An Evening with Peter Senge

Last night I attended an evening talk with Peter Senge at Saint Mary’s College near my home. If someone asks me when I first discovered my passion for organizational development work, I point to Peter Senge’s masterful book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

FieldbookThat was 25 years ago. I still have that original book as well as the revised version adding more research, examples and practice. Later Peter and his colleagues created The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. I used and marked up that manual so much over the years that it literally fell apart. These days I carry a new copy with its wide margins ready for me to add new notes, observations, and ideas for practice.

Systems Thinking is the Fifth Discipline and I have seen Peter Senge define it in different ways over the years. Each time it is a conversation and with each, he focuses on a different facet of what can be a complex overall view of the world. Last night he added, “Systems thinking is incremental shifts in habit.”

Our world works largely through habit and these habits are within each of us, not something external out there. Senge then offered, “To change the systems out there, you need to change the systems in here” as he pointed to his chest then head.

Throughout the evening Peter Senge stressed the importance of learning and indeed, unlearning. “We learn by doing. We will fall down a lot, but we need to practice.” He stressed that organizations are getting better at allowing for practice, learning and unlearning, but we have a way to go. Small steps forward make a difference.

On this evening Peter Senge talked about educational systems for our children and the need for larger systems thinking to take hold. His examples were inspiring and indeed as we practice we can add those incremental changes that influence the larger systems at play.

At the end of the on stage conversation Peter Senge had with Elissa Perry, a member of the Leadership faculty at Saint Mary’s College, audience members asked questions to further the conversation along. Two questions and answers hit home for me:

For the first question, a man asked Peter Senge to describe leadership and what is needed for a Master’s Degree program for Leadership. In his conversational way, Senge answered that a leadership program must “include deep practical experience and immerse oneself into the practice”.  Peter Senge went on to say something simple, but profound once you dive into the depths.

“Leadership development is learning to think for yourself and to learn to work well with others.”

The next question brought me face-to-face with my own unlearning. A student asked Peter Senge to speak about followership as an important element of leadership. Leaders need followers and each of us is a follower at times. Peter surprised me and I am sure others when he stated:

“I do not like this distinction. I do not like the term followership. It is all leadership. There needs to be a collective nature of leadership. Then followership is less of a focus. I lead then you lead. Together we lead.”

LogoColorNoTextI previously wrote on the importance of followership (link here). Yet, all is good. I am not directly counter to Peter Senge. Yet his answer resonated strongly for me. Leadership for me is influence and I create and nurture teams where this influence can, and should. come from different team members. Peter went on to use the term “fluidity” to further describe leadership. We move in and out of roles and the practice of leadership.

Hum, as I reflect on Peter Senge’s influence on my thinking and career, I now see his influence even on my choice of a blog name and soon, my consulting practice … WeMoveTogether.

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