What does it mean to be a systems thinker?

A leader needs to understand the structural elements of the organizational system in order to act as a systems thinker. The ways in which one leads a system can influence the behavior in the system.

It is important to understand how the leader of the system thinks about the system?  This has been called a mental model (Senge, 1990).   I think this is important for a leader to share with their followers all elements of their thinking. What their operating assumptions are, values, perspectives, and vision which the leader has about the system.

A system has patterns which can be examined to understand how it is operating. Once understood the systems leader can make a diagram to see the relationships between the processes and behavior in the system. Behavior tends to lead to reinforcing loops(Deming, 2000) and repeat itself over time. Also, in any action, there are unintended consequences. These are patterns or events which can occur which a leader did not anticipate or forecast. Understanding these elements of systems thinking can influence the performance and success of any leader.

How the humanistic leader shows empathy and cares towards followers

People feel better about the organization and work with more responsibility when they perceive that their leader cares about them. When a person sees that their leader believes in them, their own expectation of their work increases. When a leader encourages people to be creative, have courage, and make decisions on their own, people tend to take more risks and expand and see new possibilities in their work. If, however, a leader tends to use a reward and punishment model too often this can lead to unintended consequences. For example, if a leader punishes one person, fellow workers might also suddenly experience a decrease in productivity as they start to worry that their job also might be at risk. If a leader is too task focused versus human-focused, people start to view their work in robotic ways. As a result, they tend to not think as deeply or creatively about their work.

The effect of the autocratic leader

In many organizations, leaders operate in a traditional top-down behavior. Strategies and directions are only discussed at the very top of the organization. While the strategy setting is necessary it is equally important to involve all of those who work in the system to improve the system. Working with those in the system requires day-to-day dialogue. The leaders must show respect and encourage others to be the best that they can be. The humanistic leader teaches others how to motivate themselves. When a humanistic leader acts as a teacher versus just a manager he or she can gain lots of leverage. Since much communication is nonverbal, the systemic humanistic leader invests more time in face-to-face communication versus texting and emails. Just a simple smile or a nod of acknowledgment goes a long way to encouraging great work in people. The humanistic systems thinker is fair, not judgmental and open. Everyone is given equal opportunity to contribute to the organizational goals and strategies. Again, when people are given free autonomy to work in ways which fit them best, make decisions and try out new ideas, people and organizations thrive.

Purpose and feedback

The humanistic leader as a systems thinker always focuses on people and explains the purpose of why things are being done. Without a clear purpose, people tend to drift in different directions. Within any system, it is important to have feedback loops. This can exist with staff meetings, operational meetings, and one-on-one meetings. When no feedback loops exist, communication can stall and be interpreted in negative ways. Adults do better with feedback versus evaluation. Feedback is best when a person asks for feedback. Feedback is also best when it is frequent, informal, done in a helpful way, and not written down. Adults don’t react well to evaluation, especially when the evaluation is rigid, infrequent and delivered in a punitive way. Additionally, when an evaluation is written down people tend to get defensive. The best feedback occurs just in time, that is just before a person can use it.

Systems Behavior

As I noted earlier the leader of any system influences the behavior of those who work in the system. The humanistic leader is well aware of this and understands that followers tend to pay more attention to a leader’s actions versus words. This is why it is important for the humanistic leader to be self-aware, and high in conscientiousness while being emotionally stable. The leader who is not a deep thinker, fails to see connections and patterns and is emotionally unstable or not available to followers will influence an unhealthy system.

More on Mental models

It is important to understand what mental model you apply. I like to tell my students to think about how they will think about it before they think about it! For example, when thinking about solving a challenge do you think about it in a negative way or a positive way? Do you think about it from a past orientation, a present orientation, or a future orientation?  Do you think about solving the challenge from another person’s perspective? I like to use a technique of future pacing (Dilts, 1990). That means when I am resolving the issue I go into the future after the challenge has been solved and I understand how to solve it. Then, I can go back to the present and apply the solution. This isn’t as difficult as it may seem. It takes using one’s mind in different ways and applies a positive mental model. This is a part of being a systems thinker. As a leader, it is important to be transparent with the followers on the mental models which include many aspects such as assumptions, thinking approaches, and emotions.


The systems thinker who is humanistic should analyze data and also look at patterns. This means studying the patterns which appear in people and the organization. Patterns with careful observation will be easy to see since they occur again and again over time. For example, a leader might notice in an organization that multiple people over time made the same mistakes in a specific job. Deeper investigation might reveal a vacuum of communication, training, or planning in this area.

Unintended consequences

I think the most interesting area to examine is unintended consequences. Unintended consequences may occur with any action. For example, the leader responds to poor customer service by training more people to deal with customers but fails to improve the product or service which has caused the customer complaints in the first place. A sales manager responds to increased customer demand by selling more products before they can be realistically produced thus adding to more customer frustration. People are treated poorly at work and suddenly they start making more errors in their routine tasks. The humanistic leader is a systems thinker who understands that each action or decision will result in an unintended consequence which can be positive or negative and should be anticipated in advance.

Casual and reinforcing loops

It can be useful to draw pictures or make mind maps (Buzan, 2009) of casual loops to view how different variables in a system are related. Since many people tend to be visual learners, it is useful to see how all parts in the system relate to one another. For example, let’s assume that there is poor morale in the organization. You can draw a picture showing the various elements as nodes which contribute to the low morale. You can then draw related nodes which show the symptoms of the low morale. I like to use mind maps for this. For example, you might notice that poor autocratic leadership is leading to little communication in the organization which results in low morale. By showing these as reinforcing loops (Deming, 2000) in your mind map you will realize that to break these patterns you need to improve the leadership style in the organization as well as increase communication and have more frequent meetings.

Summary and key learning

The humanistic leader will be more effective as a systems thinker. Understanding what a system is and how to evaluate whether a system is healthy or unhealthy is important. By thinking deeply, analyzing patterns and applying positive mental models a leader can begin to operate in a more coherent and transparent way which in turn will improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the system and those who work in the system. This should be one key aim of any humanistic leader.


Senge, P.M., (1990), The Fifth Discipline– The Art & Practice of a Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday.

Dilts, R. B. &DeLozier, J. A., (2000). Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding. NLP University Press.

Deming W.E., (2000). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2000.

BuzanT., (2009). The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, Pearson BBC Active.