Leadership Maturity: Linear Thinking vs. Systems Thinking

By District of Columbia Bar

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Written by Stan Proffitt
President of Shoshin Leadership, Inc.


How can I get my team to be more accountable?”

“How do I motivate my workforce?”

I hear the questions above on a weekly basis. In my view, the questions themselves reveal a major root of the problem.  The mindset that produces the above questions is focused on changing others. I know of no quicker path to frustration than trying to change others. 

An important distinction needs to be made between influencing others and “getting others to change.”  The difference is subtle, but each focus emanates from a profoundly different understanding of how relationships work. 

A focus on getting others to change betrays a linear thought process lurking beneath the surface.  In linear thinking there is a do this/get that mentality. There is a time for linear thinking.

Some examples that come to mind include: Fixing a car, correcting a golf swing, or revising code in a software program. 

Linear thinking can be useful when there is a “cause” that can be identified. The problem is that leaders, conditioned to fix problems and get things done, tend to apply linear thinking in situations where there are multiple contributing factors mutually influencing each other.

Leadership is essentially a relationship process. As such, there are many variables that influence how people function. A more useful mindset in navigating through and influencing a broader range of variables can be referred to as Systems Thinking.

In Systems Thinking, one considers multiple variables that contribute to what is going on. One of those variables is ALWAYS oneself. The sobering news is, in every relationship I have, I contribute to any problems or short-comings. The path to influencing the system at large involves shifting my own contribution to what is going on.

The purpose is not to change others. The purpose is to change myself, knowing that when I change, the others will have to respond to that change in some way.

About Stan ProffittAn executive coach and leadership teacher whose diverse academic and professional background has enabled him to connect with and inspire a wide range of top-level leaders. Stan’s background includes an Bachelor of Science degree in physical education, ten years in the Behavioral Health field in both inpatient and outpatient settings, and 17 years of experience in Organizational Development, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching. He continues his study of human relationship functioning through the Post-Graduate Program at the Bowen Center for the Study of Families and the Georgetown Family Center in Washington, D.C.