Peter Senge is known for his passion for leadership and sustainability, but is the first to criticize both of these terms. “Leadership, in our culture, is far too often synonymous with ‘boss-ship,’ the exercise of formal authority.” In fact leadership in Senge’s view is far more distributed: the capacity of a community to create its future. As for sustainability, Senge suggests that we think carefully about what and why we are sustaining – sustainability is really about the flourishing of human and other life for generations to come, as his friend and MIT colleague John Ehrenfeld has articulated. That is a positive vision worthy of leadership.
When you put the two together, you quickly run into the greatest challenge of leadership for sustainability: the community creating a new future for the planet is an expansive one, and crosses many boundaries. Creating a sustainable world means bringing together functions in an organization, companies in a value chain, and partners across sectors. With different languages, perspectives, and interests at play, this means special qualities of leadership like listening, inquiry, and dialogue. Through that higher quality of conversation, it becomes possible to develop a shared view of the current reality, a shared vision for the future, and a shared capacity to hold the “creative tension” between the two.
Through his career, Senge has dedicated himself to both articulating and embodying that kind of cross-boundary leadership. His 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline” falls into a rare category – a piece cited and praised as much by practitioners as in academia. It articulated the essential capabilities of a learning organization, centered on the idea of “systems thinking” that he learned from his MIT mentor, Jay Forrester. This work spawned a generation of scholarship, consulting, and business leadership to accelerate learning in business and society.
Senge has always seen sustainability as the most essential application of these ideas, having enjoyed the friendship and guidance of sustainability progenitor Donella Meadows from the 1970’s. Through his work at both the MIT Sloan School of Management and SoL (the Society for Organizational Learning), he has brought together thousands of executives and champions for organizational learning and sustainability. The stories and insights from this extended conversation culminated in the book “The Necessary Revolution,” which Senge now uses as the central text for the MIT Sloan course on Leading Sustainable Systems or “L-Lab.”
The L-Lab course, co-taught with Wanda Orlikowski, gets students immersed in self-reflection and team development in the context of a project with an organization dealing with cross-boundary leadership for sustainability. The experience is transformative for students, and they often cite it as their most cherished experience at MIT. This next generation inspires Peter’s work.
We are at the beginning of the beginning. No one knows how to transform the culture – the assumptions, values and institutional norms - that drives the current industrial paradigm, but nothing less will ultimately suffice to change our course. Our immediate task is to keep the ship from sinking. It will take several generations to actually change its course.