Servant Leadership and Systemic Thinking

In a previous blog post, I discussed the relationship between the triple bottom line and servant leadership as it is described in Peter Block’s (1996) Stewardship and Robert Greenleaf’s (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey.  In this blog post, I will explore the relationship between servant leadership and systemic thinking.

In systems thinking, theories can fit into one of five meta-theoretical paradigms: classic, dynamic, cybernetic, field, and evolutionary. In a classic paradigm, the main focus is on classifying phenomena. In a dynamic paradigm, the focus is on fixed laws for movement and interaction in a world that is governed by cause and effect. In a cybernetic paradigm, there is a feedback signal from a component in a system to another. These first three paradigms are considered mechanistic paradigms as they conform to a mechanistic (similar to a machine) world view. The last two paradigms are holistic; in a field paradigm, one is looking at the whole field, the big picture, not just at the parts. Finally, an evolutionary paradigm is concerned with living systems, none-linearity, complex adaptive system that learn and adjust their behavior, that influence and adapt to their environment.

Looking at the treatment of servant leadership  in Greenleaf’s  book and his proposal that the organization becomes a servant fits within a field paradigm in that it expands the horizon of the feedback from within the organization to the larger external environment. Also this fits within the views of open systems theory in that it deals with the boundary of the organization as if it was a permeable membrane.

An evolutionary paradigm in many cases is equated with self organization. Block, and to a lesser degree Greenleaf, use the ideas about servant leadership as a vehicle for or in combination with distributed democratic leadership in which decision making in the organization is more collaborative and shared.  Such a treatment belongs closer to an evolutionary paradigm, but does not necessarily mean self organization. Even though the choice to re-organize in response to changes in the external environment might be there, that does not mean that this will happen; individuals might be married to their old paradigms and positions which prevents them from seeing or accepting the change that is required. Also as with any re-organization, certain individuals might lose their power, therefore they would rather keep the status quo.

Looking at the story of Leo as mentioned in the previous blog post through the lens of systems archetypes, one can see the evidence of the addiction archetypeShifting The Burden (shifting the burden) in the story; here the group became dependent on Leo to enable them to do the work. Service in this form has the potential of being its own undoing. This story was mentioned in Greenleaf’s book, but the issue of dependency was never dealt with. Interestingly, Block’s book went to great lengths in discussing the need to avoid creating dependency and how it would be antithetical to the principals of democratic leadership. He went as far as equating it with patriarchy and treating others as children, not as adults. Still he came short when trying to prescribe solutions. The solution here might come from systems literature, the burden has to be shifted back, the intervenor has to gradually allow others to take responsibility.

Donella Meadows is well known for writing about systems intervention points to improve performance in a system. In her book Thinking in systems(1977),  she lists her intervention points in order of difficulty, with numbers being the easiest and paradigm shift being the hardest to achieve. The proposed shift in thinking about leadership from being the one who is served to the one who leads by serving others would constitute a paradigm shift.
It follows that as a system or organizational intervention, a shift to servant leadership should be only considered after other interventions have been exhausted or at least the organization has moved from the the first six intervention points(numbers, buffers, negative feedback loops, positive feedback loops, information flows, and rules of the system.) The other intervention points are more conducive and can be implemented at the same time as servant leadership.

Another link between Meadows intervention points and servant leadership is that once it is “implemented” other intervention point have to be adjusted as in any system, the various components are interconnected and therefore interdependent. Specially, the systems rules,  and information flows, and the power of self organization.

Mohammed Raei Facilitating Affinity Mapping Mohammed Raei

Mohammed has experience in R&D, sales, marketing, business development, and quality management. He received a master’s degree in management and leadership and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Mohammed loves reading, air hockey, shuffle board, and ping pong.

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