A Theory of Systems Leadership Illustrated by Eileen Fisher's Efforts to Become a Fashion Industry Leader in Sustainability

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Virginia Tech

This dissertation advances the understanding and teaching of systems thinking by integrating it with the Direction, Alignment, and Commitment model of leadership. Reframing systems thinking through the lens of leadership offers an important innovation and focus to the theory of systems thinking, and to the pedagogy of building the competencies sustainability professionals need. Chapter 1 offers a case study for teaching specific systems thinking competencies that promote leadership for systems change. It uses leadership as a novel way to identify and organize systems thinking competencies that are important for successful multi-stakeholder collaborations. Qualitative and quantitative approaches were used to assess learning outcomes across four cohorts of graduate students from 2017 to 2020. The study examined a one-month-long assignment, out of a year-long program, that focuses on systems leadership for climate change. Findings demonstrate that higher education programs can successfully build these competencies in sustainability students and professionals. Chapter 2 is a case study which illustrates how systems thinking and leadership practices were applied within Eileen Fisher, Inc. as the company reimagined its approach to sustainability starting in 2012. Eileen Fisher's efforts to promote sustainability provide a known example of leadership for systems change. The purpose of the case study is to determine whether the theory of systems leadership developed in Chapter 1 can explain the systems change that occurred in Eileen Fisher, Inc.; to help readers envision, extend, and apply this theory to their own situations; and, to support a case that can be used in classrooms to teach systems thinking and systems leadership. The case study demonstrates that substantive, systemic, organizational change resulted because of an intentional and specific set of practices put in place to promote systems thinking and sustainability. Chapter 3 explains the attributes and pedagogy of teaching cases, and Chapter 4 offers a teaching case for use by educators and workshop moderators interested in teaching systems thinking and systems leadership.

systems thinking, systems leadership, higher education, sustainability