Business leaders need systemic thinking for sustainability

Bob Doppelt

The economy is in the tank and thousands of people are out of work. At the same time, the planet is dangerously heating up and ecological systems are declining. What are we to make of these troubles? Are they merely the result of poor policies? Or is something more fundamental at play?

To resolve today’s challenges, our leaders must overcome the erroneous perspectives that created the predicament. At the most fundamental level, this requires moving from a “linear” way of thinking – where we focus on quickly fixing the most visibly broken parts of what isn’t working – to a “systems” perspective that brings thought and behaviour into line with the natural laws of sustainability. Despite years of talk about systemic thinking, few companies or governments actually practice it. This is due, in part, to the lack of a simple framework to guide the implementation of a systems perspective.

Here is a framework involving five inter-related commitments that can help leaders make the shift from linear to systems thinking.

First, always strive to see the systems of which you are part. All life on our planet exists only because we are enmeshed within a complex web of interdependent ecological and social systems. Executives must remove their blinkers and recognise this natural law of interdependency. The first commitment required to make the shift to systems thinking is to “see the economic, social and ecological systems you are part of.”

Systems are not easy to quantify, but you can map them. Drawing systems maps will help leaders understand that their existence depends on being part of complex interdependent systems.

Second, it is important to be accountable for all of the consequences of your actions on those systems. In today’s over-crowded, over-heated and extensively interconnected world, almost every action we take affects the planet’s social, economic and ecological systems in some way, now or in the future.

Assessing carbon footprints is a start. But much more is required. Executives must strive to account for all of the possible consequences of their firm’s activities on the social, economic and ecological systems they are part of.

Business leaders must see that they sit within a complex web of interdependent ecological and social systems.

Like systems, cause and effect can be difficult to quantify. But it can be mapped using tools such as “fishbone” diagrams.

Third, it is important to abide by society’s long held universal moral principles of equity and justice. After their awareness expands of the affects of their activities on the systems they are part of, leaders must adopt a clear set of moral principles to guide their response. By morality I mean decisions about what is fair and unfair in the way they treat people here and abroad, and what their duties and responsibilities are to others. The most universally held moral precept is to “do no harm”. The natural law of moral justice says that any action that causes unjustifiable human suffering and death is morally wrong. Our use of fossil fuels is already causing human suffering and death, and much more will occur as the planet warms. This is one example of morally wrong behaviour. A commitment to do no harm focuses executives on the need to control their innate selfish and aggressive traits.

Fourth, acknowledge your trustee obligations and take responsibility for the continuation of all life. The scale of today’s economy and associated ecological impacts mean that human activities, not natural processes, will now determine the fate of our planet. We must now accept the natural law of trusteeship – every individual and organisation is a trustee of the planet with the responsibility to ensure the continuation of all life for current and future beneficiaries. The golden rule expresses this commitment: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” We must treat the economic, social, and ecological systems we are embedded within as we want others to treat them, because our lives depend on it.

Finally, it is time to break free from the false beliefs. Many executives have been taught that focusing on self-interests alone – maximising their personal, family and organisational wellbeing over everything else – is natural and good. But this view confuses self-centeredness with individual freedom. No executive needs to be controlled by these outdated harmful beliefs and habits. Everyone can think systemically at any time. The natural law of free will offers empowering knowledge. Every public and private organisation can abide by the five commitments any time they choose.

The shift to sustainability happens one person and one organisation at a time. This means the starting point for addressing today’s many crises is each of us. As other leaders begin to think systemically, social contagion will occur and the cultural and political will needed to set society on a truly sustainable path will emerge.

An article by Bob Doppelt for The Guardian. Find the original article here.

Bob Doppelt is the executive director of the Resource Innovation Group (TRIG) and an adjunct professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon where he teaches systems thinking and global warming policy. He is the author of From Me to We: The Five Transformational Commitments Required to Rescue the Planet, Your Organisation, and Your Life and also Leading Change Towards Sustainability: A Change Management Guide for Business, Government and Civil Society (Greenleaf Publishing 2003, 2010.

Buy From Me to We direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a 30% discount off paperback and 10% discount off PDF eBook. Just use voucher code FMTW49 at checkout.

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