Posted on July 6, 2019

The Three Reflective Questions That Every Successful Leader Asks Themselves

Are you asking yourself the right questions to maximize your leadership potential? The organic systems framework, as outlined by Barry Oshry, teaches us to ask these crucial reflective questions, allowing us to see the organization as a system of relationships and allowing us to understand our role in that system. This opens up our eyes to the truth about organizational powers: the connections between individuals, the space between us, is the bedrock for the organization’s functionality.

Social Systems

Above all, our organizations are social systems. We may have various technical proficiencies and job descriptions, but, ultimately, the success of the organization depends on how we work together. At the Systemic Leadership Summit, I spoke to Phil Cady, President of Cognitive Leadership Strategies West, Inc. and founding partner of the LEADS Learning Scholar Practitioner Network, and he explained the importance of harnessing these social systems through the organic systems framework. Just as Aristotle defined man as a “social animal,” Mr. Cady dives into this social aspect of our nature to help us understand our organizations on a systemic level.

This brings us to his definition of the general systems theory: “social systems properties emerge as a result of the relationships among the people within those organizations.” The way that a team works together, the way that you interact about your workers, and the way that producers feel about their bosses form the framework upon which the entire organization is built. Like symbiotic organisms that inhabit an ecosystem, the relationship between the parts sustains the whole.

Organizational Patterns

Before we get to the all-important questions to ask ourselves, we need to first establish a theory of organizational patterns through which we can interpret our answers. One of the most important organizational patterns is, as Mr. Cady describes, the top/bottom pattern. Though this is most commonly seen in a boss, the top, telling a producer, the bottom, what to do, this is not always the case. This relationship can also exist between peers or even between people in different organizations.

Essentially, it describes accountability: who is responsible to whom. One person says, “Hey, can you help me with this?” and that person becomes the top in the relationship. When the other person agrees to fulfill some task, they are the bottom. The bottom thus becomes accountable to the top.

The Four Functions

Furthermore, Mr. Cady outlines four functions that every system is constantly fulfilling. He explains, “those are the four things that basically that any social system will do; integrate, individuate, differentiate and homogenize. It’swhen they get out of balance that we start to see these patterns emerge with great irregularity.” Basically, the system is created by an integration of people, who then individuate into their respective tasks. Then, at the macroscopic level, various segments of the organization differentiate into different parts, for instance a marketing department and a human resources department. Ultimately, those segments need to homogenize back together to create a unified whole, a living system.

This is an on-going process that must be continually renewed. Problems start to occur when something gets thrown off track. For instance, in a huge globalized company with offices around the world, it can be difficult to homogenize via communication simply because it’s too costly to fly everyone together for a meeting. To solve problems like this, organizations employ modern technology solutions like digital conference calls. Mr. Cady sums it up, saying “We can’t see globalization without an opportunity to homogenize and integrate on a regular basis, so what we’re seeing is that people are looking towards technology, other sorts of solutions as a way to try and integrate and to try and homogenize.”

Reflective Questions

As leaders who want to make the most out of our time and who want our organizations to be the best that they could possibly be, we should ask ourselves these reflective questions. Mr, Cady gives us the first of these: “what relationship am I in right now? Where am I in this system? What pattern or relationship am I in? Can I put a finger up, can I identify it?” At this point, we just need to figure out where we fit into the whole. Consider your connections with your peers, your subordinates, and your superiors, and start to figure out the dynamics of those relationships.

Then move onto the second question, which again comes form Mr. Cady: “where does responsibility move in our relationship? Is it to you or is it to me, is it is vertically or is it laterally, is it to others or is it – am I pulling responsibility to myself or am I holding others responsible? So just notice where responsibility is going, that will give you some insight into what sort of dynamic may play out.” This allows us to see our relationships through the lens of the organic systems framework because we understand how our connections relate to the patterns that we described above. Understanding our responsibilities to each other is one of the most important connections that take place in our organizations.

Mr. Cady then asks the third and final question, “what are the consequences of this relationship that’s playing out?” This takes the answers from the first two questions and synthesizes them into the organization as a whole. It lets us take a stand and work to use our behaviors to affect real change in the organization.


The organic systems framework offers us a powerful toolbox for organizational and leadership development. We will do well to take a moment to reflect on ourselves, our relationships, and how those relationships play into the entire system. Ultimately, this infuses our organizations with incredible power, that Mr. Cady uniquely defines: “power would be the ability of the system itself to make happen what it wants to have happen in spite of overwhelming forces.”


What comes up for you when you reflect on the three questions? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! As always, if you have any questions, want help implementing these systemic concepts into your organization, or even if you’re just feeling inspired, please reach out to me at

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