When the concept of the learning organization emerged with the publication of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (1990), a learning organization was distinguished from a traditional authoritarian organization. A traditional organization relies on a hierarchical structure of power and control to achieve desired results. People in positions with more organizational power over people make decisions that control the behavior of people in positions with less organizational power.
By 1997, the year that I completed my first tenure as president of Fresno Pacific University, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as one of the most influential management books of the previous 75 years. Other important leadership concepts and frameworks have been developed since then, but nothing has replaced its core principles. Successful organizations must master and practice all five disciplines of the learning organization:
- Systems thinking. A focus on the dynamic interaction of complex patterns and relationships within organizations as the organization responds to external forces. Given that leadership is about change, everyone in a learning organization must always remember that you can never change just one thing.
- Personal mastery. A special level of proficiency that is viewed as the “spiritual foundation” of a true learning organization. The learning organization is characterized by individual members who are constantly learning and improving.
- Mental models. Stable understandings of the nature of the organization and of its purpose, place and potential in the world. In a learning organization, mental models are always open to modification in the search for wisdom.
- Building shared vision. A shared picture of the current reality of the organization and of its desired future. A learning organization knows what it wants to become and effectively orchestrates its efforts to make it happen.
- Team learning. An intentional culture of information flow sufficient to ensure that everyone in every position knows what they need to know to be successful. A learning organization turns fragmented information into useful knowledge that it synthesizes it into significant meanings that become corporate wisdom. The best learning organizations do this faster than the less competent learning organizations.
Looked at in this way, organizational success does not start with leadership. It starts with followership. Too many organizations are preoccupied with the search for the great leader who can move people to change. In this model, the well-documented natural resistance to change sooner or later wins the battle and slows the rate of change to a pace that makes it impossible for the organization to win in its competitive context.
None of this means that leadership is not important for organizational success. Effective leadership throughout the organization is essential, but just as leadership and management are learned skills, followership is a learned competence also. In the same way that a leader is defined as a person who has followers, a follower is a person who is committed to the success of the leader they have chosen to follow.
In this critical sense leaders do not make followers. Followers make leaders when they decide whom they are willing to proactively follow. If no one chooses to really follow, then no one is really leading. Our most important responsibility as followers is to choose our leaders, and then to do the necessary work to ensure their success for the good of the whole organization. A big part of good followership is speaking the truth to keep the leader fully informed and accountable. This is a countercultural perspective; it can feel unnatural to work for some other person’s success instead of your own. But it is what great teachers and coaches do every day as they help their students set challenging goals and work hard to reach them. It is what great organizations do. It is how the kingdom of God on earth functions, where the first shall be last and the leader is servant of all.
Great teams always live by this principle, which is a large reason why we have athletics, music, theater, missions and all the other student performance programs that we sponsor. They help students learn to choose and follow the right leader, and to help one another improve under constantly changing situations. It is why we all must constantly learn to be wise and highly skilled followers, first of Jesus Christ, but also of each other. Learning to follow well is hard and sometimes humbling work, but it produces great alumni who can change their worlds. And it is what great learning organizations do exceedingly well.