Wheatley’s New Science of Leadership

Margaret J. Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World” is both a breath of fresh air and a monumental challenge to organizations to rethink and change how they view organizational structure, leadership, and employees. Wheatley purports to search for “a simpler way to lead organizations,” but introduces a new level of complexity to the leadership equation that, while making me cheer out loud personally, may cause some to shake their heads in puzzled wonder. It’s one thing to introduce ideas to human consciousness. It’s quite another to put those ideas into practice. However long it takes for Wheatley’s ideas to be translated into practical form, it will be well worth the wait.

Wheatley introduces the concept that principles underlying organizational structure can and should be equated to recently-discovered principles governing the subatomic world of quantum physics. She observes that “science has changed”—or at least our understanding of science has changed—and our understanding of the principles of organization should change accordingly. The backdrop for this analysis is the collective reality of the current organizational world that is divided into parts and hierarchies, where communication breakdowns and process failures are the daily norm. The end result (and the current reality) is continual dissatisfaction and stress.

If, as Wheatley says, we can begin to see things differently, perhaps we can begin to do things differently as well. Wheatley’s first controversial assertion is that systems should be “understood as whole systems, and attention given to relationships within those networks” rather than to the individual parts. The organizational world is likened to the quantum world where “relationship is the key determiner of everything” and where subatomic particles “come into form and are observed only as they are in relationship to something else” rather than as “independent ‘things.’”

This view of organizations as integrated, organic systems is just now emerging in corporate consciousness. It stands in stark contrast to what Wheatley calls a “Newtonian” orientation where boundaries, predictability, and individual expression are considered key factors essential to order and corresponding success. According to Wheatley, the Newtonian view is out-of-date and inaccurate at both subatomic and organizational levels.

In contrast to this outdated Newtonian orientation, Wheatley sees organization structure as a “world of relationships” that is “rich and complex” and where “predictability” is traded for “potentials,” as is the case in the quantum world. In Wheatley’s organizational world, as in the quantum world, no single individual exists independent of his or her relationships with others. In both worlds, there are both individual components and relationships, and neither exists without the other.

“To live in a quantum world, to weave here and there with ease and grace, we need to change what we do,” Wheatley writes. “We need fewer descriptions of tasks and instead learn how to facilitate process. We need to become savvy about how to foster relationships, how to nurture growth and development. All of us need to become better at listening, conversing, respecting one another’s uniqueness, because these are essential for strong relationships. The era of the rugged individual has been replaced by the era of the team player…. The quantum world has demolished the concept that we are unconnected individuals….Every organization power is purely relational.” Arguably, understanding this phenomenon is essential not only to comprehending how things happen in the real world, but also to translating what might otherwise be regarded as failures into opportunities and creative processes.

Out of Wheatley’s new organizational view, principles arise that leaders can potentially use to govern organizations more effectively. For instance, whereas creating a mission or vision statement is generally seen as identifying a desired state or ultimate destination, rather it should be seen as “creating a power” that “permeate[s] through the entire organization as a vital influence on the behavior of all employees,” according to Wheatley. In this sense, vision and mission is more present than future, and more about who we are than what we hope to accomplish. This takes the focus off of outcome and places it more on means, which is a deontological shift in contrast to the business world’s generally more utilitarian stance.

Another principle that emerges is the view that because organizations, like subatomic systems, are self-correcting, other events and phenomena normally deemed failures actually set the stage for more positive developments. What matters is participation and engagement, as well as all the methods used to facilitate interactive, coordinating elements in organizational settings. Equilibrium is no longer the goal, and dissipation is no longer the enemy. Process is everything, and adaptability is the pathway for process.

Wheatley implies that managers should no longer be pressured to impose control, constrict individual employee freedom, or inhibit change. “We do not have to fear disequilibrium,” she writes, “nor do we have to approach change so fearfully. Instead, we can realize that, like all life, we know how to grow and evolve in the midst of constant flux.” In fact, all attempts at imposing rigid, outdated ideas of order may actually prevent it. Individuals need freedom to think, express, and relate for themselves.

In Wheatley’s view, despite evidence of chaos we live in an “intrinsically well-ordered universe.” As such,“It is not difficult to recognize ourselves as electrons in organizations, moving, merging with others, forming new wholes, being forever changed in the process,” she states. In her view, the bonds that form these new wholes occur as a result of the exchange of information among individuals and within organizations, making communication the ultimate means to Wheatley’s glorious end.

In a sense, Wheatley introduces a new era of “scientific management” that no longer treats work and workers as an “engineering problem” but instead sees them as essential aspects of the greater “participatory nature of reality” that, quite simply, encompasses information and relationships. This view rejects a mechanistic world of efficiency, obedience, and standard operating procedures, which Wheatley regards as a “man-made, dangerous fiction that destroys our capacity to deal well with what’s really going on.” She makes her case by pointing out the difference between how organizations function in the day-to-day and how they function when faced with crisis or disaster. In essence, they tend to become “incapacitated by the very means they normally use to get things done—chains of command, designated leaders, policies, procedures, plans, regulations, and laws.” Instead, small, efficient, self-organized groups quickly form that make sure immediate needs are met and resources get where they need to go. Interestingly, these small networks function both to build up, as when disaster strikes, and to tear down, as when terrorism strikes. Either way, real “progress” occurs at the “subatomic” level at every level of reality, which extends to the business world.

A Personal Response

It’s my impression that Wheatley has seen the face of God and failed to recognize it. She is, in essence, like the moose she describes, hiding behind a skinny tree, thinking it can’t be seen and staring cross-eyed at the tree while ignoring the larger reality. Whatever our eyes fixate on, we see. Perhaps she has swung the pendulum back from the extreme of the Newtonian era to another extreme in terms of understanding organizational structure. Either way, it is a call to stand back and look at the bigger picture and whatever that potentially entails.

It calls for a personal commitment to avoid a habitual fall into panicked, knee-jerk reactions. The “system” of life itself is set up to cooperate and to achieve certain ends despite change and flux. In this I can trust, and that includes in the business world. It should result in a level of calm that is generally nonexistent in most business settings.  It should also empower me to be the kind of leader that I personally admire most—a transformational leader who pays attention to the concerns and needs of those I lead; who helps them gain awareness of issues by helping them look at old problems in new ways; and who excites and inspires them to achieve larger goals.

This changed perspective on leadership fits with self-assessment tests I’ve taken recently that indicate my preference for organic organizational structures. In my view, leadership is merely enhanced participation. In that sense, I will be more willing to work “in the trenches,” so to speak, even when I find myself in formal leadership positions. I will value the network and its synergy over personal, individual achievement, recognizing that I cannot function as a distinct island, no matter how hard I try. (Even islands are connected by the sea floor and the waters between.) This is not, in fact, a new idea:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

These ideas have inspired me to reassign value to various workplace elements. It is easy to see people and events as hurdles and roadblocks rather than as partners and opportunities. My changed view on organizational structure necessitates a changed view on organizational “structures” or elements. If I expect harmonious results from coordinated efforts, I am more likely to realize such results, and everyone can benefit from my reformed expectations. If chaos and instability are stepping stones to change and newly formed processes, I don’t have to stand in the way. The underlying order that characterizes the evolving processes will not disappear, regardless of my attitudes or actions, so I need not throw myself in the path of oncoming threats to save the day. My plans need not dictate pathways to specific outcomes.

This view is especially pertinent to how I regard “human resources,” practically and conceptually. Wheatley says, “As we learn to live and work in this process world, we are rewarded with other changes in our behavior. I believe we become gentler people. We become more curious about differences, more respectful of one another, more open to life’s surprises. It’s not that we become either more hopeful or pessimistic, but we do become more patient and accepting.” That is as it should be. In my experience, this metamorphosis happens with age in general. Admittedly, though, it may be a result of deliberate, individual choice. Some harden and jade with age. Others become softer and kinder, regardless of context. Choice dictates whether we participate in networks that build up or ones that tear down.

Current generations still, to some degree, reject the idea of interconnectedness and interdependence in the natural world, much less the business world. They are trained to euthanize and dissect organic things into parts and pieces, and to learn about life and business in neatly-sliced disciplines. They leave school with a suitcase full of sliced-and-diced dead realities that cannot be put back together again by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. They fail to study organizations in their living, organic, interconnected form. As such, they graduate unprepared to function organically within those organizations. This “problem” fuels my vision for living and teaching. It allows me to be thankful for the new, often misunderstood, Millennial generation that values balance and interconnectedness.

As Wheatley points out, information generates life, and we “need to have information coursing through our systems, disturbing the peace, imbuing everything it touches with the possibility of new life. We need, therefore, to develop new approaches to information—not management but encouragement, not control but genesis.” This helps define my role as an educator and as a conduit of information relative to organizations.

Wheatley points out that any system that has the capacity to process information possesses the quality of intelligence, whether or not there is any discernment of that process. “Intelligence is a property that emerges when a certain level of organization is reached which enables the system to process information,” she writes. “The greater the ability to process information, the greater the level of intelligence.” As such, my job as an educator is to facilitate the processing of information, equipping minds to process information to better prepare them to participate in life. It is also my job to introduce them to awareness of this process. In so doing, I better prepare them for both the surprises and predictabilities of life.

Ultimately, I have been empowered by these ideas to relax in the downward spiral into entropy that is inevitable in this iteration of life. I have been granted only so much usable energy, and at some point a disturbance must occur, and matter and energy must be exchanged. I can accomplish only so much, and can find peace in recognizing that, in the end, it will have been enough. In change, there is growth. Stability is not the goal—at least not yet. This world has not yet reached a settled state that any of us would want to be stuck with for eternity. Change is welcome, and transformation brings hope that someday matter and information will finally come together—perhaps exactly as planned—and the ultimate outcome will be better than any board of directors might envision.