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What Can ‘The Systems View of Life’ Teach Us About Sustainable Leadership?

Fritjof Capra is the author of many best-selling books, including The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, The Hidden Connections and The Web of Life. His most recent book is The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, co-written with his friend Pier Luigi Luisi. I recently had the opportunity to meet Capra in São Paulo, where we discussed this new systemic concept of life, and particularly what it means for leadership in organisations.

There are many different writers, thinkers and organisational consultants now conceiving organisations as living. The Systems View of Life for the first time integrates four different levels of analysis – the biological, cognitive, social and ecological – into a single coherent framework, and Capra defines life as having the following five major characteristics:

1) Open Systems

  • dissipative
  • far from equilibrium
  • continuous flow of energy and matter

2) The dynamics of flow are non-linear

  • this is what leads to the emergence of new levels of order

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3) Self-generating networks

  • networks where the boundary is distinct from the internal structure

4) Cognitive

  • living systems interact cognitively with the environment in a way in which is determined by its own internal organisation

5) Non-linear growth

  • Growth is a central characteristic of life that is neither linear nor unlimited.
  • We should seek ‘qualitative growth’ — that which enhances life

It should be immediately noted that this is a simplified list, and of course it is possible to go much deeper into these five characteristics, such as including the notion of metabolism and really understanding what is meant by cognition, all questions which are explored in depth in the book.

Simon Robinson,
speaker at
Sustainable Brands 2015
San Diego
When discussing organisational change, Capra sees that by and large the record of change management is poor. One of the main obstacles is the largely unconsciousness embrace of the metaphor of the machine. When implementing change-management programmes, designs from outside are imposed through a mindset of top-down control, using machine-like language such as ‘re-engineering.’ However, we need to realise that machines do not change by themselves (they are not living).

If we take the systems view of life, we see that human organisations have a dual nature. So in asking Capra if an organization is a living system, his answer is both yes and no: Organisations can be said to be alive in that they are communities of people with meaningful work, but they also have a non-living aspect in that they are business entities with formal structures.

The dual nature means that you need two types of change. You need to look at how an imposed design interacts with the living elements. In Capra’s words: “People do not resist change but they do resist having change imposed on them.” Natural change processes are different than re-engineered change. Therefore we need to understand natural change processes.

In what way are human organisations alive, exactly? Capra answers this question by saying that a human organisation is only alive when it contains ‘networks of communication.’ He refers to these informal networks of communication as ‘communities of practice,’ and in larger organisations there are clusters of communities of practice. Therefore for Capra, “the aliveness of an organisation resides in its communities of practice, flexibility, creativity and learning potential.”

We can now see an organisation as having both formal structures, i.e. sets of rules that establish boundaries, and informal structures that are fluid and flowing networks of communication. There is continual interplay between these formal structures and informal networks. So if we take the systems view of life as our guiding principle for leadership, what lessons can managers and leaders learn?

The answer lies in a full understanding of the characteristics of living systems. As Capra says, “A living network responds to disturbances with structural changes. Messages will be heard when they are meaningful. Machines can be controlled. Living systems can only be disturbed. You give impulses rather than instructions.”

It’s not just data, information and knowledge that flow through social networks, but narratives. Capra makes the interesting observation that in networked societies, “the power to create networks constitutes power, including the power to exclude.” People motivated by power can therefore control a network through narratives that support their views of reality and sow false stories that they wish to impose on others through command-and-control. This is the shadow side of social networks, and I call these power networks ‘knotworks’ – networks with ego.

Facebook did not suddenly turn us into yogis, Buddhas, angels and saints. There is a big difference between social networks, communities and cultures. Communities may have the appearance and structure of social networks, but the outcome when networks are inauthentic is the continuation of fragmentation in society.

Social networks by themselves do not lead us to authentic sharing and collaboration. You need to analyse a human network in terms of its values. It is not just about having shared values, but universal human values: peace, truth, love, right-action and non-violence. Capra emphasises the point that when these values are present, and absolutely lived by each and every member, then communities develop culture and therefore you raise culture to its highest potential. The social network becomes psychologically, socially, ecologically and biologically healthy, authentic and self-sustaining.

So when we adopt the systems view of life we really have to live our values, and then we will discover that our organisations will shift from being dead to alive, and thriving in a world where people and planet matter.


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