Leadership and the ‘Fifth Discipline’

Peter Senge’s work on systems thinking applies to school leadership

James Leatherman

I once had a professor for an elective Humanities class talk about the gnostic religion. He said many things about the tenants of their faith. The thing that struck me most, and that has stayed with me for well over a decade now, was the idea that all of what we thought we knew about God was wrong and that he sent his son to give us the truth. The truth, as it seemed, was that we all come from the same source and that humanity was born out of what they called “the great spark of the divine.” That is the notion that sees God as a fire and all of us contain within us the sparks that come from that fire.

I bring that up because, after reading Senge’s book, I feel that that is a great allegory for leadership. A leader is tasked with not only keeping the fire of the organization burning, but making sure that the fire spreads to its employees. A great leader will cast off sparks in the form of a mission, a vision, and a purpose. Those sparks ignite the fuel (the five disciplines) in people. The five disciplines that Senge talks about are: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. Each one functions on an individual level, but they also function as a whole -- creating the organization and guiding its people to success.

Systems Thinking

The author challenges us to look at our organizations through a new lens. Instead of seeing the organization from the perspective of our own departments, we are challenged to see how our specific actions drive the organization as a whole. He uses many examples of this, but my favorite was WonderTech -- a company who couldn’t seem to see the real problem and kept repeating the same mistake over and over again. I see this type of thinking prevalent in our school systems. With each new political leader, we get a new set of instructions. We scurry about like rats trying to make changes only to find those changes upended in a few years. Then, after we cycle through these changes, we wind up right back where we started and try to “reinvent the wheel.”

I feel that for my school to be successful, it is my responsibility to start seeing how my actions have an effect on the system. It begins by looking at the root of the problems and realizing that those problems are born out yesterday’s supposed solutions. It also involves understanding that there is no blame for the way the system has turned out.  We all make decisions based on the limited information we have. I feel that we could foster systems thinking by communicating with our coworkers. Our leaders and administrators need to have platforms for discussion (face to face meetings as well as social media) that would help get everybody thinking about the system as a whole.

Personal Mastery

I could write a book about this discipline as it has been a huge part of my life. I found this particular section to be the most interesting because I saw much of my own journey summarized within these pages. From creating a sense of purpose to learning to connect with others, I have spent many years thinking about the deep, subconscious beliefs I have and how it fits into how my life has played out. The most interesting part of this section was the notion of “creative tension.” Creative tension is the rubber-band-effect between your personal vision and current reality. When we feel that tension, we have two choices: compromise our vision or change our reality.

In my school, I feel like personal mastery is mostly glossed over. I see many teachers who do have a sense of personal vision and purpose, but there is no connectedness between them. Personal mastery gets shuffled into professional development, and it’s a mostly mechanical process with no real legs. Part of the challenge as we grow as a leaders is to foster a sense of personal development with our colleagues and share our journeys with them. This is a situation that could be resolved with communication. Another way to foster personal mastery would be to incorporate personal development work hand-in-hand with professional development. One of the most significant moments in my life came from attending a Seven Habits (by Stephen Covey) seminar put on by the human resources department at my former job.

Mental Models

This discipline ties in with personal mastery. After all, you can’t have personal mastery until you begin to examine your own mental models. The most intriguing concept in our mental modes are the “leaps of abstraction” we make in our daily lives. As we examine new information, we ultimately begin to try to generalize it and fit it into our mental models. As leaders, we need to think about our coworkers and how they view our school based on our interactions with them. We need to examine any espoused theories that we cling to, but don’t actually practice. This idea arises whenever we talk about differentiated instruction. Our organization talks a big game about creating a universal design for learning, but we rarely, if ever, get the resources we need to make it happen. The training for this has been grossly inadequate, and it just isn’t gaining the traction it needs to get moving.

Shared Vision

I feel that shared vision comes out of our mental models. We each come to the table with our own views on the world, and out of that we create this connectedness -- this sense of purpose -- that we each envision in our own way. When I look at my school, I see many layers of vision. I see the people who are mostly compliant, there for a paycheck and nothing else. I see people who are enrolled in the vision of educating students and creating engaging lessons, but they are still trying to figure out how to do that within the limits of the system. Then, I see a select few who are completely committed to the purpose. Everybody goes to them for help when they need it, and those people lead our school to where it needs to be. I feel that we do have a good feel for where we need to be. While there are always a few that can be hard to work with, most of us are on the same page about what we are there to accomplish. This is the key to shared vision: being on the same page and having a clear, concise mission statement that inspires instructors and staff. A true leader will include their staff in the writing of the mission statement as that will create the most engagement from the organization.

Team Learning

This discipline ties in with both mental mastery and shared vision. Not only do we bring our intrinsic values to the table, but we do so under the banner of a common purpose. Often, the only real team learning we have comes from the handful of meetings we have, and, after that, we all go our separate ways to do our own thing. It seems like the arrows are not aligned like they should be. We have some discussion at the beginning and the ending of the year, but there is never any real dialogue. The difficult questions and conflictual issues get brushed under the table and are rarely dealt with.

One of my colleagues had an issue last year. She wrote an obligation for a student because they returned the textbook in poor shape. The student’s mother called into the school and created a fuss about it, so, rather than deal with it, the administration decided to just drop the obligation. That teacher now has one less textbook to work with, and the county is out about a hundred dollars. I feel the situation might have been handled better if everybody involved were to sit down and talk about it together. Instead, it was a series of phone tag conversations where none of the parties really got a chance to listen to the other’s point of view. As a result, the issue was dismissed and the cost of the textbook falls to the county. Had there been a system in place where dialogue was encouraged, this issue might have turned out different.

I enjoyed this book because it tied the notion of leadership and systems thinking into the concepts of personal growth from my personal life. I can see why these disciplines are so important -- especially in an educational setting. Knowing how all the different pieces fit together really helps me to see my own role in things. The fifth discipline is that spark, and the only way that spark turns into a fire is if we cultivate and grow in the other four.

James Leathermand ( is a high school math teacher in a Doctorate of Educational Leadership Program. Visit his website at
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