Servant Leadership and Systems Thinking (Pillar VI)

Servant Leadership and Systems Thinking (Pillar VI)

This is the sixth installment in this series.  In this series, we will review and highlight the seven pillars of servant leadership as described in the book, The Seven pillar of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving by Don Frick and James Sipe (2009).  Please join us on this journey into Servant Leadership and learn how this leadership style can enhance and empower leaders across all industries to engage followers more authentically. Comments are always welcome!

When you look at anything or consider anything, look at it as a whole” as much as you can before you swing on it.” 

~Robert Greenleaf

James Sipe and Don Frick discuss the seven characteristics of servant leadership in their book, Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving. Since I am a conceptual thinker most of the time (I took the Emergentics personality profile with a group of board members), I jumped straight to the systems thinker chapter. Servant leaders who think systemically:

  • connects system thinking with ethical issues,
  • applies servant leadership to systems analysis and decision making,
  • integrates input from all parties in a system to arrive at holistic solutions, and
  • demonstrates an awareness of how to lead and manage change (Sipe & Frick, pg. 130, 2009).

Servant leaders use tools such as the Baldridge National Quality Program, Six Sigma, Appreciative Inquiry, Change Management, and a plethora of other tools designed to see things in their entirety and to find the appropriate language to express it. They need to distance themselves from the immediate situation in order to see the problems in the context of the patterns and structures of the entire organization and also, that organization’s relationship to its environment, its community and to the country.

System thinkers generally refer to the Systems Pyramid to illustrate the dynamics of systems thinking; events, strategies, culture, and beliefs.

Events -  Are at the top of the pyramid and are considered above ground and in conscious view. These are the situations we see and react to.

Strategies – Are below the events and are often created in response to events or to a vision of what should happen.

Culture – Can either support or sabotage strategies, but is certainly more powerful than strategy. An organization’s culture is a mash-up of causal connections, relationships, and a history of patterns that are rigid and have become a part of the policies and assumptions of the organization.

Beliefs – Quietly run the entire show in organizations. An organization bent on the bottom line only fosters a radically different culture than an organization that runs its enterprise on the belief that it should contribute to the growth of the people and serve the wider public (Sipe & Frick, pgs. 133-134, 2009).

Edward Deming said that workers are only responsible for 15% of the problems while the overall system is responsible for the other 85%. For servant-leaders, this is huge. Robert Greenleaf listed four requirements for servant-leaders who wish to think systemically:

  • wholeness requires moving in the right direction. If you are certain of the direction, the goal will reveal itself in due time.
  • a servant-leader sees life in all its glorious messiness without all the loose ends tied up in neat, simplistic bows. “One must learn to live peacefully and sleep well with a submerged awareness of constant danger” (Robert Greenleaf, as cited in Sipe & Frick, pg. 137, 2009).
  • a servant-leader loves the sheer beauty of this world. Servant-leaders cultivate a heightened sense of awareness and are able to see the connections between history, people, events, possibilities, and deep intuition.
  • a servant-leader deeply understands that ethical conduct is central to seeing things whole. Servant-leaders take personal responsibility and act ethically, doing what can be done with the resources at hand (Sipe & Frick, pg. 137, 2009).

Are you willing to stand out as a servant-leader Systems Thinker? If so, we know that you are one who goes out ahead to show the way (the quality of a servant-leader) and uses a well-researched method (Systems Thinking) for moving ahead on the journey.

To leading,

Dr. Crystal


James Ashton's picture James Ashton | May 1, 2018 4:21 pm MST

Dear Dr. Crystal,


Great post!  There was one sentence that really caught my attention with your post and that was from Deming:

Wholeness require moving in the right direction.  If you are certain of the direction, the goal will reveal itself in due time.  This is so true.  WIth that being said, there are organizations that do not and may not ever understand this, such as companies like Sears/K-Mart and Toys-R-Us.  If the leaders knew how to move in the right direction, these companies could have flourished and really have made the impact that companies such as WalMart and Amazon currently do.



Dr. James Ashton

Crystal Davis's picture Crystal Davis | October 28, 2019 6:52 pm MST

Thank you, Dr. Ashton for your comments! Cheers, Crystal

Lynn Doran's picture Lynn Doran | September 24, 2019 5:57 pm MST

Dr. Crystal thank you for the words on servant leadership,

Organizations lose touch with the little servant leaders in their midst and lose out all together. Servant leaders are present in the one's, two's and three's that make up the whole; the quiet current underlying the entire organization (Sipe & Frick, 2009).

Lynn Doran, EdD 


Crystal Davis's picture Crystal Davis | October 28, 2019 6:53 pm MST

Yes, Dr. Lynn, You are correct! Thank you for reading!

Cheers, Crystal

About the Author



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

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American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

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