Servant Leadership: Practices
“Context: Study Abstracts
on Systems Leadership”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
1:3 – Charting Your Course

Study Abstracts: This
article strikes out on a different leg of the journey toward servant leadership.
It attempts to understand and simply report major concepts of others; it also
calls for you to grapple with these insights in the practice of congregational
leadership. It really is a serious effort to provide resources that move us
together toward enlightened leadership.

Peter Senge focuses on systems thinking within learning
organizations of any kind.
Ronald Richardson’s family systems is adapted to life and
leadership within a congregation.
Peter R. Scholtes gives practical attention to the nature
and leadership of systems.

Study Abstract: Systems Thinking
as the Fifth Discipline

from The Fifth Discipline: “The Art and Practice of The Learning

by Peter M. Senge. (Currency Doubleday, New York, 1994)
Abstract prepared by Lloyd Elder

Abstracted from Senge’s book, the following selected concepts
present the role of “systems thinking” in living, learning, growing
organizations. Applications to servant leaders within a congregation may be
drawn by each of us, and they are profound and numerous.

  • Learning Organizations: People continually
    expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire; new patterns
    of thinking are nurtured, aspirations set free, and people are learning
    how to learn together (p. 3). Organizations excel that tap their people’s
    commitment and capacity to learn (p. 4).
  • Disciplines of the Learning Organization: Five
    disciplines in behavior of learning organizations form a body of theory
    and technique that are mastered and put into practice (p. 10).
    • Systems thinking is a conceptual framework,
      a body of knowledge and tools to see the organization as a whole, not
      just its parts and to help change them effectively (pp. 6-7).
    • Personal mastery is a special level
      of proficiency; an ability to consistently realize the results that
      matter most deeply to them: a commitment to lifelong learning. As a
      discipline, personal mastery is the learning organization’s spiritual
      foundation (p. 7).
    • Mental models are deeply ingrained
      assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence
      how we understand the world and how we take action. It starts with turning
      the mirror inward unearthing our internal pictures of the world (p.
    • Building shared vision is the capacity
      to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create; with a genuine
      vision expressed in goals, values, and missions; people excel and learn
      because they want to (p. 9).
    • Team learning is truly learning, not
      only producing extraordinary results but individual team members growing
      more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise (pp. 9-10).
  • Systems thinking is the fifth discipline because it integrates
    the five disciplines into an ensemble, fusing them into a coherent body of
    theory and practice. The organization as a whole can exceed the sum of its
    parts, but systems thinking also needs the other four disciplines (p. 12).
  • Laws of the Fifth Discipline
    Senge draws several laws from “systems thinking” that serve
    as tools for those working within an organization [think about your own
    congregational systems]:
    • Today’s problem can come from yesterday’s
      “solutions,” because they too often merely shift problems
      around (pp. 57-58).
    • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back;
      often explained as “compensating feedback” (pp. 58-60).
    • Behavior grows better in the short run before it eventually
      grows worse; too often a solution only cures the symptoms (p. 60).
    • The easy way out only leads back in; we too often look
      for solutions in what we already know best and do not seek new initiatives
      responding to the impact of systems (pp. 60-61).
    • The cure can be worse than the disease; short-term improvements
      all too commonly lead to long-term dependence (p.61).
    • Faster is slower; when growth becomes excessive, it most
      often outpaces optimal natural systems (pp. 62-63).
    • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and
      space; “effect” means obvious symptoms, and “cause”
      means the interaction of underlying systems (p. 63).
    • Small changes can produce big results–but the areas
      of highest leverage are often the least obvious (p. 63).
    • You can have your cake and eat it too–but not at once.
      Taking time to develop new skills and processes may get what you really
      want–quality and quantity (pp. 65-66).
    • Living systems have integrity, their character depending
      on the whole. Organizations must be seen as a whole to understand the
      most critical issues (pp. 66-67).
    • There is no blame. Systems thinking shows us that there
      is no outside, that you and your problems are part of a single system
      (p. 67).

Concept by concept consider how servant leadership, individuals, and teams
could apply systems thinking to your congregation.


Study Abstract – Family Systems Approach
from Ronald W. Richardson’s, Creating a Healthier Church: Family
Systems Theory,
Leadership, and Congregational Life,
(Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996)
Abstract prepared by Lloyd Elder

  • Studies in the last quarter century have
    set forth the reality of a congregation in terms of “family systems.”
    Murray Bowen first published in this area in 1978, and Edwin Friedman continued
    its application in 1985. Since then numerous scholars have expanded the
    understanding, including Richardson’s 1996 book applying this to the
    role of leadership. This is becoming a basic element in the leader/follower
    situation of any Christian minister.
  • The congregation, as an emotional system, networks with
    a variety of other systems and subsystems, such as: structural, communication,
    decision-making, economic, and cultural (p. 8). The systems model recognizes
    that members can only be understood fully within the context of their relationships.
    No one lives or acts in isolation; we are all affected by each other’s
    behavior: “we are all in this together” (p. 25).
  • Anxiety, as the threat of abandonment
    or engulfment, is a powerful force in the balance of the congregation’s
    emotional systems (pp. 41, 49). Within a congregation there is a sense of
    community that members consider as “comfort zones,” or “right
    and proper” levels of emotional closeness and distance. There are
    also zones of abandonment and engulfment (pp. 66-67); but, wise leaders
    know when to invite connection, when to listen rather than speak, and when
    to be comfortable with distance (pp. 77-78).
  • Congregational life has four functional styles
    as it expresses the two powerful forces of emotional relationships:
    togetherness (closeness) and individuality (distance) (pp. 101-112).
    • Enmeshed: extreme fusion resulting in loss of self,
      of individuality; the individual experiences engulfment which causes a
      level of discomfort.
    • Isolated: no fusion, establishing extreme distance
      from others, from togetherness; one experiences abandonment, of not belonging.
    • Connected: a healthy differentiation of allowing a
      sense of togetherness without loss of self; a healthy sense of belonging.
    • Alone: connects with others but maintains the ability
      to stand alone; a healthy sense of identity.

Glossary–differentiation: Richardson says: “It
is equivalent to the biblical concept of wisdom; it has to do with people’s
ability to effectively use what they know”
(p. 85). [Others define:
perceiving a difference, marking a distinction, marking the boundaries.]

  • Dyadic Relationship and Triangulation
    • Dyadic relationships in a congregation
      are between two people who have established or at least are managing
      their comfort zones of closeness and distance (p. 32): A—————B
    • Triangulation takes place when either
      A or B brings a third party C into this emotional system seeking help
      to change the other person, or to take over the responsibility (p. 114).
      Leadership in the family system limits its role in being a third party.
    • Remember that triangles are normal but your role in
      the process is a choice.
      – Since triangles are basically about people’s level of anxiety,
      discover how you could contribute to a calmer, less anxious, and safer
      environment for people (p. 129).
  • Becoming a better leader in the congregational
    • You become a better leader by becoming more fully yourself,
      and by managing yourself (not others) within the context of your congregation
      (p. 172).
    • The leader’s main job is to create an emotional
      atmosphere in which greater calmness exists, to be a less anxious presence
      (p. 173).
    • To be aware of, and to reduce your own level of emotional
      negativity in the midst of difficult situations (pp. 178-179).
    • To separate what is a “feeling” and what
      is a “fact,” and facilitate this process with others.
    • To act on the basis of your principled beliefs in a
      way that is consistent with your goals (p. 180).
    • To work in the functional styles of connected and alone.

Reflection/Application: Reconsider your congregation
as “family systems.”


Study Abstract: Leadership Application
of Systems Thinking

from The Leader’s Handbook: A Guide to Inspiring Your People
and Managing the Daily Workflow
, by Peter R. Scholtes
(McGraw-Hill, New York, 1998)
Abstract prepared by Lloyd Elder

In this abstract I have selected to report only four sections
from this 400-page handbook–and those are on aspects of systems thinking
and leadership.

  1. “What is a system?” (see pp.
  • A system is a whole composed of many parts, such as an auto.
  • With a purpose–to provide transportation.
  • Each part of the system contributes to the whole.
  • Each part has its own purpose, interdependent with other parts (e.g. engine
    with transmission, with steering wheel, etc.).
  • We can understand a part by seeing how it fits into the system, but not
    the system by its parts.
  • To understand a system we must understand its purpose, its interactions,
    and its interdependencies.
  • When we look at an organization, we are looking at a complex social and
    technical system; e.g. a systems in systems in systems interacting as a whole.
  1. Systems Thinking at the Core
    Peter R. Scholtes makes a significant claim which is the core of his published
    finding: “Systems thinking is the heart of twenty-first century leadership.
    (see pp. 57-59)
  • Systems thinking “refers to the general reflex
    or habit of conceiving of reality in terms of interdependencies, interactions,
    and sequences.”
  • Systems “refers to interactions and interdependencies
    on a large scale; it consists of subsystems and processes.”
  • Processes refer to components of a system, having purposes
    and functions of their own.
  • Methods refer to components of the process interacting
    with other methods that make up the process.
  • Sequence refers to steps as components of a method, interacting
    with other steps to serve the purpose of the method.
  • Customers refer to those in the chain who are the end-users
    or consumers who benefit from the product or service; they have the final
    say of its value. There are both internal and external customers. (see pp.
  1. Approaches to Systems Thinking (pp. 84-85)
    Scholtes suggests that we can develop systems-minded organizations by backing
    away from everyday work and asking basic, large-scale, long-term questions,
    such as:
  • What is our purpose? What capabilities do we provide our customers?
  • Who are, or should be, our customers? What do they want? What do they need?
    How do we know?
  • Given what we know about our customers, what output (goods and services)
    with which features and attributes must we provide?
  • Given these outputs, what systems, processes, and methods must be in place?
    How do we know?
  • How do we monitor and control these systems, processes, and methods to assure
    they will reliably deliver the output needed by our customers?
  • Given these systems, processes, methods, and output, what input do we need
    from internal and external suppliers?
  • Which suppliers can best provide us with the needed input? How do we know?
  1. New Leadership Competencies (from pp. 19-49)
    According to Scholtes, there are six new leadership competencies essential
    for today’s organization managers. Admitting with deepest respect for his
    legacy from Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge; Scholtes sets out
    with details and examples six new competencies for leadership:
  • The ability to think in terms of systems and knowing how to lead systems.
  • The ability to understand the variability of work in planning and problem
  • Understanding how we learn, develop, and improve, and leading true learning
    and improvement.
  • Understanding people and why they behave as they do.
  • Understanding the interdependence and interaction between systems, variation,
    learning, and human behavior. Knowing how each affects the others.
  • Giving vision, meaning, direction, and focus to the organization.

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© 2006; hosted and
copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church