Leadership in living organization

A summary of ‘Leadership in Living Organizations’ by Peter M. Senge

Thinking of leadership as an expression of a living system requires fundamental shifts. It requires a set of new definition, metaphors, principles and perspectives. However, the foundations for understanding leadership in a world of living organizations already exist. The word leader is typically used as a synonym for a top-level manager. This thought poses two problems. It does not allow everyone in an organization to be a leader except for the top-level managers and it restricts innovative thinking and action. Besides, if leadership is defined as top management, then it has no real definition. Real leaders drive change. In all type of institution a disturbing pattern is emerging. There is a need for significant change and we need to opt for hero leader rather than eliciting and developing leadership capacity throughout the organization. The improvement made by the hero leader does not last because new ideas do not spring forth from people on the frontlines. And as a result the price that we pay in the long run is incalculable.

The simple definition of leadership has proved helpful in change over the years: the capacity of human community – people living and working together to bring forth new realities. Leadership breathes life into the enterprise without which nothing new can emerge. The word ‘inspire’ “means to breathe life into.” Human communities creating new realities unifies the extraordinarily diverse individuals whom we see as exemplary leaders – like Lincoln, Gandhi, Picasso, Shakespeare to Albert Einstein, Marie Curie etc. Obviously, many of these people were never ‘bosses’ yet all are widely regarded as leaders. Leadership is about tapping the energy and such energy is generated through creative tension. Leaders have vision. But vision alone is not sufficient for leadership. A leader energizes through generating and sustaining creative tension through fostering commitment to realizing a dream. If vision remains constant creative tension can be resolved only when reality moves towards the vision. Leadership is diminished whenever creative tension is undermined.  The work of the leader is easily comparable with the work of a gardener. Just as the gardener have the believe in the seed that it will sprout, and provides enough water and soil nutrients for the growth of the plant, a real leader believe in the potential of his people to grow and maintains a positive growing environment. The first principle of leadership: understand the self-reinforcing process of growth. If this doesn’t operate, change will not generate energy, it will absorb energy. Leaders attention must also focus on a second set of forces: the host of limiting conditions. All effective leadership strategies always come down to nurturing reinforcing growth process and relieving the limiting process. Effective leaders recognize the interplay of these forces and learn to work with them. They do not drive change; they participate in the growth processes and mitigate the constraints on change. The first reinforcing growth process most leaders identify and try to establish is fueled by improved business results. Achieving significant practical result does not happen overnight. It takes time. The second growth process functions through enhanced personal results. People are influenced by what colleagues in other working team are doing and this constitutes the third self-reinforcing process. Limiting processes are the challenges to significant change and they fall in three areas i.e. challenges of initiating, challenges of sustaining and challenges of redesigning and rethinking.  Organization wide change requires dealing with the sources and uses of governance, diffusion and reluctance to rethink what the strategy and purpose. The diversity of forces represented by different challenges requires a diversity of leaders. A coordinated effort from the local line leaders, internal networkers and executive leaders are vital in any organizations for influencing the overall environment within which innovations and learning occurs (Senge, 1999).


Senge P.M. (1999). Leadership in living organizations. In F. Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith, I. Somerville, (Eds). Leading Beyond the walls. The Drucker Foundation, 1999, Jossey-Bass, Inc. (a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons Co.).

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