My 1990’s Lookout Post: Peter Senge

As I became enamored with researching the giraffe in Atlanta, I toyed with a unique comparison; in the natural world, giraffes have physical traits, habits, and social behavior that are comparable to those of leaders I’d admired in business, government, education, and sports. The most obvious trait was the giraffe’s dramatic physique, which provides a sweeping vision across the plains of Africa. The giraffe’s frame is structured for the broadest view. The tallest animal in the world epitomizes environmental scanning, relying on its height, vision, and alertness to manage and see beyond its surroundings—serving as a reliable lookout post for the herd.

The giraffe triggered a memory from the early 1990s when I was sitting in a packed crowd as MIT’s futurist, Peter Senge, spoke about the need for learning environments—a cutting-edge theory he presented at conferences throughout the world. Senge stood out like the giraffe. His message was powerful, his ideas stimulating. He spoke about how to run companies in the second part of the information age, a highlight that stuck with me for years and led to my focus on the giraffes of technology.

More than any other time in US history, leaders now need to serve as sturdy lookout posts for herds. Senge urged businesses to embrace the value of—and the need for—learning organizations. His ideas parallel certain characteristics I find in today’s social media where there are no strict boundaries, where information is freely shared, and where there is less fear of failure or being condemned for what you say or share. In its purity, the web is a learning environment.

In 1999, the Journal of Business Strategy named Senge “Strategist of the Century.” He’s the definition of a lookout post that continually scans the horizon. In 1990 he wrote The Fifth Discipline, a book that predicted that business was entering a time of quickening pace where there no longer would be a stable environment. Society would be bombarded with ongoing change and need to be more alert through intensive, ongoing learning. Senge suggested that when encountering rapid change, only companies that were “flexible, adaptive, and productive” would excel.

He argued that companies must begin to see their employees as people, as assets to develop and feed through learning. The industrial-age terms “human resources” and “personnel” would shift to “human capital.” To keep up with change, companies would need to become sincere learning organizations and decentralize the power of the old industrial-age hierarchy, bringing human characteristics such as the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Senge viewed companies as organic entities that needed to adopt behavior that emulates learning. In The Fifth Discipline, he wrote about “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Senge tapped into values from my Elmira, New York, upbringing, ones I hadn’t fully connected to a business setting. Like the child who learns, adults also become energized. The educational act inspires passion, moving individuals beyond the industrial-age cliché of “Come to work early, work hard, and achieve.”

More than ever, leaders and employees need an inviting setting in which people come early and stay late because the setting is one where they can be loyal to themselves and the company. CEOs must create inspiring environments of learning where everyone feels the freedom to take risks and fail, learn and succeed. A company sincerely designed to nurture and expand the number of lookout posts within its culture will have a vital mechanism to spot hidden opportunities as well as looming threats.

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