Leaders and the Learning Organization

It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, about twenty years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon.  This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees.  And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were.  Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives.   I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate.  I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex.  But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great.  Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like.  In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other. How they manage conflict. And, how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.  Here’s more about team learning in case you want it.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people.  And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed “at the top” of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement.  To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared.  It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all.  It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos, the online department store’s vision is Delivering Happiness.  It is clear, simple and provides great direction to anyone who works there.   To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking.  I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole.  In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs.  When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

To me, it’s kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex.  If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.  That might be a bit simplistic but I think you get what I mean.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too.  But, I think that they are timeless.  If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

What do you think?



Filed under Change Management, Leading Change, Learning, Self Knowledge

10 responses to “Leaders and the Learning Organization

  1. I am a HUGE Senge fan. I think the Fifth Discipline is one of the most important books any leader can read. Most leaders can’t see the big picture, only snapshots. Thanks! Bret

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Bret,

    Yes, I agree. The principles of Senge’s book were important when he first wrote them and are important now. I think the challenge of many leaders, especially in large organizations, is that their current culture does not support the ideas Senge espouses. And, to your point, many do not see the whole picture or the benefits embracing it would provide. There’s clearly more work to be done!

    Thanks for your comment and for coming by!

  3. Hi Gwyn,
    What a great post! Thx so much for reminding us all that the brillant work of Senge has yet to really discovered. I can’t understand how anyone could describe these concepts as old – essentially they haven’t been used, except in rare cases. People like Senge, Wheatley, Scharmer are all pioneers in a vision of a new model of the organization.

    As far as the concepts go, they are more relevant and more necessary than ever before. In our experience, for many leaders and orgs the mental mentals of today – are still mired in the old fear-based authoritarian models of yesterday. Personal mastery – well there are exceptions, but too many people are still questioning the role of the personal in the workplace. You can’t promote personal mastery as a tenet of organizational excellence if you are still unclear about the role of the individual within the organization. Team Learning – a great concept – but too many people are still operating like lone wolves while speaking team.
    And systems thinking – well, until we get away from the next quarter mentality that still drives most business – we can’t address systemic impacts.
    Thx again!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Louise, Your statement about the next quarter mentality certainly rings a bell with me and reminds me of the myriad of meetings I attended where the subject of conversation never got higher off the ground than what “numbers” Managers could, or, more particularly, could *not* reach in their own little corners of the world.
      I’m so glad to know that there are professional people, like you, promoting the concepts that will make for a better workplace for everyone.
      thank you for that and for coming by.

  4. Really glad to see someone writing about this!

    I too am a HUGE fan of Peter Senge (as well as Wheatley and Sharma). I am with you – these ideas are timeless and essential. We seem to be hanging onto the models of thinking and practices of the industrial age for dear life! And it’s costing us big time!

    On a more optimistic note…Peter Senge has actively supported The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education – they offer k-12 curriculum based on the principles of systems thinking. And while attending the Pegasus conference (a systems thinking organization that puts on an awesome annual conference) I learned about it through my clients – a principal and a superintendent. I was amazed (and encouraged) by how many educators were there. So the conversation is alive and well in some circles but I agree they have not permeated to the extent they are needed.

    For anyone interested in learning more about and connecting with like minds in systems thinking Pegasus is worth checking out.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan, Yes, the management principles of the Industrial Age are, if nothing else, remarkably tenacious. For some reason, when I think about this, I get the mental image of Charlton Heston standing at the podium with his rifle high in the air shouting, “from my cold dead hand!”
      More seriously, I think that shared leadership, to some, means loss rather than gain and that’s a hard perspective for them to swallow.
      Nonetheless, it is very encouraging to know that
      the concepts of systems thinking are alive and well and being embraced and taught in schools. Maybe one day, with continued emphasis, this will become second nature to the next generation of leaders.
      Thanks so much for your comment and for all the additional information you have provided.

  5. Get Your Leadership BIG On!

    Gwyn –

    I’m always delighted to discover another proponent of Senge’s work and couldn’t agree with you more that his five disciplines are timeless. The three learning capabilities behind the disciplines – fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity – represent core competencies no one should be without. Great post!


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thank you, Jane, for adding the three learning capabilities behind the disciplines! To be honest, it’s been a long time since I pulled out my book for another look. You have given me incentive to do that.

      Thanks for coming by and for adding value to the post!

  6. Pingback: December 5 Leadership Development Carnival – Holiday Celebration Edition « Get Your Leadership BIG On!

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