Systems Thinking and Senior Level Leadership

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The U.S. Army War College makes the case that senior leadership often takes place in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Problems in this arena are rarely simple and clear cut. If they were, they would likely have already been solved by someone else. If not well considered (and sometimes even when they are), today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. Inherent in the concept of strategic leadership is the notion that this environment requires different ways of thinking and problem solving. This article introduces some concepts of systems thinking and suggests that it is a framework that should be understood and applied by strategic leaders. It is insufficient and often counter-productive for strategic leaders to merely be good cogs in the machine. Strategic leaders must also be able to discern when a venerated system or process has outlived its usefulness or when it is operating as designed, but against the overall purpose for which the organization was established. Sociologist Robert K Merton coined the term “goal displacement” to describe this phenomenon. Goal displacement occurs when compliance with bureaucratic processes becomes the objective instead of focusing on organizational goals. The rational military decision making process that serves so well at the tactical level is inadequate for dealing with political issues that are part and parcel of senior level leadership. As Field Manual 22-100 notes, “Strategic leaders must concern themselves with the total environment in which the Army functions; their decisions take into account such things as congressional hearings, Army budgetary constraints, new systems… just to name a few.” We need senior leaders who can see both the parts and the big picture; to this end some of the concepts of systems thinking are useful. The Department

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