A Synopsis of Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline

By Saurabh Saklani

A lot of us struggle with questions concerning individual growth and learning and how our aspirations complement (or not) those of our organization. The term ‘organizational learning’ is ubiquitous in most executive learning programs. The concept was made famous by the leading management thinker, Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline. For Senge, a learning organization is a group of people who are continually enhancing their capabilities to create what they want to create. Senge shares the five disciplines he believes are central to learning organizations, namely Personal mastery, Mental models, Systems thinking, Building shared vision, and Team learning.

Senge describes learning organizations as those “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.”

The basic rationale for such organizations is that during rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to occur, organizations must know how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels. Organizations that hope to grow their capacity to create their future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members.

Senge believes that “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.”

We at Exper have a similar view of individuals in organizations. Thus, this review focuses exclusively on Senge ‘Personal Mastery’ concept which forms the core of both a learning organization and of self-development and growth. (All quotes are from Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline.)

Personal Mastery (as conceptualized by Peter Senge)

Practitioners of Senge’s description of personal mastery exhibit the following key characteristics:

  • They have a sense of purpose that lies behind their goals

  • Their vision is more like a calling than a good idea

  • They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy

  • They are committed to seeing reality increasingly accurately

  • They are extremely inquisitive

  • They do not resist, but work with, the forces of change

  • They feel connected to others and to life itself

  • They feel that they are part of a larger creative process that they can influence but cannot unilaterally control

Personal mastery is the discipline of “continually clarifying what is important to us” and “continually learning how to see current reality more clearly.”

Senge feels that “People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’…personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward.’”

Personal Mastery entails developing Personal Vision; Holding Creative Tension (managing the gap between our vision and reality); Recognizing Structural Tensions and Constraints, and our own power (or lack of it) with regard to them; a Commitment to Truth; and Using the Sub-conscious.

1. Developing a Personal Vision

Personal Mastery has two components. First, one must define what one is trying to achieve (a goal). Second, one must have a true measure of how close one is to the goal. Most of us have ideas, goals, and objectives. However, Senge feels that having a personal vision is a much larger ideal. He writes, “Purpose is similar to direction, a general heading. Vision is a specific destination, a picture of a desired future. Purpose is abstract. Vision is concrete. Purpose is ‘advancing man’s capability to explore the heavens.’ Vision is ‘a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.’ Purpose is ‘being the best I can be,’ ‘excellence.’ Vision is breaking four minutes in the mile.”

Closer home with our obsession with cricket, we are well aware with the Indian obsession for batting well. Clearly, we have prolific lifetime run accumulators in Gavaskar, Tendulkar, and Dravid. But if only we could figure a way to move from a “goal” of batting well to a “vision” of say winning the World Cup then we would have a much better chance to succeed and grow. The obsession of this goal has led to our weak bowling historically, a lack of a killer instinct to win matches, and a tendency to not play ‘against-the-odds’ innings. What if our cricket team stops relying on Dravid and Tendulkar and instead, creates a more elaborate personal vision like “becoming the best cricket team in the last twenty years?”


This is a great starting point for all of us that are keen on moving from our current reality to something more exciting, challenging, and meaningful to us. This leads us to Senge’s next point on current reality. He feels that facing up to our current reality may in fact be a harder task that defining our vision.

1. Embracing Creative Tension

The gap that exists between where one is currently functioning and where one wants to be is referred to as ‘creative tension.’ In his book, Senge illustrates this with the image of a rubber band pulled between two hands. The hand on the top represents where one wants to be and the hand on the bottom represents where one currently is. The tension on the rubber band as it is pulled between the two hands is what gives the creative drive. Creativity results when one is so unsatisfied with the current situation that one is driven to change it.

Another aspect of personal mastery is that one has a clear concept of current reality. Emphasis is placed on the word ‘clear’ here. One must be able to see reality as it truly is without biases or misconceptions. If one has an accurate view of reality, one will see constraints that are present. The creative individual knows that life involves working within constraints and will not waver in trying to achieve the vision. Creativity may involve using the constraints to one's advantage.

Senge writes, “Mastery of creative tension transforms the way one views “failure.” Failure is, simply, a shortfall, evidence of the gap between vision and current reality. Failure is an opportunity for learning— about inaccurate pictures of current reality, about strategies that didn’t work as expected, about the clarity of the vision. Failures are not about our unworthiness or powerlessness.” He goes on to elaborate further “Mastery of creative tension leads to a fundamental shift in our whole posture toward reality. Current reality becomes the ally not the enemy. An accurate, insightful view of current reality is as important as a clear vision. Unfortunately, most of us are in the habit of imposing biases on our perceptions of current reality.”


1. Structural Conflict

Most of us have a strong view of the limitations and constraints we face in our lives. It is not uncommon to think that we can’t do certain things, enable ourselves to change in some meaningful way, or shape our lives as we’d truly like to do. Senge writes “Many people, even highly successful people, harbor deep beliefs contrary to their personal mastery. Very often, these beliefs are below the level of conscious awareness. To see what I mean, try the following experiment. Say out loud the following sentence: “I can create my life exactly the way I want it, in all dimensions—work, family, relationships, community, and larger world.” Notice your internal reaction to this assertion, the “little voice” in the back of your head. “Who’s he kidding?” “He doesn’t really believe that.” “Personally and’ in work, sure—but, not ‘community’ and ‘the larger world.’ “What do I care about the ‘larger world’ anyhow?” All of these reactions are evidence of deep-seated beliefs.”

Senge discusses two key beliefs that limit our ability to reach where we really want to go. “The more common is belief in our powerlessness—our inability to bring into being all the things we really care about. The other belief centers on unworthiness—that we do not deserve to have what we truly desire.”

Just as Creative tension pulls you towards your vision, these two limiting factors tend to pull you in the opposite direction. Senge writes, “The closer we come to achieving our vision, the more the second rubber band pulls us away from our vision. This force can manifest itself in many ways. We might lose our energy. We might question whether we really wanted the vision. “Finishing the job” might become increasingly difficult. Unexpected obstacles develop in our path. People let us down. All this happens even though we are unaware of the structural conflict system, because it originates in deep beliefs of which we are largely unaware - in fact, our unawareness contributes to the power of structural conflict.”

2. Commitment to Truth

The idea and intent behind exploring one’s commitment to the truth is an interesting perspective that merits a close look. Shakespeare said it best when he wrote, “above all else, to thine own self be true.”

Senge feels that “Commitment to the truth often seems to people an inadequate strategy. “What do I need to do to change my behavior?” “How do I change my underlying belief?” People often want a formula, a technique, something tangible that they can apply to solve the problem of structural conflict. But, in fact, being committed to the truth is far more powerful than any technique.

Commitment to the truth does not mean seeking the “Truth,” the absolute final word or ultimate cause. Rather, it means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness, just as the great athlete with extraordinary peripheral vision keeps trying to “see more of the playing field.” It also means continually deepening our understanding of the structures underlying current events. Specifically, people with high levels of personal mastery see more of the structural conflicts underlying their own behavior.”

For instance, we often feel tense and/or angry and end up blaming people or situations for our current reality. If we can develop an awareness of our structural conflicts and the resulting behavior then we become better equipped to adjust our thinking. A simple acknowledgment like “The reason I’m giving up is nobody appreciates me,” or “The reason I’m so worried is that they’ll fire me if I don’t get the job done” will go a long way in helping us cope honestly and effectively.

3. Using the Subconscious

The power of the inner workings of the mind and how it impacts our actions and inactions has been a subject of great curiosity for hundreds of years. Senge adds this interesting flavor to his discussion on Personal Mastery.

He writes, “One of the most fascinating aspects of people with high levels of personal mastery is their ability to accomplish extraordinarily complex tasks with grace and ease. We have all marveled at the breathtakingly beautiful artistry of the championship ice skater or the prima ballerina. We know that their skills have been developed through years of diligent training, yet the ability to execute their artistry with such ease and seeming effortlessness is still wondrous.

Implicit in the practice of personal mastery is another dimension of the mind, the subconscious. It is through the subconscious that all of us deal with complexity. What distinguishes people with high levels of personal mastery is they have developed a higher level of rapport between their normal awareness and their subconscious. What most of us take for granted and exploit haphazardly, they approach as a discipline.”

Senge then describes an experience most of us are very familiar with. “For example, when you first learned to drive a car, it took considerable conscious attention, especially if your were learning to drive on a standard transmission. In fact, you might have found it difficult to carry on a conversation with the person next to you. If that person had asked you to “slow down, downshift, and turn right” at the next corner, you might have given up then and there. Yet, within a few months or less, you executed the same task with little or no conscious attention. It had all become “automatic.” Amazingly, before long you drove in heavy traffic while carrying on a conversation with the person sitting next to you—apparently giving almost no conscious attention to the literally hundreds of variables you had to monitor and respond to.”

Conclusion

Individuals who practice personal mastery experience many mind-shifts. They learn to use both reason and intuition to create. They become systems thinkers who see the interconnectedness of everything around them and, as a result, they feel more connected to the whole. Which ambitious organization would not like to have such individuals on its roster?

Finally, if we have a personal vision and we also see current reality objectively and honestly, then the difference between the two causes creative tension. That tension can be used to push us from where we are - in current reality - towards our vision.

Senge concludes by saying that “The core leadership strategy is simple: be a model. Commit your self to your own personal mastery. Talking about personal mastery may open people’s minds somewhat, but actions always speak louder than words. There’s nothing more powerful you can do to encourage others in their quest for personal mastery than to be serious in your own quest.”

Diagrams in the writeup are from the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

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