George Ambler

Helping Leaders Grow


Systems Thinking as a Leadership Practice

The complex world in which we live requires leaders to think systemically. The concept of systems thinking was popularised by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” where he describes system thinking as:

a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.

The practice of system thinking helps us see the underlying inter-relationships and connections which create the events occurring in our organisations.

When we refer to a system we mean:

“A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.” –

The core assumption that underlies a systems approach, is that our world consists of interconnected systems, relationships and interaction. This implies that  everything interacts with everything else. These complex relationship mean introducing change is difficult and risky. For change to be effective we have to focus on changes the underlying structure that’s responsible for creating the events and trends we see and in so doing create different results.  Merely reacting to events and trends results in failed change.

The Iceberg Model

One of the best tools I’ve come across to help see things systemically is what is known as the Iceberg Model. The iceberg model, is a structured way of observing and understanding  systems and helps us think through complex problems and have the following benefits.

  • Helps to move our focus away from events and symptoms toward structures, thinking and beliefs.
  • Helps to develop shared thinking or “mental models” within teams and communities. This guides consistent and aligned action.
  • Helps is to understand where leverage points are within the system. Those places where least effort produced maximum results.

A systems perspective is an effective means for helping leaders gain an understanding of the underlying structures, thinking and beliefs that shapes their organisations.


The first thing to notice about the “Iceberg Model” as illustrated above is that approximately two-thirds of an iceberg is under water, as the captain of the Titanic quickly discovered! The majority of the iceberg remains hidden from observation, beneath the water. This is true of the systems we interact with on a daily basis, much of the structure and thinking that produces their results remains hidden underwater.

The key to navigating and changing systems, is to see and understand the whole system. Not just that which can be easily observed, the events. Walking through the various layers of the iceberg we find the following:

  • Events – This is the surface level of the iceberg, usually we can easily see the “events” happening. Observable events answers the question ‘what happened?’ Linear thinking causes us to see the world as a series of events. This is not a bad way to see the world, however it does not provide a leveraged way to introduce change. A fixation on events often leads to attributing cause and effects in a superficial way, limiting our understanding and therefore our ability to introduce change.
  • Trends and Patterns – As we string events together we begin to recognise trends and patterns, this provides a deeper level of understanding and along with it increased leverage, giving us a deeper level of insight; ‘this event has happened before’.
  • Structure – After a trend or pattern is identified, the next step is to look for the dynamics that created the trend. There is some interpretation and theorising needed to develop and understand the structure. It requires that we develop a hypothesis as to what’s causing the trends. The structure creates the foundation, which supports the trends and patterns, resulting in events. Structure is important as it gives us a deeper understanding of the system and can help us to predict a systems behaviour.
  • Mental Model – Systemic structures, in turn, are frequently held in place by the beliefs, perceptions, thinking or “mental models” – these beliefs are usually be undiscussable theories, residing in the minds of leaders, on what constitutes quality, service excellence or customer orientation. These beliefs may also affect interpersonal dynamics – such as approaches toward conflict, leadership or the best way to introduce change. Change the organisations thinking, beliefs and mental models and you change the organisations behaviour and results.

As we move down the iceberg we gain a deeper understanding of a system and at the same time gain increased leverage for intervening and changing the system and it’s results.

The Art of the Asking Questions

One of the tools we have to help us understand and diagnose a system is the art of asking questions. Using the iceberg model to guide us, we can ask probing questions, moving from the level of events down through the pyramid to the mental model level, as follows:

  • Ask questions to identify key events: ‘What’s happening?’ or ‘What has happened?’
  • Ask questions that surface patterns of trends: ‘Has this happened before?’ or ‘Is this problem similar to other’s we’ve had?’
  • Ask questions that leads to the structure: ‘What structure is driving this problem?’ ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘What effect has the delay had?’ ‘What explains this?
  • Ask questions to understand belief systems and assumptions: ‘What is your understanding?’ ‘What are out beliefs about this?’ ‘What assumptions are we making and why?

The primary goal of this analysis is to identify and act upon a system’s leverage points. Leverage points are those places in a system where a small change creates a substantial improvement. This is part science and part art and as leaders we will need to practice moving our thinking from events to structures to beliefs, by improving what types of questions we ask, develop a theory or hypothesis as to what the structure night be and the beliefs driving the structure. This then allows us to experiment with different ways of changing the system. Wait for feedback and make further adjustments.


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  1. Great post. I’m interested in Leadership subject, especially in how to adopt and foster the Shared Leadership with use of Conversation Competences. I think this blog can help me a lot.

    Best regards,

    Marcelo Mello

  2. Govindaraj s

    Useful article, Thanks by George Ambler

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