Leader - A Designer, a Steward & a Teacher!

Shobhana Rao
3 mins
July 13, 2020

Words from a classic! Yes, these are from The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline lays out the five disciplines needed for establishing a learning organization - an organization which strives to continuously increase its capacity to create the results they truly desire.

This requires the four core disciplines of Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team.

The fifth discipline of Systems Thinking  is described as the conceptual cornerstone of a Learning Organization. Systems thinking is about the parts of the system and being able to see the inter-connectedness between these parts. Another key chapter in the book is about the role of the Leader in creating a learning organization. The roles a leader can assume are described as a Designer, a Steward, and a Teacher.

Absolutely Fascinating!

An organization and therefore the leaders in that organization (at a business level, a portfolio level or a team level) have three main functions – Create Value; Deliver Value & Monetize Value.

Being at the helm of the ship, a leader as the captain needs to play the role of a Designer, a Steward and a Teacher in meeting the objectives of these functions. The role that a leader assumes, varies, based on the primary ask of that function.

In meeting the objectives of the function, the captain has his job clearly cut out, which is to:

1. Think about what will create value, Choose the most viable value creation strategy, and Execute on the strategy.

The system can perform only as well as it is designed! At the core of the design of any organization is the value that it is meant to create. A value that is unique and sustainable. A process that will lead to not just external value creation to the end consumer but also internal value through profits and knowledge both of which become self-feeding mechanisms for further value creation.

As a Designer, it is for the leader to continuously think of what value to create, question the way the value is being created currently and assess if the organization is equipped to create that value. A leader who designs an organization that focuses on both the profit and knowledge creation will emerge a winner.

As a Steward, the leader needs to help the team to ensure that the vision and the longer terms goals of sustainability are addressed in choosing one value creation option over the other.

As a Teacher, the role of the Leader is to help create agility in the system where there is continuous ideation and rapid prototyping; help individuals & teams expand their own thinking capacity to be able to question the status quo; help individuals and team become more creative and contribute to building the learning system in the organization.

2. Think about how to deliver the value, Choose the most viable delivery option,and Enable the delivery of that value

The leader’s role really does not end with a good design! Delivering that value is about setting up the structures in place to make sure the value you desire is delivered. Creating/recreating the work structure; blueprint for the organization structure; building up processes & policies; deciding organizational capabilities; deciding the enablers to deliver the value etc. However, without an extraordinary vision and a sound strategy, the desired value may still not be delivered.

As a Designer, the leader creates this extraordinary vision and strategy which becomes the north star for himself and the organization.

As a Steward, a leader’s primarily role is to translate his personal vision to a Shared vision, harness commitment from individuals towards the vision so much so, that it becomes a collective vision which the organization is working towards. On the ground, the leader also needs provide the direction and support to build both capability and capacity to deliver now and be future ready.

As a Teacher, a leader’s role is to teach and continuously create the conditions where everyone in the organization is willingly in a cycle of thinking, doing, evaluating, and reflecting – contributing to both profits and knowledge but never losing sight of the vision.

3. Think about the value to monetize, Choose the method of monetization, and Encourage new ways to generate and monetize value

A vision that does not translate to reality remains a dream or a delusion! The reality of any organization is the revenue that the value brings and more importantly the profits that help sustain the journey. Once a value is monetized, it may almost become a singular source of value creation. So, while there is reality, the pursuit of the vision maybe lost.

As a Designer, the leader is accountable for creating the blueprint that translates the vision into an executable. This would be not just the business model but also the delivery system and learning system which can help monetize the current value and generate new ideas for value creation.

As a Steward, the leader needs to ensure that there is a continuous balance maintained between the monetization and sustainability. It is also for the leader to help the team build this skill for themselves.

As a Teacher, the leader needs to help individuals think and see beyond their individual parts and look at the inter-connectedness between parts for new means of value generation and monetization. This is where the Fifth Discipline really kicks in. Teaching systems thinking and role modelling it will help create a learning organization where one continues to expand the collective capacity to create value in pursuit of the collective vision and purpose.

A lot to ask of the leader! So, how can a leader really navigate these choppy waters?

A leader also needs to learn.

5 things a learning leader can do to become a designer, steward and teacher

1. Identify what it takes to be a Designer, a Steward and a Teacher and do an honest self- assessment of where one stands right now.

2. Embrace the fact that the leader may not know every part of the ship’s functioning and will need to learn these skills through formal skill development or even identify a role model to learn from – perhaps another captain or any other expert on the ship.

3. Learn from conscious reflection on experiences.

4. Be conscious and disciplined about application- be it in thinking, choosing, or doing.

5. Expand one’s own perspectives to understanding the complexity that both the waters and the ship itself bring.