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Systems thinking and courage

By: Kathia C. Laszlo | 05 Nov | 8 comments


In all the books and research papers on systems thinking that I have read, I don't think I have yet found the word courage as part of the language used. There is a lot written about systems thinking in terms of it's relevance and importance, it's theories and methodologies, but nothing about what it takes--emotionally. And I'm convinced: systems thinking not only requires skill, it also takes courage.

I was invited as a keynote speaker to the 9th Brazilian Congress of Systems in Palmas, Brazil. My colleague, Raul Espejo, was the speaker who opened the conference. His presentation was about learning to act systemically. He ended his presentation with a poignant statement: "Systemic sensibility is an ethical imperative."

My presentation was the last event at the conference and I began with Espejo's closing remark. I was happy that a recognized cybernetician like Espejo chose "sensibility" and not something else like systemic understanding (a cognitive capacity) or systemic modeling (a technical capacity), for instance. He said systemic sensibility. How perfect for me: That was the focus of my presentation-- the need to move from systems thinking to systems feeling, being and doing.

In one of the sessions, a researcher presented his work on the management of toxic agrochemicals using the Viable Systems Model as his methodology. Given that my Portuguese is basically non-existent, I understood very little, but enough to realize that the scope of the inquiry was very narrow. This became apparent in the Q&A session when the researcher said that as an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture he doesn't have the power to question the use of pesticides and herbicides but only to regulate and control their use. My internal reaction was: What kind of excuse is that? He also said that he wants to feel good about his work and therefore doesn't question the current practice of using toxic chemicals in agriculture.

I was shocked. What kind of systems thinker restricts the scope of his work to the limitations imposed by reductionistic cultural practices?  Two possible answers came to my mind: 1) a not-sufficiently-systemic thinker who misses the implications of his conformity to the status quo; or 2) a systems thinker who is too afraid to question the status quo. A true systems thinker will continually ask the difficult questions that expand the boundaries of the inquiry.  But it takes courage to ask those big questions (usually beginning with why? and why not?) that take us to the root of a problem; where we usually find that we are an integral part of it and that change will involve changing ourselves.

I wanted to ask him: Do you need clean air to breath? Do you love a child? Do you care about the health of people? What happened (or did not happen) in your education or life experience that got you disconnected from the pulse of life? How did you become more concerned about fitting into an unviable, unhealthy system than to be an agent for its transformation?

When I notice that someone is acting within such self-imposed limitation; a failure to assume our common responsibilities and to own our power to change the course of human systems, something gets activated in me. I cannot remain neutral and ask curious unattached questions. I become "emotional."

It is this emotional connection that moves me, in a humble but persistent way, from being a passive observant to an active participant among initiates who know we can affect systemic change toward peace and sustainability. Whether it is through the experience of fear, despair, anger, joy, beauty, or love, I am moved to speak up on behalf of living systems and future generations. I do so because I care, because I know that what is at stake is much more than my egoic gratification, my sense of safety and comfort, or my desire to be accepted by a group who might find my words unconventional or threatening to their privilege.

We hide behind walls that arbitrarily separate the disciplines and professions, and we justify our inaction by telling ourselves and others "that's not my area." We go around the ethical imperative to embrace a systemic sensibility, to be fully human, and to assume our role as leaders. We overlook the fact that our thinking, our actions, the way we relate to others, and the choices we make at home, at work, or as citizens affect not only our personal lives but also the possibilities for the future of this interconnected planet. However, the idea that everything is connected to everything is not an abstract concept. It is a very practical guide for how to live!

There was no lack of passion in this conference. Oh no. Even though many of the presentations involved content that was highly theoretical or conceptual, the presenters clearly demonstrated that systems researchers are passionate about their work. This is good: it is a testament that these inquirers find their explorations meaningful. I wonder if this passion could be the energy needed to expand the boundaries of systems inquiry and find the courage to embrace the big questions raised by most encompassing systems. Let us ask the simple but fundamental questions: So what? Who cares? Is it good for people and planet?

When the results of a study or project are treated as only relevant to a narrowly defined group of technicians, without considering whether it has some undesirable "side effect" for someone else, then there is a need for courage and a heart connection to the real needs of the world. Scientific specializations should become perspectives to support the transdisciplinary exploration of larger and more fundamental questions that are relevant to humanity as a whole and the viability of our global civilization.

What kind of economic system, educational system, health care system, food production system, or political system works in accordance to life-sustaining principles? The answer is: The ones we need to design. We already have the knowledge and technology to create them. Now we need the courage.

Read other posts by Kathia C. Laszlo

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Comments and Discussions

Kathia, I found your

Kathia, I found your reflexions about the Conference in Palmas very insightful. Your plea for courage is indeed important. Systemic thinking, in my view, is all about building up relationships with those triggering, affecting and affected by our actions and, as you imply, our emotions underpin these relationships. How can we commit, rather than just comply, to someone's request unless there is mutual respect; or work for the future needs of our children and grandchildren without love for them; or how can we develop responsible trust for others, or build up a cohesive relationship with peers without some degree of solidarity, respect and awareness of what is fair or unfair in that context; or deal responsibly with challenges without openness to alternative viewpoints; or align purposes and values without being prepared to accept others beyond our own personal interests? I think, that it is through our sensibility to these, essentially, circular relationships that we construct good and bad systems.

Creative Confidence


I just read Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley. (David founded Stanford's dSchool and IDEO.) Through this book, I finally understood why individuals working for Business Unusual keep themselves embedded in Business-as-Usual. They lack the creative confidence to write new human code. It takes the exercise of power and love to gracefully disrupt something. The exercise of graceful power requires confidence. To confidently lead others into the unknown actually does require what the Kelley Brothers point to, creative confidence. This realization had me finally comprehend what you articulate so well here.

Here's to humanity finding the creative courage to write new human code!



Leadership and courage

To take it to the larger context. Undoubtedly individuals can, need, must explore within to help them take their life without to a more Wholistic theory and practice. Nevertheless, to really challenge and move humanity beyond where we are, not incrementally, not quantitatively, but qualitatively, requires a collective,, a united, push towards something beyond the anachronistic, economic, political paradigm we are immersed in. We need to unite with others who are breaking beyond what is and we have very little time IMO to do this. "The crisis of humanity is the crisis of leadership" Leon Trotsky 1934. With all of our knowledge, both theoretical and practical and a vision for a better world, are we going to let those who stand in the way, these inhumane obstacles, prevent humanity from having a healthy future? I say sweep them aside. Courage, self-discipline and a determination that we can and will have a better future. Think of the children and all that we share this planet with and that we have a whole universe to explore, but not whilst we are limited by those whose vision is parochial and destructive.


Good observation and reflection, Kathia. There are many courageous people out there. When they become aware of the system's failures in modern evolution of our perception of ethics and responsibility they have the choice to neglect it or accept. They often have the feeling to stand alone and without alternative to go for. Critical awareness and courage is not enough, not even vision. They need the good example to refer to, to "sell" internally and with sufficient proven authority to be safe for them and their superiors. Only then courage may reward them. The problem of proof of system innovation is that it hardly comes from inside. A system's complexity opens up for outside inspiration when in crisis or destroyed by conservative circumstances.

That is a very good point of

That is a very good point of view, Jean.

On target - entirely

I see the world and work within the world with these fundamental questions in mind as well - For the sake of what? What is our underlying hunger for our world, our family, and how do I direct my own energy everyday in a way that will matter in the long run? We have much work to do, and the connection to heart, and the courage to call forth the "heart" in others is very important work. It is a combination of long-term whole systems thinking, and courageous (from the heart) leadership, as well as the ability to enable and align the human collective or human "systems" around a compelling future vision that will enable the transformation of every industry, business practice, and the creation of a more sustainable, joy-filled future.

Yes, thank you Melissa!

Yes, thank you Melissa!

Thank you Melissa, so true!

Thank you Melissa, so true! And thank you Kathy for a great analysis from your heart.
For me everything I do or don't do has to do with courage and my heart is a great place to guide me from.
It's about being aware of what is true for me. And acting from there.
Warm regards, Sandra

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