Leaders are everywhere in democratic societies. You and I are among them. You may be a parent, teacher, police officer, young person, community activist, or someone angered by what you see wrong in America.
Whether your anger is sparked by gun violence, immigration, racism, or inequality — or you simply don’t understand why some people are upset — you are not alone. Like many, you might feel helpless, thinking, “I could never make a real difference or lasting change.” But you’d be wrong.
Change comes from parents and teachers who instill the power of critical thinking in children and teens. It comes from leaders who build relationships between diverse people and organizations. It comes from everyday people who think deeply about problems and solutions. How does this happen?
The process of making effective change in complex societies has been studied by scientists in multiple academic disciplines — including psychology, ecology, and biology — for decades. Their conclusions are surprisingly simple.
The science of “systems thinking” shows how positive change emerges when we begin to recognize that we are part of the system we want to change. The Dawn of System Leadership, an article published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2015, brilliantly outlines the core concepts of systems thinking. “The fear and distrust we seek to remedy,” it says, “also exist within us—as do the anger, sorrow, doubt, and frustration.” We cannot begin to make effective change in our communities until we recognize how we are intricately connected to the people and issues we want to change.
Thinking systemically is a frame of mind. When put into practice, it can lead to profoundly positive outcomes. Nelson Mandela, for example, was a remarkable systems thinker. Through his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he fostered emotional healing in a country that was torn apart by racism. He did so by bringing blacks and whites together in groundbreaking ways that helped them co-create a future for South Africa.
The ability to think and act systemically is not only the mark of an exceptional political leader, it is also a mindset that produces great scientists, parents, teachers, and community change makers. Systems thinking emphasizes the interrelationships between parts over the parts themselves. Rather than reducing systems in order to understand them, systems thinkers focus attention on how the parts act together through networks of interactions. (Gharajedaghi, 2011; Senge, 2006).
When systems scientists, for example, look at gun violence in America, they don’t just examine gun laws. They look at interrelationships between gun violence and other parts of the puzzle, including mass shootings; homicides; suicides; mental health disorders; gun safety counseling; firearm research; substance abuse; and exposure to violence by the media, games, and entertainment (Brent, et al. 2013). In other words, systems thinkers understand that solving complex problems demands an ability to recognize the interdependencies between parts of the system that need to be changed.
Systems thinking is the opposite of scientific reductionism, a frame of mind that seeks to understand complex phenomena by reducing them to their simplest parts. (Von Bertalanffy, 1960; Rosenberg, 2006). It's a way of thinking that analyzes the pieces of the puzzle but doesn't consider how and why the pieces connect. There is nothing wrong with reductionism when used appropriately, like in double-blind medical studies or studies that seek to answer simple cause and effect questions.
Despite the many ways that reductionism has helped individuals and societies, most systems theorists would agree that reductionism is what plagues American society today. Why? Because human development cannot be easily understood or measured by numbers, or by reducing human behavior into parts. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, big data is big business. Everyone wants simple cause and effect answers, even when most answers related to complex human issues will never be discovered through scientific reductionism.
In my own academic research, I wanted to know, “How do young people grow to become civic leaders and change makers?” A reductionist approach might have involved conducting surveys of students who took American government or civics classes compared with students who did not enroll in these classes. Hypothetically, let’s say the data showed that students in the civics classes were more engaged citizens. Therefore, one might conclude that civics classes directly impacted citizenship.
Instead, I studied the life stories of more than 40 diverse civically-engaged students from across America. In my book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, I showed how raising and mentoring tomorrow’s citizens is a systemic process of developing core human abilities. I learned this by listening to young people and using systems thinking as the scientific framework for my research.
As you can see, a difference in mindset will lead to substantially different interpretations of data. While the reductionist study might have contributed to understanding one aspect of the research question, it is not sufficient to understand something as complex as civic activism. In fact, no single study can do this. It is only when scientists evaluate whole bodies of studies that theories of human and organizational development are conceived.
What happens when complex societal issues, like racism, inequality, immigration, and violence are reduced to their simplest parts? When people believe there are simple cause and effect solutions like closing borders or banning guns?
Reductionism produces an “us versus them” society, a right versus wrong mentality. Rather than recognizing that everyone is part of the solution, reductionism places the responsibility for societal problems on external factors beyond human control. We cease listening to each other. We stop seeking answers that focus on interrelationships and start blaming groups of people, political parties, or organizations for our problems. Reductionism creates a natural environment for bullying and fear to thrive, a perfect storm for the rise of chaos and disorder.
Many scientists believe American society, and democracy itself, is weakened by reductionism. It’s a mindset that has taken hold in families as success for children has become reduced to grades instead of measured by core abilities that help kids thrive in life. In schools, teachers’ effectiveness has been reduced to its simplest forms—measured by student test scores rather than the development of the whole child. Wherever you look in American society, measurement is reduced to numbers, or to simple cause-and-effect conclusions unsupported by evidence.
What is the problem with numbers? Numbers have little meaning to humans. To thrive, humans need to feel seen, heard, felt, and understood. They need meaning and life purpose, including opportunities to collaborate with others and contribute to the society in which they desire to belong.
Many scientists now believe that the only way to fully understand a human phenomenon is to understand its parts in relation to the whole (Hammond, 2005). Becoming a systems thinker is how all of us become part of the solution—through changing our frame of mind.
When we adopt a systems perspective of how humans develop and solve societal issues, we naturally become part of powerful and positive grassroots change. We learn to model behavior that helps raise and educate children with core abilities to navigate 21st century lives, and to become critical thinkers and citizens of an informed democracy.
You don’t need to be a systems scientist to be an everyday leader and systems thinker —someone who can make a real difference to improve families, schools, communities, and society. Everyone can challenge reductionist thinking and become an effective change maker in the following four ways.
Step back and look at the big picture instead of focusing on parts. Reflect on your own thoughts and feelings. Put yourself in others’ shoes. Look at the connections between you and others instead of coming to quick cause-and-effect conclusions.
Notice a wide range of reasons for behavior, consequences, and implications. Listen to people’s stories, observing how your own story connects with theirs. Learn the art of positive skepticism!
Problems are influenced and resolved indirectly by a variety of behaviors, including asking questions, listening, showing flexibility, and being respectful of others. Don’t be concerned about who gets credit for a solution. The best leaders help others feel invested through collaborative solutions.
Short term success does not necessarily equate with long term success. Examine unintended long term consequences of quick fixes. Focus on strategies that improve key relationships among the parts rather than the parts themselves.
If you want to learn more about scientific systems thinking and how it is applied in many ways, check out some of the following resources. You’ll notice as you are watching the Ted Talks, that systems thinking is never mentioned. That’s because systems thinking is not about saying that you are a “systems thinker,” rather about the act of understanding relationships and their implications.
How I Fell in Love with a Fish, a Ted Talk by Chef Dan Barber.
Hackschooling Makes Me Happy, a TEDx Talk by 13-year-old Logan LaPlante.
Simplifying Complexity, a Ted Talk by ecologist Eric Berlow
Systems Thinker: An excellent website about systems thinking and how to catalyze effective change by adopting a systems perspective.
Brent, D. A., Miller, M. J., Loeber, R., Mulvey, E. P., & Birmaher, B. (2013). Ending the Silence on Gun Violence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(4), 333–338.
Gharajedaghi, J. (2011). Systems Thinking, Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture. 3rd ed. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.
Rosenberg, A. (2006). Darwinian Reductionism: How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Senge, P., (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. 2nd ed. New York: Currency, Doubleday.
Senge, P., Hamilton, H., Kania, J., (2015) The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter.
Shaked, H., & Schechter, C. (2016). Systems thinking among school middle leaders. Educational Management Administration & Leadership.
Von Bertalanffy, L. (1960) Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology. Oxford: Oxford University.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher, working at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of Action, Twitter, or Facebook.
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©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.