The world faces a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of our existing institutions and their command-and-control hierarchies. Problems like climate change, ecosystem destruction, growing water scarcity, rising unemployment among younger generations, and embedded poverty and inequality. These serious issues require unprecedented collaboration – among different organizations, sectors and even countries.

They also require a unique type of leader, according to systems scientist and expert on organizational behavior Peter Senge. It’s the system leader, he says, who catalyzes collective leadership – what we at MIT call distributed leadership.

In a recent interview for the MIT Thought Leader Series, Senge talked to me about the qualities that system leaders possess, and how they can achieve seemingly impossible changes by tapping the collective intelligence, spirit and energy of their people.

“So much of mainstream leadership literature defines leadership as this: vision articulated by one, or a small number of people, who plans, develops a strategy, and gets people to move toward his vision,” said Senge. “I have no doubt that works perfectly fine in some circumstances. But it’s wholly inadequate when you deal with deep systemic issues. No one person is going to save our butts on climate change. We’re going to have to save our butts on climate change.”

The seed of systems dynamics

Senge’s climate change example is apropos. He didn’t know it at the time, but it’s the issue that sparked – and perhaps continues to sustain – his impassioned interest in systems. He grew up in Los Angeles, his family part of the massive migrations from the Midwest to the California coast. He recalls “sitting in the back of my folks’ car, driving through miles and miles of orange and lemon groves.” A spectacular scene that’s hard to imagine today.

But by the time he left the San Fernando Valley for college a decade later, they were gone, bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and housing developments. Then came the air quality warnings, forcing kids off the street, no longer able to safely play outside.

“It only took 10 years to create this incredible, out of control development; to destroy an incredible, beautiful, natural habitat,” Senge shared. “It was very clear nobody was in control because no one would have advocated for that. There was no planning. It was a big development free-for-all and it made me aware that the system had a control of its own.”

This notion – that systems are in control of themselves – remains core to Senge’s work today. To hear him explain it: Who wakes up in the morning wanting to destabilize climate? Who wants to produce poverty? Who wants to produce any of the deep, systemic problems we see in the world? The answer is no one. Yet we’re all responsible for it. And it will take us working together – actively – to solve it.

 Can we change it? Yes, we can.

Senge calls it collaborative competition. Scientists competing with one another, but sharing their research and findings. Athletes training together and then competing for the medal. It’s a sense of interdependence coupled with action on multiple fronts.

Visualize this popular cartoon Senge uses to describe systems thinking: Two guys standing in one end of a boat; the boat is tipped because the other end is sinking. The caption says, “I’m really glad the hole is in their end of the boat.”

But we know it doesn’t matter where the hole is. It exists. It affects you too. This is the mindset that needs to change. It requires leadership to align individuals and groups toward a larger vision, to take individual and collective action on multiple fronts for the benefit of all.

Senge himself is an excellent example of this continual process of leadership. “None of us can do much but what we can do as individuals. As an individual, my role has always been to be a bridge between practice and ideas. I’m always asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I’m working on this project, on this project, on this project.’ But I’m never a lead. It’s always somebody else’s project and I’m there to support. To connect. So much of what allows a larger system intelligence to develop is through connection.”

Back to MIT Leadership Center Blogs