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Systems Thinking:
Life-Enhancing Business Through Leadership

Change is one of the most challenging elements of life within an organization. To sustain a change agenda moving away from behaviors and decisions that are life-destroying to becoming life-enhancing, the nuances of both corporate culture and the patterns of human behavior need to be understood. This requires systems thinking - also called visual seeing and thinking skills. I sat down with Fritjof Capra, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists and systems theorists, to discuss the implications of systems thinking for business, leadership and society.

Change is one of the most challenging elements of life within an organization. To sustain a change agenda moving away from behaviors and decisions that are life-destroying to becoming life-enhancing, the nuances of both corporate culture and the patterns of human behavior need to be understood. This requires systems thinking - also called visual seeing and thinking skills.

I sat down with Fritjof Capra, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists and systems theorists, to discuss the implications of systems thinking for business, leadership and society.

Sandja Brugmann: In Capra Course, you speak to the biggest crisis of our time - that we are not just experiencing a sustainability crisis, but a crisis of perception. What is this crisis of perception? And how does it differ from a sustainability crisis?

Fritjof Capra: Two key aspects of the crisis we find ourselves in are that it is global and that its many facets — energy, the environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war — are all interrelated and interdependent. None of these global problems can be understood in isolation; they are systemic problems. To understand and solve them we need to learn how to think systemically — in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. This is what I teach in my Capra Course. So, we are talking about one global crisis with many interdependent facets. You can call it a sustainability crisis, because all of its facets are obstacles to a sustainable society. But this does not describe the fundamental nature of the crisis. It is rooted in the inability of our leaders to see our problems as systemic problems, and to design appropriate systemic solutions. This is why I call it a crisis of perception.

A systems view of life is critical today for all professions, because the major problems of our time are systemic problems — all interconnected and interdependent — and they need corresponding systemic solutions. The systems view of life provides the conceptual framework for such systemic solutions.

SB: How does this crisis of perception influence human life, leadership and business?

FC: Most of our business and political leaders are unable to "connect the dots," to use a popular phrase. They fail to see how the major problems of our time are all interrelated. Their so-called "solutions" tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system — for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health, or climate stability. Moreover, they refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations.

SB: You talk about how life-enhancing organizations can only truly flourish when the entire economic system has been changed from life-destroying to life-enhancing. Can you explain the terms ‘life-destroying’ and ‘life-enhancing,’ in terms of business and leadership?

FC: To understand if, and in what sense, a business organization is alive, is a difficult subject that I struggled with for many years, until I realized that every human organization has a dual nature. It is a legal and economic entity, designed for a specific purpose, and it is also a community, or a cluster of communities — informal networks known as “communities of practice.” The organization’s aliveness resides in its communities of practice. Life-enhancing leadership recognizes and legitimizes these informal networks; life-destroying leadership suppresses them.

SB: Is it a utopian dream to think that the current business and economic environment can become life-enhancing? It seems one of the key blocks to this is that in the current system, it’s people with money who hold the power. In order for these people to support the move towards a life-enhancing economic and business structure, they need to see what’s in it for them. How would you speak to them so they can understand the implications for them if we stay in a life-destroying economic model?

FC: So far in our conversation, I have mentioned the crisis of perception and systemic thinking. This is not all there is to the problems of our time, even though it is my main focus. The other part is values. Most people in power want to hold on to it, and even to increase it, valuing short-term personal financial gains higher than the well-being of communities and future generations. In other words, there is a clear lack of ethics in our business world and in our politics. Ethical behavior is always behavior for the common good. How to speak to powerful people about this is not easy. I would say, we have to show them the relationship between behavior for the common good and sustainability. If they continue to only care about “what’s in it for them” in the short run, they will destroy the future of their children and grandchildren, and ultimately of their business.

SB: How can leaders and people of all walks of life support the change towards a life-enhancing economic system?

FC: In our daily lives, we make hundreds of decisions that are either life-enhancing (sustainable) or life-destroying (unsustainable). Do I recycle my bottles and plastics, or do I throw them away? Do I use a paper or a cloth shopping bag? Do I drive, or do I bicycle (or walk) for short distances? Do I eat mostly beef or mostly vegetarian food? Do I let the water run while brushing my teeth, or do I use a cup? In business, sustainable actions should be encouraged and rewarded (symbolically and financially); in government, they should be supported by ecological “tax shifting” (reducing taxes on work and raising them on environmentally destructive activities).

SB: What are the key influences needed for humanity to live and do business in a thriving manner within the planetary boundaries? What kind of business values and leadership are needed to accomplish this?

FC: As I have mentioned, ethical behavior is behavior for the common good. It is always related to a particular community. In today’s world, there are two communities to which we all belong. We are all members of humanity, and we all belong to the global biosphere - the “Earth Household” (the meaning of the Greek oikos, the root of “ecology”). The outstanding characteristic of the Earth Household is its inherent ability to sustain life. As members of the global community of living beings, it behooves us to behave in such a way that we do not interfere with this ability, and our behavior should reflect a respect of human dignity and basic human rights. To lay this out in detail is quite a challenge, but fortunately we have a magnificent document, the Earth Charter, which covers the broad range of human dignity and human rights. It is a global declaration of 16 values and principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful world. The Earth Charter is a perfect summary of the ethics we need for our time.

SB: I found your lecture on living systems and change management and business fascinating. It is complex to create leadership transformation within corporations. What are some of the key areas to be aware of when working with expanding perceptions and change within business and leadership?

FC: The main challenge, in my view, is how to bring life into human organizations. The best way to do so is to acknowledge and legitimize the role of the living networks, or communities of practice, in every organization. This includes recognizing the creativity inherent in all life, which manifests in the spontaneous emergence of novelty, and to facilitate and reward that emergence. Facilitating emergence is now increasingly being recognized as a new form of leadership.

SB: How does a systemic understanding of the world impact ecoliteracy (ecological literacy)?

FC: Living sustainably means living in such a way that we do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. To do so, obviously, we first need to understand how nature sustains life. We need to understand the basic principles of organization that nature’s ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life. This knowledge is what I call “ecological literacy,” or “ecoliteracy.” It requires systemic thinking because ecology is essentially a science of relationships, and thinking in terms of relationships is what systems thinking is all about.

SB: The topic of power is particularly interesting, when working with executive leadership and business. What have you found characterizes the old type of power and how is the new power different?

FC: Basically, there are two kinds of power: power as domination of others (the old type of power) and power as empowerment of others (the new power). Whereas power as domination is most effectively exercised through a hierarchy, the most effective social structure for power as empowerment is the network. In a social network, people are empowered by being connected to the network. In such a network, the success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole. Any enrichment of individuals, due to increased connectedness in the network, will also enrich the entire network.

SB: How do we change power structures within an organization or institution, or even cultural system of a nation?

FC: All these power structures are already changing. The global civil society, where many of the leaders are women, and the vast number of social media are all exerting the new type of power as empowerment. The youth of today has been growing up with and within these social networks and, while often fighting the old type of power, they are used to network empowerment as power of a new kind.

SB: This shift in paradigms seems to have been underway for 30-40 years, and in my work, I have dedicated myself to helping this shift for more than 18 years. The change seems to be very slow and the old system and way of perception and values so ingrained. When do you think we’ll experience a tipping point towards the more enriching way of life? What are some markers you see in the world of forward movement?

FC: I feel that we are at the very cusp of our global crisis — close to the tipping point but also close to disaster. What we need is a profound change of perception — a change of paradigms from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. Accordingly, we need to find systemic solutions for our global problems — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems. Over the last few decades, the research institutes and centers of learning of the global civil society have developed and tested hundreds of such systemic solutions all over the world. In my course I review some of the most important of these solutions. They include new ownership designs that embody a shift from extractive to generative ownership; systemic solutions to the twin problems of energy and climate change; the worldwide renaissance of sustainable agriculture, and the recent dramatic rise in ecologically oriented design practices and projects — such as solar and wind energy, hybrid-electric cars, ‘green’ architecture, and so on. I conclude that we now have the knowledge and the technologies to build a sustainable future. What we need is political will and leadership.

The Passion Institute, in collaboration with Fritjof Capra, is offering Capra Course to organizations, NGOs and academia. Read more here, and contact us here.

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., is a scientist, educator, activist, and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society. A Vienna-born physicist and systems theorist, Capra first became popularly known for his book, The Tao of Physics, which explored the ways in which modern physics was changing our worldview from a mechanistic to a holistic and ecological one. Published in 1975, it is still in print in more than 40 editions worldwide.

Over the past 30 years, Capra has been engaged in a systematic exploration of how other sciences and society are ushering in a similar shift in worldview, or paradigms, leading to a new vision of reality and a new understanding of the social implications of this cultural transformation.

His most recent book, The Systems View of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014), presents a grand new synthesis of this work—integrating the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life into one unified vision. Several critics have suggested that The Systems View of Life, which Capra coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Biology at the University of Rome, is destined to become another classic. Capra Course is based on The Systems View of Life.