Our worldviews are the way we individually view the world. Worldviews often reflect the deep background assumptions that we hold.

An assumption is a belief, supposition, conjecture, or theory we hold that impacts our reactions and responses to a life event. The event could be how to handle a relationship, make an organizational decision, respond to a disruptive challenge, or feel about a situation. Most often, deep background assumptions exist in the subconscious or unconscious mind.

Becoming aware of your assumptions gives you a great opportunity to examine them consciously to evaluate if they serve you. Given the dynamic shifting occurring in the world, reexamining deep background assumptions and worldviews is a powerful way to become a more adaptive and effective leader. When worldviews shift, change can be achieved rapidly, and these shifts can open us up to new ways of thinking and practicing leadership.

From Closed to Open Systems

Seeing our organizations and communities as closed systems or as open systems has a significant impact on how we think about leadership, what we pay attention to, and how we lead organizations. Closed systems have firm boundaries between the organization and the outside environment.

When we think our organizations are closed, we don’t believe dynamics outside the organization impact the dynamics inside. In a closed system, control is possible because the number of variables remains static. Leaders focus on structures and processes that sustain control over the organization and the people in it.

Open vs closed

In an open system, dynamics from other systems can permeate an organization and create an expanding the number of variables. This creates a dynamic and complex system. Leadership in an open system focuses on influence and patterns rather than control over the organization.

We need to understand the leverage points that can influence the system. Open system leaders learn how the ties, interconnections, and relationships impact the system as a whole. This requires organizational leaders to shift the focus of their attention. Relationships, connections, and interdependencies within the organization and between the organization and the external environment (resources, the economy, society, etc.) all become relevant in an open system environment for a leader.

How Your Organization Affects Your Worldview

A leader who thinks their organization is a closed system wouldn’t see or would ignore the meaning of the connections between an organizational system and the broader external environment. They would look for solutions that are good for the organization alone and not count the potential positive or negative impact that their decisions would have on others outside their organization.

A closed system worldview inhibits an individual from seeing the connections between themselves and other systems. This also makes it difficult for them to see a living world filled with networked relationships and connections.

Leaders who see open systems lead differently. Open systems are complex and dynamic, so these leaders match their thinking to this reality. They become suspicious of simple solutions because they rarely consider the complexity of an open system. For example, in resilience science, sustainable solutions are always negotiated using an open system perspective.

The reality is that we are living in a time where open systems are the norm. Holding onto a closed system worldview causes leaders to be blindsided by dynamics they can’t control. It also makes their organization less adaptive.

Take, for example, if an open system community wanted to avoid overfishing. Being an open system, they know that they can’t approach it from an environmental perspective alone. To get the active support from fishermen, the strategy also needs to consider how changes in their fish catch impact their ability to carry a loan on their boat. A sustainable strategy also needs to consider the social impact that can result in their family or community.

Fishing Boats

Resilient solutions see systems as linked and look for sustainable solutions that work within social, environmental and economic systems. Their solutions are more sustainable because their worldview accepts that systems are open and changes in one system will ripple across other systems.

When an organizational leader shifts their worldview from a closed to open system, they realize that their choices will impact other individuals, organizations, and systems. In open systems, we realize that others’ actions will affect us, and our actions will impact others.

Organizational Implications that Flow From an Open or Closed Worldview

What is your worldview? Is it based on a closed system assumption? If so, what has caught you off guard or surprised you? Is your worldview based on an open system assumption? If so, how has that impacted the way you lead your organization?

Today, our organizational cultures also have a bias toward open or closed system perspectives. If our organizational culture behaves as if the organization is closed, it probably had lots of controlling processes and policies. This culture causes its employees to also see a closed system, meaning the organization probably isn’t scanning the external environment for disruptive technologies that will impact the organization and its capacity to thrive.

If the organizational culture supports an open system perspective, the processes and policies would be more adaptive in nature. Employees would be encouraged to see the organization’s relationship with the external environment and its community. Employees would probably scan the external environment for threats and trends that could impact their organization. This would help the organization to be more adaptive and align the organization’s success to pace and fit with its external environment.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for purchase September 4, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net