Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World

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We live in a time of chaos, rich in potential for new possibilities. A new world is being born. We need new ideas, new ways of seeing, and new relationships to help us now. New science—the new discoveries in biology, chaos theory, and quantum physics that are changing our understanding of how the world works—offers this guidance. It describes a world where chaos is natural, where order exists "for free." It displays the intricate webs of cooperation that connect us. It assures us that life seeks order, but uses messes to get there.

Leadership and the New Science is the bestselling, most acclaimed, and most influential guide to applying the new science to organizations and management. In it, Wheatley describes how the new science radically alters our understanding of the world, and how it can teach us to live and work well together in these chaotic times. It will teach you how to move with greater certainty and easier grace into the new forms of organizations and communities that are taking shape. You'll learn that:

Relationships are what matters—even at the subatomic level
Life is a vast web of interconnections where cooperation and participation are required
Chaos and change are the only route to transformation

In this expanded edition, Wheatley provides examples of how non-linear networks and self-organizing systems are flourishing in the modern world. In the midst of turbulence, Wheatley shows, we create work and lives rich in meaning.

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1. Discovering an Orderly World

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One learns to hope that nature possesses an order that one may aspire to comprehend.

—C. N. Yang

 

It has taken us a long while to get here—a nine-mile hike up a gradual ascent over rocky paths. My horse, newly trained to pack equipment and still an amateur, has bumped against my back, bruised my heels, and finally, unavoidably, stepped on my toe, smashing it against the inside of my boot. But it’s been worth it. Here are the American Rockies at their clichéd best. The stream where I sit soaking my feet glistens on for miles I can’t see, into green grasses that bend to the wind. There are pine trees, mountains, hawks, and off at the far edge of the meadow a moose who sees us and moves to hide her great girth behind a tree that is only four inches wide. The tree extends just to the edge of each eyeball. We laugh, but I suspect there’s a lesson in it for all of us.

For months, I have been studying process structures—things that sustain their identity over time yet are not locked rigidly into any one physical form. This stream that swirls around my feet is the most beautiful one I’ve encountered. Because it is vacation, I resist thinking too deeply about this stream, but as I relax into its flow, images stir and gently whorl the surface.

 

2. Newtonian Organizations in a Quantum Age

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For fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them … . The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.

—David Bohm

 

I sit in a room without windows, participating in a ritual etched into twentieth-century tribal memory. I have been here thousands of times before, literally. I am in a meeting, trying to solve a problem. Using whatever analytic tool somebody has just read about or been taught at their most recent training experience, we are trying to come to grips with a difficult situation. Perhaps it is poor employee morale or productivity. Or production schedules. Or the redesign of a function. The topic doesn’t matter. What matters is how familiar and terrible our process is for coming to terms with the complaint.

 

3. Space Is Not Empty: Invisible Fields That Shape Behavior

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Although we know a great deal about the way fields affect the world as we perceive it, the truth is no one really knows what a field is. The closest we can come to describing what they are is to say that they are spatial structures in the fabric of space itself.

—Michael Talbot

 

In Utah, the sky is everywhere—blue, open, insistent on attention. It soars over mountains and dives into long valleys, showing off its crystal clarity. At night, it is even more an exhibitionist. A friend, after a long flight from Hartford, sat rocking on my lawn swing far past midnight, tired, yawning, but unable to move. The stars would not let her go. For me, moving here—and living with these stars and sky—has been an experience in space. I have felt myself expanding into this vastness, felt my boundaries open, my vision lift, my internal defenses dissolve. With so much space, there is no place to go but out.

Space is the basic ingredient of the universe; there is more of it than anything else. Even at the microscopic level of atoms, where we would expect things to be dense and compact, there is mostly space. Within atoms, subatomic particles are separated by vast distances, so much so that an atom is 99.99 percent empty. Everything we touch, including our bodies, is composed of these empty atoms. We are far more porous than our dense bodies indicate. In fact, we are as void, proportionately, as intergalactic space (Chopra 1989, 96).

 

4. The Participative Nature of the Universe

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Penetrating so many secrets,
we cease to believe in the unknowable.
But there it sits nevertheless
calmly licking its chops.

—H. L. Mencken

 

Schroedinger’s cat is a classic thought problem in quantum physics. Physicist Erwin Schroedinger constructed the problem in 1935 to illustrate that in the quantum world nothing is real. We cannot know what is happening to something if we are not looking at it, and, stranger yet, nothing does happen to it until we observe it. Central to the quantum world, Zohar wrote, is the idea that “unobserved quantum phenomena are radically different from observed ones” (1990, 41).

The problem of the cat has not yet been resolved, but here is the thought experiment. A live cat is placed in a box. The box has solid walls, so no one outside the box can see into it. This is a crucial factor, since the thought experiment explores the role of the observer in evoking reality. Inside the box, a device will trigger the release of either poison or food; the probability of either occurrence is 50/50. Time passes. The trigger goes off, unobserved. The cat meets its fate.

 

5. Change, Stability, and Renewal: The Paradoxes of Self-Organizing Systems

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She who wants to have right without wrong,
Order without disorder,
Does not understand the principles
Of heaven and earth.
She does not know how
Things hang together.

—Chuang Tzu, fourth century B.C.

 

One day when a child, I stood beneath a swing frame that towered above me. Another child, older than me, told me of the time a girl had swung and swung until, finally, she looped over the top. I listened in silent awe. She had done what we only dreamed of doing, swung so uncontrollably high that finally not even gravity could hold her.

I think of this apocryphal story as I sit now in a small playground, watching my youngest son run from one activity to another. He has climbed, swung, and jumped, whirled around on a spinning platform, and wobbled along a rolling log until, laughing, he loses his balance. Now he is perched on a teeter-totter, waiting to be bumped high in the air when his partner crashes to the ground. Everywhere I look, there are bodies in motion, energies in search of adventure.

It seems that the very experiences these children seek are ones we avoid: disequilibrium, novelty, loss of control, surprise. These make for a good playground, but for a dangerous life. We avoid these things so much that if an organization were to take the form of a teeter-totter, we’d brace it up at both ends, turning it into a stable plank. But why has equilibrium become such a prized goal in adult life? Why do we seek so earnestly after balance? Is change so fearsome that we’ll do anything to avoid it?

 

6. The Creative Energy of the Universe—Information

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Whether an order is formed or not depends on whether or not
information is created … the essence of creating order
is in the creation of information.

—Ikujiro Nonaka

 

Why is there such an epidemic of “poor communications” within organizations? In every one I’ve been in, employees have ranked it right at the top of their major issues. Indeed, its appearance on those lists became so predictable that I grew somewhat numb to it. Poor communication was a superficial diagnosis, I thought, that covered up other, more specific issues. Over the years, I developed a conditioned response to “communications problems” the minute they were brought up. I disregarded the assessment. I started pushing people to “get beyond” that catch-all phrase, to “give me more concrete examples” of communications failures. I believed I was en route to the “real” issues that would have nothing to do with communication.

Now I know I was wrong. My frustration with pat phrases didn’t arise from people’s lack of clarity about what was bothering them. They were right. They were suffering from problems related to information. Asking them to identify smaller, more specific issues was pushing them in exactly the wrong direction, because the real problems were big—bigger than anything I imagined. What we were all suffering from, then and now, is a fundamental misperception of information: what it is, how it behaves, how to work with it.

 

7. Chaos and the Strange Attractor of Meaning

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Thus before all else, there came into being the Gaping Chasm, Chaos,
but there followed the broad-chested Earth, Gaia, the forever-secure seat
of the immortals … and also Love, Eros, the most beautiful of the
immortal gods, he who breaks limbs

—Hesiod

 

Several thousand years ago, when primal forces haunted human imagination, great gods arose in myths to explain the creation of the world. At the beginning was Chaos, the endless, yawning chasm devoid of form or fullness. And there also was Gaia, mother of the earth, she who brought forth form and stability. In Greek story, Chaos and Gaia were partners, two primordial powers engaged in a duet of opposition and resonance, creating everything we know.

These two mythic figures again inhabit our imagination and our science. They have taken on new life as scientists explore more deeply the workings of our universe. For me, this return to mythic wisdom is both intriguing and comforting. It signifies that even as we live in the midst of increasing turbulence, a new relationship with Chaos is possible. Like ancient Gaia, we are being asked to partner with Chaos, understanding it as the life process that releases our creative power. From Chaos’ great chasm comes both support and opposition, creating the “light without which no form would be visible” (Bonnefoy 1991, 369–70). We, the generative force, give birth to form and meaning, organizing Chaos through our creativity. We fill the void with worlds of our own making and turn our backs on him. But we must remember that deep within our Gaian centers, so the Greeks and our science tell us, is the necessary heart of Chaos.

 

8. Change—The Capacity of Life

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Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of
others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of
hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy
and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the
mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

—Robert F. Kennedy

 

We live in a time of great stirring storms, both natural and human-made. Disruptive elements seem to be afoot, gathering strength in air masses that spiral over oceans or in decisions that swirl through the halls of power. The daily news is filled with powerful changes, and many of us feel buffeted by forces we cannot control. It was from this place of feeling battered and bruised that I listened one night to a radio interview with a geologist whose specialty was beaches and shorelines. The interview was being conducted as a huge hurricane was pounding the Outer Banks of the eastern United States. The geologist had studied the Outer Banks for many years and was speaking fondly about their unique geological features. He was waiting for the storm to abate so he could get out and take a look at the hurricane’s impact. The interviewer asked: “What do you expect to find when you go out there?” Like the interviewer, I assumed he would present a litany of disasters—demolished homes, felled trees, eroded shoreline. But he surprised me. “I expect,” he said calmly, “to find a new beach.”

 

9. The New Scientific Management

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Science outstrips other modes & reveals
more of the crux of the matter
than we can calmly handle.

—A. R. Ammons

 

In the history of human thought, a new way of understanding often appears simultaneously in widely separated places and in different disciplines. These synchronicities, mysterious and inexplicable, pop up everywhere. For example, Darwin proposed his theory of evolution at the same time that another researcher, working in Malaysia, published very similar ideas. Physicist David Peat traces how the understanding of light evolved in parallel ways in both art and science over the centuries, a relationship that continues to this day. The sixteenth-century Dutch school of painters drew light for its effects on interior spaces, depicting how it entered rooms through cracks or under doors or was transformed as it passed through colored glass. At the same time, Sir Isaac Newton was studying prisms and the behavior of light as it passed through small apertures. Two hundred years later, the English landscape artist J. M. W. Turner painted light as energy, a swirling power that dissolved into many forms; simultaneously, physicist James C. Maxwell was formulating his wave theory in which light results from the swirling motion of electrical and magnetic fields. When Impressionist painters explored light for its effects on dissolving forms, even painting it as discrete dots, physicists were theorizing that light was made up of minuscule energy packets known as quanta (Peat 1987, 31–32; Schlain 1991).

 

10. The Real World

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People often comment that the new leadership I propose couldn’t possibly work in “the real world.” I assume they are referring to their organization or government, a mechanistic world managed by bureaucracy, governed by policies and laws, filled with people who do what they’re told, who surrender their freedom to leaders and sit passively waiting for instructions. This “real world” craves efficiency and obedience. It relies on standard operating procedures for every situation, even when chaos erupts and things spin out of control.

This is not the real world. This world is a manmade, dangerous fiction that destroys our capacity to deal well with what’s really going on. The real world, not this fake one, demands that we learn to cope with chaos, that we understand what motivates humans, and that we adopt strategies and behaviors that lead to order, not more chaos.

In this historic moment, we live caught between a worldview that no longer works and a new one that seems too bizarre to contemplate. To expose this, I want to apply the lens of new science to two of society’s most compelling, real world challenges: How well we deal with natural and manmade disasters and how well we respond to global terror networks. Using this high-resolution lens, we can see many dynamics that are crucial to understand, yet were obscured from view by our old sight.

 

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