
We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose
our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.
– Peter M. Senge
You cannot understand a cell, a rat, a brain structure,
a family, or a culture if you isolate it from its context.

– Marilyn Ferguson

My first introduction to “systems thinking” came through a friend who was a family therapist. She used Bowen Family Systems Theory in her counseling practice.  The theory treats an individual’s issues by looking at the family as a whole. My friend encouraged me to apply the approach to my own attempts to understand and work with groups and organizations.

I have indeed found the Bowen approach, which addresses the relational and emotional dynamics of all players in a situation, very helpful in the context of workplaces and organizations, and I believe its principles can extend even to society.

Another early resource for me on systems thinking was Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. For Senge, systems thinking is the discipline which brings all others disciplines together. It involves being able to see the big picture, for sure, but the most important section of Senge’s book for me is his chapter on the concept of “Personal Mastery.” In a sense, Senge suggests that for leaders, taking the big picture view means being aware of one’s complete inner as well as outer life.

An important concept within Bowen Family Systems Theory expresses this idea more clearly. It is the concept of the leader as “a non-anxious presence.” I found this very good description of this type of presence from Edwin H. Friedman (1999):

I mean someone who has clarity about his/her own life goals; and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot. No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity. (p. 13)

As Friedman’s description suggests, the ability to be such a non-anxious presence with and for others requires a great deal of self-awareness. It requires considerable knowledge of and confidence in one’s own values and principles. It also requires what some call “mindfulness,” or full awareness of one’s internal state as well as what is going on in the situation in the present moment. This takes a great deal of skill and practice. Lastly, it requires a willingness to be humble and vulnerable; that is, willing to let go of control of the outcome.

For Peter Senge, the discipline of personal mastery involves a continual process with two movements, one focused inward and the other focused outward. The inward movement involves the discipline of “continually clarifying what is important to us.” This process of clarification includes examining and articulating our vision, values, and ideals, as well as our understanding of our own unique purpose for our work and life. The second movement, according to Senge, involves “continually learning to see reality more clearly.”

Lastly, the major lesson I try to remember for myself as well as to convey to others is that achieving personal mastery and the ability to be a non-anxious presence within a fractious group requires regularly setting aside reflective time. Protecting that kind of time for oneself on a daily basis can be a real challenge, but based on my own experience, I always encourage it.

To read the introduction to my next current of change Click Here

Friedman, E.H. (1999) A failure of nerve, leadership in the age of the quick fix. Edwin H. Friedman.  The Edwin Friedman Estate.

Senge. P. (1990). The Fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. NY: Currency Doubleday. A 2006 revised edition is available.

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