Study, Practice and Serve: Peter Senge
Syndicated from, Aug 28, 2011

21 minute read


 Peter Senge - Founding Chairperson - Society for Organizational Learning

Dr. Peter M. Senge is the founding chairperson of SoL and a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Senge is the author of The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. He has lectured extensively throughout the world, translating the abstract ideas of systems theory into tools for better understanding of economic and organizational change. He has worked with leaders in business, education, health care and government. The Journal of Business Strategy (September/October 1999) named Dr. Senge as one of the 24 people who had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years.


On being present

Prasad: Ever since I have known you, maybe from 1987, I have always felt like you have access to something that doesn’t come through ordinary channels like your mind. Your presence brings about something into the room and inspires people. You have a gift to be present and be very articulate about what you are engaged with. More than your writing, you ability to create and inspire through your conversations is even more powerful…

Peter: Yes. I like to speak or engage in a dialogue with co-workers or with people in workshops, with various groups --no matter the size of the group -- from a couple of people to couple of thousands. I was never drawn to writing though, I think, my attitude is shifting a little bit. After I finished “The Fifth Discipline“, I really thought, “that was it!” (Laughs). But now I see myself trying to do more writing in the last two or three years. It seems like the right thing but it is a much harder task.

Preparing and Practicing being Present

Prasad: When did you come alive in your own life and get to know yourself better?

Peter:   I had a chance to facilitate a Leadership & Mastery workshop through ‘Innovation Associates’. It was a really good time for me. I was probably just about 30 years old. I had done all this study and I had a great partnership that developed with Charlie Kiefer and Robert Fritz who were very different people. Charlie is an expert consultant (which I had never really considered myself to be) and Robert is such an interesting and unusual thinker about the creative process.

This ‘systems thinking’ approach was brewing in me. The first time we designed the program, we spent time together for four days. We began with all of us playing at the Charlie’s pool for an afternoon and identifying the outcomes. Charlie told me that I had to do some work during a certain period of time; we had a schedule but no content. The process was a metaphor and a practical context to do it again.

I vividly remember one particular exercise known as the ‘choice exercise’ that Robert introduced and we participated and that got etched in my mind. One of those choices – “being an observer”- just made me think and ponder for a while. It just crystallized in my mind as a choice from that time on. It became an interesting observer process. After so many years, I don’t really think about it, but I really observe myself when I talk. There is this Peter who is talking and one who is observing. It is kind of a binocular vision. You have to be in yourself talking, and also have that awareness of standing to the side of yourself. I think part of it is not being attached to your self. We all started to kind of disassociate ourselves from our mind strategies -- like if I do this, this will happen as opposed to just being present and saying whatever happens is fine. It is about really supporting our intentions and supporting people who are there.

I learned during that time that whenever I get really confused or sad or discouraged, I would just make the choice to be of service to other people and forget about everything else. So I kind of developed this trust that it was all coming back to paying attention to what was going on and be clear about my choice to be of service, and I think it takes care of itself.

Prasad: So let me see whether I heard you right. You are aware of a special moment 20+ years ago when you chose to become an observer of your own process. While doing an exercise with Robert and Charlie, you came to this awareness that you could be a participant and an unattached observer as well. Is that right?

Peter: Yes.

Prasad : Then you continued to practice this state of being an observer and consciously choosing to serve and paying attention to what is emerging in the moment. So it is not about preparing with a clear intention, but practicing it repeatedly as well.

Peter: One of the interesting questions that I experimented with is different kinds of preparation. I asked myself: what types of preparations are helpful and what types really get in your way of being present when I am in front of people. I have experimented, several times, in the last 3-4 yrs with PowerPoint slides. I can’t really say they have ever been helpful. So, I just go without any preparation for the group with an open mind. First I do whatever I can to understand the group. I always memorize everybody’s name so when I see them I don’t have to look at their name tags and I have some sense of connection with them as individuals. I try to understand as much as I can about what is the nature of these people, what they interested in, what are they concerned about…

Sometimes, if I feel really disconnected, I’ll even stop early on and ask them what is important to them and what do they really want to talk about. So that kind of preparation always seems to be helpful. Sometimes, I will really plan things out - it’s very situational. One time, I did a presentation for Environmental Designs for builders and product designers. They wanted me to address questions on design of an enterprise. I actually went through preparation for several days and I even took detailed notes on my thoughts though I did not refer to them later.

It’s very situational - the content preparation part. Preparing to connect with people is pretty common.

Prasad: So what I am hearing is depending on the context in which you are asked to speak, sometimes you need to focus on the content. But ultimately it comes down to understanding the people, connecting, and knowing who they are, what triggers them and keep their interest. And the third level seems to be being open to receiving what is coming through and if something is not clear, to be able to stop at some point and saying that it is confusing and making things clear. So there are three ways in which you are engaging.

Peter: When you think about those, they are actually the real aspects of conversation, right? In one level, it’s all about our sense of one another, our connections, our ideas, our agendas, etc. Periodically we realize that our agendas are confusing and we are puzzled. So I think they are all natural moves or part of our behavioral routines of a real conversation. You definitely have to be willing to be confused or be in the state of confusion sometimes.

Prasad: Are there any younger age experience or stories or incidents that shaped your thinking or the way you think?

Peter: I think it was quite early on that I really enjoyed presenting…

Prasad: How young were you?

Peter: I am trying to think back…I was never too scared to stand up and speak in school. But I think it was in high school when I was graduating, I was the president of a high school class, and gave a speech to 1200 students at the football stadium. So for a week before the speech, I would walk down there and practice. It was really good fun. It was a scripted approach, but I am sure it was a lot of fun back then. It was the feeling that I will be able to help some people with the speech. It was what coupled with the enjoyment so it wasn’t just serving my own self. That just got richer and clearer.

On Developmental Path and Systems Perspective

Prasad: If you reflect on your own development, is it like a continuous evolution or were there jerks and spurts – discontinuous?

Peter: It is funny. Most things that I look back and try to reconstruct in my development path, it usually seems pretty continuous, and this may just be shortcomings of memory. Well, history is what we tell right now (laughs), well that’s what happened. Taking that into account, it seems to me that the core of my interests were formed very very early. It’s more been about unfolding of opportunities rather than change in interests. I can remember that I was in high school and I realized that there was this core problem in the world that everything was so connected, so interdependent, but nobody understood it. I was a college student in the late 1960s and there was a big awakening, there was this Vietnam War, on one hand it was important, but there was little less focus on the environmental awareness. So I just saw these problems as being completely beyond the scope of our institutions. When I came to MIT, I was 21. I did not apply to any other management or business school, I wrote an application to MIT and I wrote literally that we need to solve the problems in this world and need to solve them in systemic ways and no one just knew how to do that and I would just design a program and study whatever I wanted to study. I almost always knew what I wanted to do and almost never knew how. I applied to just one school!

MIT admitted me to the Aeronautics department because, at the time of my application, I was an aeronautics undergraduate major at Stanford. Two years later, when I finished my master’s degree, people around me did job interviews and I never did any. I just kept thinking about what I want to do and I formulated an idea of what I would do. It was May and at a seminar I met with Forrester and he asked me what I wanted to do and I told him. And he asked me to join him! That’s how my life has worked! You know I have never had a job interview in my life. Sometimes I think I’ve never had a job in my life! So it’s always with this no planning of exteriors. My decision making process was never oriented externally. It was always this process of deciding the next thing I want to do, and then doors would open!

Path of Reflection

Prasad: How I see what you said is that you are not into managing what options are present out there, but you are into creating the possibility and you are essentially designing you future as you want it and just making it happen. Am I right in saying that?

Peter: Yes, I think the terminology I would use is ‘a continuous process of reflection’. I’ve always thought of only two questions that have mattered to me personally. One is what is really needed in the world and the second is what’s really important to me and how these two intersect. It’s always been a reflective process -- spiraling around these two poles. At a certain point, clarity arrives. I think in this process where you are looking inward you also are looking outward, but at a larger scale. I think I haven’t really been a particularly good practitioner of what Buckminster Fuller used to advocate “Start with Universe then work your way back”. but I think I kept working on it. So I always think of the world probably in the next couple of decades, I might work from being universe centric. I suspect there are some limitations in being earth centric. But nonetheless, it has always how I have been oriented. But I have never been interested in jobs, or institutions but what’s really needed in the world and things just crystallized for me. 

It was the same process that happened when I wrote the ‘Fifth Discipline’. I even wrote it in a foreword in one of the revised publications. Those days I meditated 2-3 times a week. One day, when I was meditating, all of a sudden, clear as a bell, three things popped into my head. 1. the idea that learning organization is a big fact. 2. Our work was original and would make a contribution. 3. I had to write a book now so that as the fact cycle developed, yours is one of the first books that becomes a point of reference. You know how this happens in an instant. I was very clear and I decided to write a book. It’s just a continuous reflection informed by what’s important to you and informed by your sense of where the world is at and what’s needed.

Prasad: I would have thought of this process to be more discontinuous than continuous.

Peter: I think those are just labels. What I just described today was quite discontinuous. It was all of a sudden, I didn’t have an idea that I was going to write a book. Nonetheless, my experience has been kind of this steady progression, maybe to use a different metaphor; there’s always been a path. A path has lot of surprises. But it’s not like I jumped from one path to another. So, that’s probably a closest in my experience Prasad that --I really get to say I experienced Karma. You know, it’s like this path has been here always and I’ve probably started on it long, long ago. It feels really grounded. It’s like there really are no decisions that you need to make. You just have to be open and reflect and the next turn in the path becomes clear; it’s always the same path.

Prasad: I agree with you. In Indian Philosophy, they say this path is circular and not linear. So when I am ready to take the next step, the path becomes clearer. The question is not that the path is not clear, but that I am not being aware.

Study, Practice and Serve

Prasad: So do you feel that now you awareness is increasing? Are you meditating lot more often these days?

Peter: Past 10 years or so I have become much more disciplined, I meditate every morning and evening.  For about an hour in the morning and anything between 20 and 45 minutes in the evening, depending on how I feel. But surely an hour in the morning or even longer.

Prasad: So how are you able to manage all this with all your travel, book-writing etc?

Peter: That relates to one of these discontinuous/continuous phenomena. Something was building for a long time and the seeds were planted long ago. I made my first visit to Tassajara Zen country monastery just before I was at Stanford. There was a lot of recognition there. I knew immediately that meditation was very important to me and did continue to meditate but didn’t see a need to be disciplined. Then it came with the publication of ‘The Fifth Discipline.’ After 2-3 yrs after its publication, I could see the popularity, the attention, and that you are put on a pedestal. That’s when I clearly realized that I wasn’t quite ready for that. I would get stuck on things; my ego was not well enough in control and then I actually started looking for a teacher. For about a year or two, I would ask people and they would refer me to this therapist or this person and that was kind of interesting. But nothing ever clicked until I met this man in China around 1996 and then I started to realize that I just have to start being more disciplined. I had read a lot of eastern things but again in an undisciplined way, just random. But then I started studying things in a more rigorous way and of course they were connected to my field of practice and then I could connect. It’s just like how we all have a spiritual teacher. It’s a combination of study and practice-all in the context of our service. I think it’s kind of a common feature in varying degrees to all spiritual traditions that there are these three fundamental elements – study, practice and serve.

There is a study, there is a body of knowledge that you are studying but it is meaningless if it’s not in line with your practice. Whatever is your practice - your meditation practice, your cultivation practice… basically is that present state of your mind-body system. And then there is a reason for doing it all, which is your service - how you are trying to be of use to the world. That’s when I started becoming more disciplined. In their levels, it’s continuous because when I grew up in Los Angeles, my friends were Japanese and I was always interested in the Asian cultures. Probably by the time I was forty years old, I had this thought that I should spend the second half of my life in China and India. In all honesty, I am not too comfortable with this awareness, but probably before long, I may really go and spend significant extended periods of time, probably in China. Our youngest son would be out of school in a couple of years, so Diane and I could do this together. I don’t think I could do this by myself. I feel too conflicted.

Lessons from the East: Society, Spirituality and Science

Prasad: What did you see in China and India that you did not see in the West? 

Peter: Right now, at a very practical level, I can see there so many new developments in the world are not taking place in the United States and not even in Europe. I think it’s kind of obvious that in the next decade, China will be the pivot. They are moving so fast and India is not too far behind. If China really decides to take a path to committing itself to alternative energy, alternative transport, building infrastructures for the hydrogen economy it would be leading the way.

The only difference that I see between India and China is that China is really centralized, so they can make rather distinct turns and do a lot in a hurry. India has a lot of different strikes. My intuition is they will move somewhat together but in very distinctive ways. But I think the thing that will be really common to both of them will be the fact that they won’t be able to do this without reconnecting to their heritage. They will have to develop a confidence that they can do this as Indians and they can do this as Chinese. They have learnt a lot from the West but they don’t have to copy, they cannot create a Chinese or Indian version of a Western model.

The Western model itself is basically bankrupt. It does not give enough attention to the human side of development. It’s really very weak. Because thousands of years ago, the real significant development wasn’t in the west. The church was even fragmented by saints. There’s just not a lot to build on. Of course the last hundred and fifty years, the industrial consumer oriented development has made things very much worse. So I think I see this in China now. I really do not have as much of a feeling for India.

I can see in China a very particular kind of an awakening where the Chinese are trying to realize that they can rise as the industrial nation. Getting into WTO, hosting the Olympics… these are very significant symbolic indicators through which the Chinese are saying, “We can make it”. The question is, “What is our contribution? How can China bring something into the world that the world really needs? The world doesn’t just need more computers. That is going to happen regardless. 

I also think that science and spirituality both are important. I can’t remember his name but there is this Chinese Nobel Laureate who actually gave a press conference in which he said he thought Chinese tradition is limited in its ability to be a real scientific leader. I think he was mainly talking about that kind of folklore. But I think that’s exactly the opposite of what’s needed because its not just more western science, it’s a science that has an interior as well as an exterior balance that is needed. This is what China and India could bring. I’d like to think that the same kind of awakening is happening in India.

The intellectual sophistication of the philosophical traditions of China and India is extraordinary. There is no lack of intellect here in the west. But its service to a much richer concept of development is what is needed. The next stage of human development is certainly not industrialization, technology and all that but somehow this next stage is about bringing back the interior to be in balance to the exterior and I think that has to come from China or India and maybe to some degree from the indigenous peoples.

Another way I’d come to think of it, Prasad, is that we all know how old the Chinese and Indian cultures are, but they probably they have a more direct connection to their indigenous knowledge. It’s quite clear to me as I understand Taoism. Lao Tzu always talked about the ancients going back to I-Ching. This the first time you’re trying to see this deep indigenous knowledge starting to filter its way to major cities, to larger social institutions and the gradual shift to the modern Chinese ways in last 4000-5000 years. But there’s a kind of continuous trend there whereas in the West we don’t have that. The indigenous peoples of the Europe are basically completely eliminated, whereas in the United States, we still have a strong indigenous population. But then everything else that has been developed from the Immigrants; people who came here had very little productive interaction with the indigenous population.

I had this conversation with a Japanese man whose name is Yasuhiko Genku Kimura based in Los Angeles, a Japanese Buddhist monk, who also is a very serious Chinese scholar. He has a brand new translation of the Tao. Most of his work is about Business. He said his critical moment of awakening was when he was on a 2-3 year study in India, he said he just had this powerful realization, that individual enlightenment would not relieve the suffering of human being today, what is really needed is collective enlightenment. Now he does a lot of consulting business. He has a small network of small businesses in LA area. He puts out a magazine called ‘Vision in Action’.

I don’t know what his training is, but he comes across as a well-trained scientist. He has internalized that western skepticism, good science but also he is a Buddhist monk. So, this science and spirituality connection is clearly very important.

I think the third pillar apart from Science and Spirituality is Society. I think it is wonderful that the Dalai Lama and all these western scientists have had a lot of meetings and some very good material has come out of that. But I think if we don’t deal with society, don’t deal with institutions, don’t deal with economy and big businesses, then it could be counter-productive. There is a need for science that is more than the curiosity of the scientists but for the society. I think science, spirituality and society will be the new nexus. It’s not the old individual spirituality any more; I mean it is about collective awakening. And collective awakening is like the sitting-zen / working-zen. The working-zen is institutions (how business works, how schools work, how govt works) - how collectively we do our work.

Prasad: I agree with you. I think about the intersection of science, spirituality and business as three circles in my framing.

On Compassion

Prasad: What would you have done if you were to know what you know now when you were young? If you were to have the same awareness when you were young, would you have done anything differently?

Peter: I never thought about this a great deal. The only thoughts that I have had in this general area is that I think I am a sort of person who has a predisposition to work harder and try harder. If I understood what I understand now, I would have been a much better athlete because I always worked really hard, but I didn’t use my mind (laughs). I think, I would have been more relaxed about a lot of things.

The way I talk now, I think these were the moments of awakening when I was discovering how to operate and create space, and then creating the space so that nature can guide you. But I don’t think I understood that nearly enough when I was young, so I would just work hard. I think I would have been a little more relaxed. I don’t think I was very good in relationships in a lot of ways, because I was not a good listener. One of the lifelong practice for me is to be a good listener because I think I was so caught up in my own thoughts, in my own feelings that I really didn’t reach out very effectively and listened to people. After 5 or 6 years into it I realized that it was a real gap for me in my own behavior in my own awareness and I made a choice to be compassionate. And I made that choice again and again over 2 or 3 years and I had to keep working on it. I think it’s just part of my particular journey in this cycle. It is continuing to make my heart open to being compassionate and I’ve learned that one of the biggest allies of that is your own suffering. When you really suffer (a loss), it really hurts you or you want something desperately yet you know that you can’t have it. So you suffer this ego-dynamic of “I want it but I can’t have it” and you feel miserable. Those are the ways you open your compassion, so that when someone else is going through that suffering, you know.

I think I had a very comfortable life. I was an only child, we were a very middle class and I had the most wonderful upbringing -- which was great, but it did not expose to suffering very much. So I think that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t really have a great capacity for compassion. Life is a good teacher for me.

On Respectful Autonomy

Prasad: If you were to tell your grandchildren, what would you tell them about coping with the future?

Peter: I would tell them one thing. Don’t be afraid of suffering even though it’s not easy. Sadness is sadness, fear is fear, and anxiety is anxiety. Don’t kid yourself. But recognize that it is very important developmentally and will really assist you in having a rich life with rich relationships.

I always tell kids, find what is right for you and don’t let the adults manipulate you too much. When you are a young person, the adults are natural authority figures. There is a very important difference between allowing yourself to be manipulated and being respectful. Respect is good because you are honoring them as a person. But doing what they told you to do because they told you to do is not a good idea. You should think about what they are telling you. Because 9 times out of 10 it may be useful. You have to make your own choices. You have to develop your sense of autonomy. But I do think it is hard for the kids because our institutions do not support this view. They are basically authoritarian in nature and they say that if the person who is in front of you is an adult you do what they tell you to do. I think the opposite of ignore the adults is also stupid. I think when children are really respected, they know that the adults around them are asking ‘what is important to you?’, they feel that inner respect and they reciprocate. And they look for adult guidance and for a mentor. But they look for the mentor that they want.

Prasad: Any last comments or recommendations for leaders?

Peter: [To the leaders] I think you should find somebody nice to talk to. When you really orient yourself out with others around you, they will know your problems. When you are most confused, angry or upset, ask someone who can help. Go help somebody or be nice to somebody. I think it’s very important because we are right at the cusp now when more and more people with authority are trying to recognize that your personal development matters. It’s not just about being smarter and having more degrees and more ability to manipulate power. There is whole different domain of our development as a human being. However it is treacherous. Because it is a very self-obsessed orientation. So I think one should have that instinct, that intention to grow as a human being, then you need practices and strategies and I think that orients towards the others and it’s wonderful.


This article is reprinted here with permission from the author. Dr. Prasad Kaipa is a CEO advisor and coach, combining Business, Science & Technology and Spirituality. He is also visiting faculty at the Indian School of Business.