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Aug 31 / Barry Clemson

Systems Thinking and Sustainability: A Phenomenological Study of the 2008 Recession

Steven Walker. Volume 2. Issue 3. August 31, 2013

Abstract. The paradigms and thinking processes of CEOs / Presidents were studied through the methodology of phenomenology via unstructured and in-depth interviews. The interviews explored the leader’s thinking regarding complex topics such as sustainability and the 2008 recession.  


In 1987, the United Nation’s (UN) World Commission for the Environment and Development (WCED) was credited with defining sustainability as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987, p. 13). While the term was originally coined at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, this was the first time the issue of sustainability had really been taken seriously at the global level (Adams, 2006). After the United Nations meeting, Hawken (1993) characterized sustainability as “an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations” (p. 139). The definitions provided by the UN and Hawken tend to touch on the importance of creating a balanced relationship among the systems of nature, society, and economy (Cajete, 2000; Hawken, 1993). These definitions also touch on the significance of long-term thinking. The characteristics and elements that underlie the definition of sustainability are in contrast to a majority of current economic thought. The economic systems at present, and our societies within the developed world at large, are focused on short-term monetary gains rather than long-term balance and maintenance (Hawken, 1993).

Research provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS, 1992), the Native Perspectives on Sustainability (NPS, 2010), and the Federal Reserve Bank (Meeker, 2011) have all suggested that both economic and environmental systems around the globe are on an unsustainable trajectory. A number of governments and organizations across the planet are awakening to this reality and have begun to pursue answers for a new desirable and sustainable future (Adams, 2006; Beinhocker, 2006). However, without a holistic understanding of the true interconnectedness of these challenges, political rhetoric and policy decisions regarding sustainability would fail (Cajete, 2000; Hawken, 1993). Advocates for sustainability such as Cajete (2000) and Hawken (1993) argued that the ideas of exponential growth, short-term gains, and complete market control are not sustainable. For a sustainable system to take shape, a paradigm must take place that sees the world in a more unifying, holistic, and systemic fashion (Bohm, 1980; Cajete, 2000: Capra, 1996). This paradigm is also referred to as systems thinking (Meadows, 2008; Senge, 1990).

Systems thinking is about understanding systems (Meadows, 2008). A system is “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (Meadows, 2008, p. 11). Our Earth is a system, a planet within the Universe is a system, and all the species within this system grow out of it and therefore should live in balance with it (Cajete, 2000; Hawken, 1993). Our economic system is a subsystem, or micro-process, within a much greater system, the macro-process of our planet. One of the most important first steps in the movement toward sustainability is this understanding of systems and the interconnected and relational nature of our planet (Adams, 2006; Cajete, 2000; Hawken, 1993). This study sought to understand the type of thinking used by organizational leadership throughout the Great Recession experience that helped their organizations to survive the crisis.

Research Questions

The overarching research question guiding this study is, what was the organizational leader’s thinking toward that of sustainability and leadership as revealed and influenced through the experience of the Great Recession of 2008? The sub-questions addressed are:

1.How did the participants internally interpret and respond to the experience of the 2008 recession?

2. How did the participant’s internal interpretation of the experience influence organizational behavior?

3. Did that thinking of leaders and organizational behavior help or hinder the organizations survivability through the crisis?

Literature review

Aspects like the definition of sustainability, systems thinking, and the importance of leadership in sustainability initiatives are discussed here.

Definition of Terms

The World Commission for Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 13). Five years after the WCED publication, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, 1992) made the definition of sustainability more specific, stating that sustainable development was “to ensure socially responsible economic development while protecting the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations” (UNCED, 1992, p. 13). Both of these definitions touch on thinking and behavior that is future-oriented and long-term, and since thinking is the precursor to actions and behavior, these two components go hand in hand.

As of 2008, action needed for a sustainable transition had yet to materialize. Glasby (2008) calculated the continual growth rates of GDP and world population through the 20th & 21st centuries and predicted unprecedented resource consumption resulting in a massive environmental deficit by the year 2100. A continuation of humankind’s current course will overwhelm the natural environment, causing severe problems for populations in the future (Glasby, 2008).  The major cause of the problem is not the underdeveloped world, rather it is the one billion people who live in developed countries who are over-consuming and putting immense pressure on environmental resources (Diamond, 2008). What should change for sustainability to be a reality are the behavioral and thinking patterns of consumers within developed countries who consume and produce waste at rates 32 times higher than in the developing world (Diamond, 2008; Glasby, 2002).

It is not solely consumers that are to blame for the sustainability problem. The issues regarding sustainability can also be linked to organizations. In fact, according to Hawken (1992), the responsibility lies directly on the shoulders of organizations and their leaders. “Corporations, because they are the dominant institution on the planet, must squarely address the social and environmental problems that afflict humankind” (p. xiii). Hawken contended that sustainability issues stem from “design problems” (p. xiii) within corporations and that successful sustainability initiatives must holistically involve and integrate business, biological, and social systems together (p. xiv).

Dervitsiotis (2005) maintained that, for leaders to create sustainable organizations, they must shift their perspective of organizations away from hierarchical and machine-like creations.  The new perspective should see organizations as living systems or processes existing in the midst of millions of other living systems or processes in constant communication and relationship with one another (p. 926). “To develop sustainable excellence in human organizations, we need to understand more fully those features that define a living system at various levels of complexity” (p. 926). The machine-like metaphor of organizations is only useful for a reality that is stable without flux, but this is not how the world operates (Dervitsiotis, 2005). A new conceptual framework is needed where organizations are treated in a more holistic manner (Cooper, 2007).

Systems thinking provides a holistic model for an organizational context and has been used for organizational sustainability analysis worldwide. At its core, systems thinking is about addressing the root cause of problems and provides a different way of seeing and thinking about the world’s economic, organizational, and societal problems (Meadows, 2008, p. 2). It allows one to see the interconnections of a problem and to be creative with system redesign (p. 2). Some of the problems addressed within organizational and societal structures can be linked to larger systems, creating further problems when solutions are made without taking into account the larger system designs (p. 4). This inability to account for larger system connections and relationships is the habit of reductionist and fragmented thinking.

A large portion of organizational analysis uses the reductionist framework popularized during the Industrial Revolution (Meadows, 2008, p. 6). However, the reductionist approach can be limiting when used alone. As Meadows stated, “I don’t think the systems way of seeing is better than the reductionist way of thinking. I think it’s complementary, and therefore revealing” (p. 6). Systems thinking is simply a framework that allows for better understanding of system interconnections and relationships, thereby providing more solutions.

Meadows (2008) defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (p. 11). Meadows gave several examples of systems thinking concepts when she stated:

No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails. (Meadows, 2008, p. 184)

The concept of interconnectedness is key to the systems thinking philosophy. To begin to see things as interconnected, one must “stop dissecting out elements and start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together” (Meadows, 2008, p. 13). Systems can be embedded within larger systems and composed of numerous subsystems (p. 15). When elements or relationships within or between systems change, the entire structure of the system can change, thereby changing other elements, relationships, or structures within linked systems (p. 16).

If organizations and economies do not take into account the open interconnectedness of their systems, they will be more likely to misread and erroneously design the entire system (Meadows, 2008). Using the traditional economic model as an example, the model also does not take into account the open nature of the economic system and how it flows into and with other systems around the globe.

“Everything physical comes from somewhere, everything goes somewhere, and everything keeps moving. There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion” (Meadows, 2008, p. 97).

Everything is connected to everything else within the global economic structure and these connections are far from neat.

This shift in the understanding of organizational and economic systems, from being closed and easy to manipulate, to systems that are open and complex, requires a different approach for leaders. The understanding that systems cannot grow exponentially without hitting constraints and breaking points can have profound implications in the way organizations and societies are both viewed and led. In a system such as capitalism where exponential growth is fundamental to the overall health of the system, delays and breaking points can be viewed as a limiting factor. The idea of system constraints and limitations can be fearful for leaders; however, if leadership becomes aware of the nature of systems and how they operate, then they can lead differently, for a new kind of system (Senge, 1990). After all,

“there is always a limit to growth. If these limits are not self-imposed then they will be system-imposed. So how do you self-impose them onto the system? First, let go and stop trying to control the entire system” (Meadows, 2008, p. 114).

Awareness of system limitations, how systems operate, and the lack of control, can create a new form of leadership and a new kind of organization.

Leadership has been deemed a necessary component to sustainability initiatives and holistic thinking (Crews, 2010). Leadership is also responsible for policy implementation and the formation of learning environments that can foster sustainable change (Senge, 1990).

           In this study, phenomenological research methodology will be used to study the impact The Great Recession of 2008 had on leadership perceptions and decisions regarding sustainability. This methodology is desirable because it provides the tools to achieve a deeper understanding of The Great Recession and its influence on the consciousness of leaders. In addition, phenomenology is desirable because it is attentive to experience of phenomenon and the nature of experience (Moustakas, 1994), in this case The Great Recession.

Methodology: Phenomenology

Phenomenological research used as a methodology is grounded in the theoretical framework of phenomenology, which is a brand of constructivism (Crotty, 1998, p. 5).  Phenomenology is most often separated into several separate categories or schools: classical or Husserlian or transcendental, heuristic, and existential (Crotty, 1998). These schools of phenomenology differ in the ways in which the data for the phenomenon under investigation is examined.  This study uses the Husserlian approach.

Phenomenology is originally based on the work of Edmund Husserl (1952/1980) and his approach is widely referred to as classical, or transcendental phenomenology, as well as Husserlian.  At its foundation, phenomenology is concerned with intentionality, which is the internal experience of the awareness of a phenomenon (Moustakas, 1994). Crotty (1998) explained the idea of intentionality as, “The essential relationship between conscious subjects and their objects. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. An object is always an object for someone” (p. 79). Husserl was mainly focused on consciousness and how elements of a specific phenomenon revealed itself in consciousness. Consciousness, according to Husserl, was the connecting relationship between individual subjects and the world around them. Therefore, phenomenological research was:

To question the way we experience the world, to want to know the world in which we live as human beings. And since to know the world is profoundly to be in the world in a certain way, the act of researching, questioning, theorizing, is the intentional act of attaching ourselves to the world. (van Manen, 1990, p. 5)

At its core then, phenomenology is concerned with the structure of experience and consciousness of phenomena and experiences (Crotty, 1998; Moustakas, 1994). van Manen (1990) asserted that phenomenology was about answering the question, “What is this or that kind of experience like” (p. 9)? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines phenomenology as

the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. (Zalta, 2008)

As previously mentioned, phenomenology was founded by Edmund Husserl and is primarily interested in the study of the relationship between phenomena and human consciousness (Crotty, 1998; Moustakas, 1994; Zalta, 2008). Both the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology share the assumption that experience is a relationship between the consciousness of the individual and the world they encounter (van Manen, 1990). Coupled together they form a methodology concerned with the interior interpretation of an experience or phenomenon.

In the context of this study that is seeking to understand the essence of leaders’ interpretations and responses to the Great Recession, existential phenomenology is an appropriate method for the purpose of this study.

By studying how leaders experience and interpret economic recessions, we will gain a better understanding of what leaders think is necessary for their companies to survive.



       Interviews are the primary method used in phenomenological research studies (Moustakas, 1994, p. 114). Interviews provide a holistic approach to the phenomena being studied in the sense that multiple subjective experiences are uncovered through the interview process (Moustakas, 1994). “At the root of in-depth interviewing is an interest in understanding the lived experience of other people and the meaning they make of that experience” (Seidman, 2006, p. 9). At the core of the interviewing process is the “interest in other people’s stories because they are of worth” (p. 9).

          Interviews for phenomenological research differ from some other interview techniques. Whereas some research interviews are structured to ask the same questions in the same order and with as much control as possible, the phenomenological interview is designed to create “an informal and interactive process” with “open-ended questions” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 114) and discourse regarding the experience of interest (Moustakas, 1994; Polkinghorne, 1989). The goal of the researcher for phenomenological interviews is to shed light on significant themes of the lived experience under investigation.

          To create more natural conversation, the format of the interviews was circular rather than linear. Participants were encouraged to speak openly and given freedom to discuss topics they felt were important in whatever order they chose. The role of the researcher during the interview was to help the interviewee describe the experience in question as fully as possible. In the phenomenological interview, the participant is seen as the expert on the subject, not the researcher (Polkinghorne, 1989).

          The author conducted, transcribed, and analyzed the interviews himself.

Data analysis

Organizing data begins with looking at the transcribed interviews through “the methods and procedures of phenomenal analysis” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 118). These methods and procedures include horizontalizing the data, which is defined as taking “every statement relevant to the topic and question to have equal value” (p. 118). The horizontalized statements are then listed into meaning units and clustered into common themes (p. 118). Any overlapping or repetitive statements should be removed. The clustered themes and meaning units are used to develop the “textural descriptions of the experience” (p. 118). “From the textural descriptions, structural descriptions and an integration of textures and structures into the meanings and essences of the phenomenon are constructed” (p. 119).

Findings and Discussion

Overview of the Participants

This study presents the experiences of seven leaders, each in different organizational backgrounds. The seven individuals interviewed were chosen to participate not only due to their willingness to share their experiences, but also because of the information each individual could offer defined by their position of leadership and the organizational experience they possessed. Every participant was either a CEO or President of their organization. Four of the seven participants were Presidents of Fortune 500 companies. The organizations they led were in the fields of banking, investments, litigation, education, healthcare, and manufacturing. As a group, they were Caucasian, Asian, or Latino, and ranged in ages between late 40s to mid-60s. One participant was female, and six were male.

Interpretation of the Recession Phenomenon: Systems Thinking

Initial emotions participants expressed at the emerging recession were that of tension, anger, surprise, and fear. These feelings increased in intensity depending on how directly linked to the financial sector the participants were. However, regardless of how close the participants were to the financial field, the interpretation of the problem as being interconnected and interdependent was prevalent across the participants’ accounts.

Several economic shocks were mentioned by the participants during the interviews. While the examples of the Lehman Brothers collapse on September 15th, 2008, and the Dow Jones plunge on September 29th, 2008, were both provided as examples for the participants, several other days were mentioned as well. For example, one participant mentioned the bankruptcy of IndyMac Bank as being a key breaking point for him. However, while the examples of specific breaking points differed depending on the individual participants, the way in which the subjective experiences were constructed were similar.

In almost all the stories provided, the participants appeared to interpret the economic shocks as highly interconnected and complex phenomena. While the collapse of Lehman and the decline in the stock market could be considered by some to reside solely in the financial markets, the participants saw the crisis as a series of interconnected events. In some participants’ stories, the breaking points were expected due to the participants’ awareness of the interrelated sets of problems and limits to growth that were not being addressed throughout most of the economy leading up to the crisis. In the cases where the collapse was more of a surprise, the participants were still keenly aware of the interconnected nature of the event. This awareness led to understanding that an impact would be felt throughout the economy, regardless of whether or not the collapse had begun in the financial sector.

The participants’ interpretations of the economic collapse as having consequences and impacts throughout the economy are characteristic of systems thinking. Someone who holds a systems thinking viewpoint sees value in understanding the relationships in and between systems, and how, when those relationships change, the entire structure of the system will change with them (Meadows, 2008, p. 16). Several participants understood that the collapse would translate into a “new landscape” or new environment. Other participants began to ask how the breaking points would eventually reach and impact their organizations.

Meadows (2008) used the economic system as an example of a complex open system consisting of multiple feedback loops and time lags residing within the loops and between other connected systems (p. 58). The system thinking paradigm understands that changes in elements or relationships within a system can impact the entire structure of a system (p. 16). Meadows (2008) argued that this was a foundational paradigm necessary for understanding sustainability within the context of organizations. The perspective of the economy as a complex open system with feedback loops was revealed throughout the participants’ stories and accounts of the recession.

Aside from the holistic systems thinking interpretation of the crisis, almost all of the participants perceived the collapse, while hard, as an opportunity for increased partnerships, innovation, and cutbacks of unnecessary waste. One participant stated that downturns and breaks in the economy were opportunities for the company to “lean out” some of the waste that had built up during the good times. Another respondent, who worked with sustainable investment portfolios, said that, as he looked back on the recession, he saw it as positive for sustainable initiatives moving forward. Yet another participant saw the economic collapse as an opportunity for more partnerships within the community. All of these examples are interpretations of the phenomenon similar to Prigogine and Stengers (1984) and Kirk’s (2000) system bifurcation points and the opportunities for higher levels of organization that are available at those points.

Almost all the participants were keenly aware of oncoming chaos with regard to the recession. There was an understanding that, while the initial collapse was concentrated in the financial sector, the entanglement of relationships in the economic system would eventually create impact within their own organizations. Most of the participants also saw the recession as a positive opportunity similar to what was discussed by Prigogine and Stengers (1984) and Kirk (2000). The next section touches on the three behavioral themes that emerged out of this systems thinking interpretation and understanding of the phenomenon.

Through the lens of constructivism (Crotty, 1998) and existential phenomenology, each organizational leader’s thinking eventually revealed itself in outward behavior of the leader as well as in their overall organizations. From this analysis, three behavioral themes emerged from the collected data. The systems thinking interpretation of the recession by the participants led to: a) an immediate increase in communication and dialogue with both the public and their employees, b) an increase in collaboration and relationship awareness within their own organizations, the media, and the public, and c) a greater appreciation for ethics, values, and truth. Each of these themes is more fully articulated in the following subsections.

Dialogue and communication

Every participant interviewed mentioned a significant increase in dialogue and communication that followed the bifurcation points and continued throughout the recession. This trait of dialogue and communication was one that echoed repeatedly in the review of literature. During times of organizational change, “the use of dialogue, discourse, or conversation is a prominent theme” and “dialogical communication is a process through which change can occur” (Hickman, 2010, p. 517).

One of the disciplines needed for a sustainable learning organization, according to Senge (1990), is the art of dialogue. Senge (1990) contended that dialogue was an essential element to team functioning during times of complexity, in that it allowed the group to think insightfully about the complex situation and helped to innovate and coordinate action (p. 219). The art of dialogue as a form of communication allows organizations to see a problem from multiple vantage points (p. 226).

Harper and Stein (2006) suggested that one of the best ways to handle complex and chaotic problems was through dialogue (p. 7). However, Harper and Stein (2006) and Putman (1993) stated that the practice of dialogue required a form of leadership that differed from the traditional definition. It was a form of leadership that focused on the “autonomous individual person” (Harper & Stein, 2006, p. 7) and practiced civility, engagement, and community (Putman, 1993, p. 4). The theme of dialogue goes hand in hand with an organizational style that is collaborative and relational (Hickman, 2010, p. 529). Senge (as cited in Hickman, 2010) called for “leadership networks” (p. 534) that function “like communities” (p. 534). These leadership networks require a version of leadership that is both collaborative and relational (p. 535).

Relational and collaborative leadership

The collapse of both Lehman Brothers and the Dow Jones Industrial Average during the month of September in 2008, was a damaging blow financially to all of the participants in this study. All of the participants mentioned concern over their retirement and savings plans that were connected to the stock market at the time. However, the moments that stuck out the most in the participants’ memories of their experiences were not necessarily ones of great financial loss, but the loss of relationships through layoffs, or the straining of relationships that took place during the crisis.

The importance of relationships and the imprint relationships had on the psyche of participants that emerged out of the interviews were consistent with the definitions of leadership provided by both Foster (1989) and Rost (1993). Foster contended that leadership “does not reside in an individual but in the relationship between individuals” (p. 45). Rost (1993) argued that a new form of leadership was needed for the 21st century that was an “influence relationship among leaders and followers” (p. 102).

Elements of transformational leadership were also seen throughout the participants’ stories. According to Northouse (2010), transformational leadership requires leaders to be strong role models for the beliefs and actions they wish their followers to adopt (p. 174). One participant recalled that his leadership “was to convey confidence that we would survive and that we would buckle down, be smarter about acquisitions of people, be smarter about our net investments, but that we would continue to invest in people.” Throughout the crisis, another participant said that he portrayed confidence in his organization because of how prepared they were for the collapse. For another, it was important to “be visible.”

During times of chaos, Hazy (2008) argued for a style of leadership that was more collaborative in nature and used less direct authority. From this collaborative perspective, leadership would be more focused on the entangled relationships among all parties involved than it would be about one specific person (Hazy, 2008). Parks (2005) stated that leadership during chaos should enable people to create together something that works in the situation (p. 4).

Creating together and collaborating rather than directing and dictating requires a different kind of leadership similar to what Burns (1978), Northouse (2010), and Rost (1993) called for. It requires a relational style of leadership. This relational and transformative style of leadership “fits the needs of today’s work groups, who want to be inspired and empowered to succeed in times of uncertainty” (Northouse, 2010, p. 171).

The partnerships, relationships, and collaboration that emerged out of the participants interviews were consistent with what Waddock (as cited in Hickman, 2010) called for: “competition and collaboration, with sustainability, are necessary and important to societal—and business—health and success” (p. 611).

As mentioned above, the theme of relational and collaborative leadership goes together with the dialogical organizational element, and is also connected to the theme of systems thinking. In making sense of complex issues, and during times of change, “when effective collaboration is the aim, developing a shared conceptual ‘systems sense’ is even more important” (Senge, as cited in Hickman, 2010, p. 526). Senge went on to state that creating a “relational space (for dialogue) can be systematic and purposeful” (p. 531).

Ethics, values, and truth

For those leaders whose organizations survived the collapse, the elements that emerged out of their stories as important are ethics, truth, and values.  In the context of this study, the bifurcation point was the experience of the recession, but more specifically, each participant revealed specific transformational points in time or energy points that had a deep impact on them internally. Some of these moments were catalysts for “soul searching” or “value searching.”

In a sense, the theme of value sharing and ethics goes hand in hand with the other two themes of communication and relational leadership. Due to the relational nature of the organizational leaders in this study, the leaders felt the need to communicate the truth about the crisis and its implications to those around them.

Leaders who are perceived as being able to create and support an ethical culture in their organizations are those who represent, communicate, and role model high ethical standards, emphasize attention to goals other than economic, engage in “ethics talks,” and maintain a long-term view of relationships both within and outside the organization. (Ardichvili, as cited in Hickman, 2010, p. 356)

Hay (2010) addressed this concept when he spoke about the need for sustainability programs to give attention to ethics. What Hay (2010) called for was a more eco-centric ethical approach that considered all stakeholders involved rather than individual stakeholders. These leaders, according to Hay (2010), “need to personally embody such morality, while wanting to transform those around them for the betterment of society and the environment as a whole” (p. 168).

Freeman and Auster (2011) studied the effects of the financial crisis on leadership and concluded that there was an increase in the importance of values and ethics among leadership. Freeman and Auster (2011) connected the relational nature of leaders with the increased desire for values and ethics within their organization. Freeman and Auster argued that responsible leaders should hold to a version of values and ethics similar to that given by Maak and Pless (2006), which was:

A specific frame of mind promoting a shift from a purely economistic, positivist and self-interested mindset to a frame of thinking that has all constituents and the common good in mind. (p. 1)

Waddock (as cited in Hickman, 2010) noted that leadership in the new corporate era will require “aware leaders that have thought deeply about their own values and vision and, as a result, are prepared for the complex world they must face” (p. 612). Waddock went on to state that this awareness will not lessen the complexity and difficulty of the decisions leaders will be faced with, but it will help them make the right decisions if and when the chaos is high.

Themes of Sustainability

From an internal standpoint, all participants constructed the crisis from a more holistic framework. This holistic and systems thinking understanding and interpretation of the recession phenomenon is characteristic of the sustainable thinking needed, as argued by Bohm (1980), Cajete (2000), Hawken (1993), Meadows (2008), and Senge (1990). “Mastering systems thinking is a critical element of creating continually improving and learning enterprises” (Waddock, as cited in Hickman, 2010, p. 611).

With the help of the epistemological framework of interpretivism, and the methodology of existential phenomenology, this study sought to investigate how the participants framed their experience of the Great Recession at the interior level and, in turn, behaved and responded to it. This study revealed a holistic framework, and, I would argue, a systems thinking interpretation, constructed by the participants at economic breaking points. From this interpretation, several responses and behaviors manifested that are argued to be critical to sustainability initiatives. They were: a) an increase in dialogue and communication (Crew, 2010; Harper and Stein, 2006; Senge, 1990); b) an increase in collaboration and relationship awareness among employees and customers (Hazy, 2008; Parks, 2005); and c) a deeper sense of ethics, values, and mission (Freeman & Auster, 2011; Hay, 2010).

Each one of these themes has been deemed an important trait and characteristic necessary to leadership for sustainability. It should come as no surprise that the results of the study found that, for those organizations that made it through the crisis successfully, a holistic understanding was used to interpret the phenomenon.

Contributions and Limitations

Employing the methodology of existential phenomenology, this study sought to understand the interior responses of leaders to the Great Recession of 2008 with regard to sustainability and leadership. The findings showed that these CEOs held some elements of a systems thinking mindset. The impact the recession had on the psyche of leadership revealed itself throughout the participants’ accounts in a manner very similar to systems thinking.

Qualitative research studies are limited due to the subjective nature of both the researcher and the participants. The findings may not be applicable to organizational leaders in other fields or other parts of the country or world. It would be possible, however, to test the findings or recreate the study in other settings.

Limitations aside, the study does make contributions in several areas. This study adds a much-needed constructivist framework and qualitative methodology from which to approach the realm of economics and business, which have historically resided within more positivist frameworks favoring quantitative data analysis. Using the approach and tools of existential phenomenology, it has made available the self-conscious experiences of organizational leadership during the Great Recession of 2008 and their perception of its role in their leadership and overall organizational structures. This study also makes a contribution to the literature on sustainability. Kirk (2000), Prigogine and Stengers (1984), and Meadows (2008) expressed the importance of system breaking points, such as the economic shocks of the recession, in influencing sustainable change.


My research found several studies that implicated the impact that bifurcation points have on systems and human consciousness and behavior (Kirk, 2000; Prigogine and Stengers, 1984; Wilber, 1996). However, the literature did not reveal studies that investigated how recessions are survived and the paradigms that carry leaders and organizations through sustainably. If it is a fact of economics that recessions will always occur, then it is important to understand how to survive them. The findings in this study suggested that interpreting recessions through the holistic lens of system thinking results in several key styles and behaviors that successful leaders use to make it through. This is also empirical confirmation of the holistic ideas and theories proposed by Bohm (1980), Capra (1984), and Meadows (2008).

This study employed the rarely used methodology of phenomenology to analyze the topic of sustainability. It could be tested and expanded to understand the interior response of leadership at lower levels, as well as in other parts of the country or globe. The results of these studies could have a significant impact not only on the topic of sustainability and leadership, but also on how we perceive and understand recessions and economic theory as a whole. A similar study could be conducted with less successful organizations and their leaders to see whether or not there is any contrast with the level of systems thinking.

Dr. Steven Mitchell Walker holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. His primary interests have been in the area of metaphysics and consciousness that influence sustainable communities, organizations, and economies. His latest research has been on the Great Recession of 2008 and, as a breaking point in the social system, its impact on the psyche and behavior of organizational leaders. Over the past six years he has been primarily focused in higher education, real estate investments, sustainability development, and non-profit organization development and consulting. Dr. Walker resides in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son.

Staff helping with this article: Editor: Barry Clemson. Reviewers: Russell Clemens, Patrick Hoverstadt


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Citation Details for this Article: Walker, Steven. 2013. Systems Thinking and Sustainability: A Phenomenological Study of the 2008 Recession. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. 2(3). [Referred 2013-08-31]. Available: . ISSN-L 2242-8577  ISSN 2242-8577

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