Systems thinking and the common good

gearsFocusing on the common good is much more complicated than simply focusing on my needs and my immediate workplace.  As leaders, the choices we make in our workplaces will likely impact people in different parts of the organization. Effective leadership for the common good requires systems thinking.

According to this systems thinking web page, traditional thinking is about analysis, which literally means “to break into constituent parts.”  As leaders we are taught to look at our goals and the steps we need to take to get there. On the other hand, systems thinking looks at interactions among parts, focusing on how the parts fit together with the interrelationships that are influencing outcomes.

levels of ODSystems thinking requires attention to different levels of interaction. Contributions to the common good are made by individuals, teams, and organizations, and within and across sectors of society. Here are some leadership questions to consider at each level.


  • How can I understand more about the common good?
  • What responsibility do I need to take?
  • How can I be accountable for my own action steps?


  • Where do our interests align with team and organization goals?
  • How can we promote the common good, even when it may not be in our best short-term interest?
  • How will our actions affect other groups?
  • How can we promote communication and collaboration?


  • How do our mission and values align with the common good?
  • How have our past actions led us to where we are now?
  • How do our interrelated teams work together?
  • Where are there relationships among teams that we may not have identified yet?
  • Do organizational decision-making processes allow for cross-unit collaboration?


  • What role does our organization play within higher ed in our region? Our state? Nationally? Internationally?
  • How does the educational sector interact with business and community interests?
  • What long-term contribution does higher ed make to the common good?  How do we play that out day-to-day?

Working across levels and paying attention to how our actions influence others is complicated, but it’s worth the effort. Understanding how related systems work together and influence each other can help us take a more intentional role in promoting the common good.

Dee Anne Bonebright




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