Leading in a Systems World

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Our leadership decisions create repercussions that reach far beyond the spaces where we work. The choices that we make may impact people, communities, the environment and society for weeks. months or generations.  This is why systems thinking is such an important  part of ethical leadership. Meg Wheatley speaks eloquently about the connectedness of the society and our ethical responsibility as leaders:

“Ethical leadership means seeing ourselves as part of the connected society, as part of multiple connected systems, and as responsible for our impact on the world. It also means seeking out opinions that differ from ours, because those opinions shed light on the parts of a system or problem that we may not yet understand.”                                                        

                                                                                 Margaret J. Wheatley


We must use a systems view in day-to-day leadership because we lead in a systems world. The systems we touch are connected and inseparable.

Think for a moment about the impact of  changing one ingredient in a food product. That one change impacts the ingredients list on the packaging, it changes the way the food is prepared, it requires a changed production process, and perhaps additional equipment and training. It may require a new supplier,  and a new food storage and delivery schedule. It may change the advertising and website. It may require an allergy warning.

Now let’s take a regional example. What if you are a shipping company and you change your routes?  That would change services and delivery times for some of your customers. What if your customers are counting on fast deliveries and the change in schedule means that they can’t get their shipments out on time in the week of the change? What if you are delivering medical supplies to them that don’t reach a hospital in time?

Our Choices Have Impact 

We cannot make decisions without considering systems, because we live and lead in a systems world.  The systems in our world are multicultural, global and complex.

       “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Peter Senge

Leading ethically requires that we do the hard thinking required to honor multiple constituents. It requires always remembering that we lead in a systems world – made up of human, economic, environmental, and societal systems. We must stretch our thinking until it is broad enough to encompass all of those systems.

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm. Linda was named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America-Trust Around the World.

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Author of 7 Lenses, Speaker, Bringing Out the Best in People and Organizations Through Proactive Ethical Leadership, CEO Leading in Context, 2014 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior, Adj. Assist. Prof. of Ethics and Leadership, UR SPCS

6 Responses to Leading in a Systems World

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