Leading the Learning Organisation – more from Peter Senge

Leading the learning organization

Peter Senge argues that learning organizations require a new view of leadership.

In a learning organization, leaders are designers, stewards and teachers. They are responsible for building organizations were people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models – that is they are responsible for learning…. Learning organizations will remain a ‘good idea’… until people take a stand for building such organizations. Taking this stand is the first leadership act, the start of inspiring (literally ‘to breathe life into’) the vision of the learning organization.

Leader as designer. The functions of design are rarely visible,  Senge argues, yet no one has a more sweeping influence than the designer . The organization’s policies, strategies and ‘systems’ are key area of design, but leadership goes beyond this. Integrating the five component technologies is fundamental. However, the first task entails designing the governing ideas – the purpose, vision and core values by which people should live. Building a shared vision is crucial early on as it ‘fosters a long-term orientation and an imperative for learning’ . Other disciplines also need to be attended to, but just how they are to be approached is dependent upon the situation faced. In essence, ‘the leaders’ task is designing the learning processes whereby people throughout the organization can deal productively with the critical issues they face, and develop their mastery in the learning disciplines’ .

Leader as steward. While the notion of leader as steward is, perhaps, most commonly associated with writers such as Peter Block (1993), Peter Senge’s   starting point was the ‘purpose stories’ that the managers he interviewed told about their organization. He came to realize that the managers were doing more than telling stories, they were relating the story: ‘the overarching explanation of why they do what they do, how their organization needs to evolve, and how that evolution is part of something larger’ . Such purpose stories provide a single set of integrating ideas that give meaning to all aspects of the leader’s work – and not unexpectedly ‘the leader develops a unique relationship to his or her own personal vision. He or she becomes a steward of the vision’ . One of the important things to grasp here is that stewardship involves a commitment to, and responsibility for the vision, but it does not mean that the leader owns it. It is not their possession. Leaders are stewards of the vision, their task is to manage it for the benefit of others. Leaders learn to see their vision as part of something larger.  Leaders have to learn to listen to other people’s vision and to change their own where necessary. Telling the story in this way allows others to be involved and to help develop a vision that is both individual and shared.

Leader as teacher.  While leaders may draw inspiration and spiritual reserves from their sense of stewardship, ‘much of the leverage leaders can actually exert lies in helping people achieve more accurate, more insightful and more empowering views of reality . Senge argues that building on an existing ‘hierarchy of explanation’ leaders, can influence people’s view of reality at four levels: events, patterns of behaviour, systemic structures and the ‘purpose story’. By and large most managers and leaders tend to focus on the first two of these levels (and under their influence organizations do likewise). Leaders in learning organizations attend to all four, ‘but focus predominantly on purpose and systemic structure. Moreover they “teach” people throughout the organization to do likewise’ . This allows them to see ‘the big picture’ and to appreciate the structural forces that condition behaviour. By attending to purpose, leaders can cultivate an understanding of what the organization (and its members) are seeking to become. One of the issues here is that leaders often have strengths in one or two of the areas but are unable, for example, to develop systemic understanding. A key to success is being able to conceptualize insights so that they become public knowledge, ‘open to challenge and further improvement’ .

“Leader as teacher” is not about “teaching” people how to achieve their vision. It is about fostering learning, for everyone. Such leaders help people throughout the organization develop systemic understandings. Accepting this responsibility is the antidote to one of the most common downfalls of otherwise gifted teachers – losing their commitment to the truth. (Senge 1990: 356)

Leaders have to create and manage creative tension – especially around the gap between vision and reality. Mastery of such tension allows for a fundamental shift. It enables the leader to see the truth in changing situations.

The process of exploring one’s performance, personality and fundamental aims in life (as Peter Senge is proposing) is a daunting task for most people. To do it we need considerable support, and the motivation to carry the task through some very uncomfortable periods. It calls for the integration of different aspects of our lives and experiences.

There is a straightforward question concerning the vision – will people want to sign up to it? Many people just want to go about doing their job!

Senge introduces all sorts of broader appreciations and attends to values but his theory is not fully set in a political or moral framework. His approach largely operates at the level of organizational interests and  there is no consideration of questions of social justice, democracy and exclusion.

Many people have suggested that Peter Senge has been ahead of his time and that his arguments are insightful and revolutionary. Has Senge’s vision of the learning organization and the disciplines it requires contributed to more informed and committed action with regard to organizational life?

Further reading

Block, P. (1993) Stewardship. Choosing service over self-interest, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. 264 + xxiv pages. Calls for a new way of thinking about the workplace – arguing that notions of leadership and management need replacing by that of ‘stewardship’. Organizations should replace traditional management tools of control and consistency with partnership and choice. ‘Individuals who see themselves as stewards will choose responsibility over entitlement and hold themselves accountable to those over whom they exercise power’. There is a need to choose service over self-interest.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994) Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. 348 + xi pages. Just about the best of the more recent books on leadership. Looks to bring back ethical questions to the centre of debates around leadership, and turns to the leader as educator. A particular emphasis on the exploration of leadership within authority and non-authority relationships. Good on distinguishing between technical and adaptive situations.

Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Random House. 424 + viii pages. A seminal and highly readable book in which Senge sets out the five ‘competent technologies’ that build and sustain learning organizations. His emphasis on systems thinking as the fifth, and cornerstone discipline allows him to develop a more holistic appreciation of organization (and the lives of people associated with them).

O’Neill, J. (1995) ‘On schools as learning organizations. An interview with Peter Senge’ Educational Leadership, 52(7)http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/edlead/9504/oneil.html

Schultz, J. R. (1999) ‘Peter Senge: Master of change’ Executive Update Online,http://www.gwsae.org/ExecutiveUpdate/1999/June_July/CoverStory2.htm

Senge, P. (1998) ‘The Practice of Innovation’, Leader to Leader 9http://pfdf.org/leaderbooks/l2l/summer98/senge.html

Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith, B. (1999) The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, New York: Doubleday/Currency).

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and Kleiner, A. (2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York: Doubleday/Currency


Useful links

Dialogue from Peter Senge’s perspective – brief, but helpful, overview by Martha Merrill

fieldbook.com – ‘home to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook Project’ – includes material on Schools that Learn and The Dance of Change

Peter Senge resources – GWSAE online listing includes interview with Senge by Jane R. Schultz.

A Primer on Systems Thinking & Organizational Learning – useful set of pages put together by John Shibley @ The Portland Learning Organization Group

Resources on Peter Senge’s learning organization – useful listing of resources from the Metropolitan Community College, Omaha.

sistemika – online Peter Senge resources

Society for Organizational Learning – various resources relating to Senge’s project.

Systems thinking – useful introductory article by Daniel Aronson on thinking.net.