Most leaders are leading from a 17th century scientific understanding of the world. What does it mean to be a leader in the 21st century?
Margaret J Wheatley has been an organization development consultant and researcher since 1973. Through her work, she explores the question, “How might we organize differently if we understood how life organizes?” Hailed by several voices as one of the most thought-provoking leadership books ever, Leadership and the New Science takes readers on an exploration of new ideas emerging out of the cutting edge of science; Quantum Physics, Chaos Theory and Field Theory; and contemplates their application to businesses and management.
The Old View: Margaret Wheatley says the 17th century view is of a predictable, machine-like universe. In this view, which Wheatley terms Newtonian, she points out that people have believed that, given time, science can figure out the reasons for everything in the universe. This view also sees the universe as a material place, where only objects and phenomena that are directly perceivable by human senses are taken as real. Just as it is possible to understand machines by understanding their components individually, Newtonian thinking makes us believe that it is possible to understand the universe by understanding the smaller parts that it is made of.
And the New: Since Newton, other scientists have explored the quantum nature of the universe and found that the rules of Newtonian thinking do not apply to all systems. Newtonian mechanics applies only to closed systems like machines, but not to living, open systems that continuously interact with the environment. Open systems include nature, living things and the universe itself. Quantum mechanics, Chaos theory and Field theory (collectively termed by the author as ‘the new science’) have radically changed the way scientists understand the functioning of open systems. In the new, 21st century view, she asks readers to make the shift from seeing organizations as closed systems to viewing them as open, living systems.
Key insights for leaders
Insight 1 – Establish a strong identity
According to new science, open systems grow by a process of self-referencing. This means that the system has a ‘sense of self’ or ‘identity’ that it uses to keep replicating itself. The stronger the sense of identity, the better it is able to face difficult external circumstances, and adapt to them. In the organizational context, this strong sense of identity comes from a clear purpose, vision and values, which are demonstrated with integrity by the leadership.
Insight 2 – Autonomy within boundaries
The ‘strong sense of self’ forms boundaries for the whole system, within which individual players have full autonomy to express themselves. This creates unpredictability within the system through individual action, but creates overall stability for the system itself. For example, the forest system of Africa is very stable overall, but the individual flora and fauna in the system are in a continuous flux. A season with low rainfall sees a reduction in the availability of water, creating massive changes in the behaviors of local animals. Some migrate. Others die out. Some others hunt different species. But the forest survives the season, with each of its individuals now more capable of dealing with water scarcity. New science indicates that in an open system with a strong identity, individuals with full autonomy organize themselves to respond to challenges intelligently and creatively, making the entire system stronger. In an organizational context, Wheatley encourages leaders to create a strong sense of purpose – why the organization exists; and a consistent value system – how the organization behaves; and gives employees full autonomy to bring the purpose of the organization to life while living together in the overall broad boundaries of the culture as enshrined by the values.
Insight 3 – Create disequilibrium with information
Open systems need to keep off-balance to continue growing and evolving. In nature, ecosystems keep off balance by interacting with their environment continuously. The new information received from the environment forces it to keep evolving internally so that it can stay stable as a system. For leaders, the lesson is to stop trying to create stability at all levels of the organization, but to embrace chaos as an essential part of the organization’s development. In contrast to the traditional view of tightly controlling sensitive information that may cause instability, Wheatley encourages leaders to create a free flow of information within the organization. If the identity is strong, employees will face the instability creatively. This will result in a more robust organization overall.
Insight 4 – Enable relationships
Quantum physics shows that atomic particles never exist in isolation. They will only exist in relation to other particles. According to this science, the building blocks of the universe are not the atoms but the relationships between them. Relationships are the building blocks. Quantum physicists maintain that we do not live in an objective world, and that each person exists only in relation to another person. We experience this in daily life too. We adapt our behaviors based on the situations and people we encounter. We are never exactly the same person in different encounters. A good relationship brings out a part of us that is simply not accessible in a bad relationship. Wheatley encourages leaders to recognize that the building blocks of a successful organization are not the individuals but the quality of relationships between individuals, and the ability of individuals to meet and co-create. The 21st century leader is more relationship savvy, and actively designs the organization to enable the right people to meet at the right time in an environment of respect and trust.
If you are a leader who wants to create a lasting organization, we recommend you take a closer look at these insights. While it is not prescriptive in nature, the book makes up for its lack of frameworks and ready-to-use tools by taking you on an exploration of the new science in a relatable manner. It is guaranteed to provoke your mind into thinking about new and intriguing arenas of leadership. Deep Red Ink provides consulting and business solutions for using the power of relationships to create win-win business results.