We Need the Capacity of a Collective to Play with Complexity

40 years ago I made the decision to stop eating meat and poultry. I have continued to eat fish, although I avoid farm-raised fish and wonder how long I can continue to rationalize this given the principles of sustainability, ethics and health that led me to this decision. In fall of 2012, I attended the annual Systems Thinking in Action Conference sponsored by Pegasus Communications. I was captivated when Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and Necessary Revolution, discussed a recent conference on sustainable fisheries in Vancouver, BC. Senge noted that more than 25% of the world’s fisheries are operating sustainably, which also means that fishermen work less and earn more.

This hopeful model of sustainability for fisheries was recently reinforced by an NPR story about fast-food giant McDonald’s exclusively using Pollock fish, sustainably harvested off of Alaska; as NPR noted, McDonald’s business model depends on a sustainable supply of fish. If 25% of fisheries are already sustainable, this is a huge story of success and hope. And I might be able to continue rationalizing why my eating fish was justifiable from ethical, environmental and health perspectives.

However, what Peter Senge went on to say was more significant to our future as a human species than sustainable fisheries. He noted that the complexity inherent in our global challenges, such as sustainable fisheries, exceeds the level of complexity within any of the individual organizations currently involved in the system. In short, they do not have the experience to deal with this highly complex system. Senge was referring to complexity as a system that is in dynamic relationship with its environment that results in non-linear changes.  As humans we do not have the capacity to fully understand this complexity and therefore we cannot predict what will emerge from these interactions.

Senge’s insight is similar to Einstein, noting that a problem cannot be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it. To address and remedy the global challenges facing us require all parts of the system to collaborate in order to rectify the tragedy of the commons that has nearly wiped out crucial fish populations, addicted us to a lifestyle dependent on petroleum, and created global warming.

At the conclusion of his talk (you can listen to a 5 minute excerpt here), Senge made a compelling case that the complexity of the current situation requires a new form of “collective leadership”. This new leadership brings together the wisdom and experience of complexity held by the individual organizations into a whole that has an understanding of complexity that exceeds the capacity of any one player or even the sum of all of the players to engage and dance with these challenging systems.

This was the clearest case I have yet heard for the broader vision of the Organization Systems Renewal graduate program in Organizational Leadership that I attended in the mid 1990’s, and which recently partnered with Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI). This 33-year-old program combines leadership, systems thinking, design thinking, organization development, as well as personal development in service of transforming individuals, organizations, communities and our planet.

Peter Senge helped me to fully appreciate that we have to develop “collective leadership” at all levels of our systems in order for us to rise to the challenges facing us. We are increasingly being reminded of the “wisdom of crowds” and yet this wisdom lies dormant until individuals take acts of leadership, with or without authority or formal power, to bring forth and harness the wisdom for the sake of our common good. This is high-risk, high-return work that asks us to be in service of something greater than our individual selves. It is heartening to know that as fish once again thrive in our oceans they may be replacing the canaries in the coal mine as indicators of our collective health and potential as a human species.

about the author

Bill Koenig is the BGI Vice President of Business Development and OSR-NW Executive Director. This 30-year-old program is now a partner of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. The OSR MA in Organizational Leadership is an opportunity to achieve excellence as a leader of change within your organization and community.

Learn more about the MA in Organizational Leadership

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