The Inquirer – Twenty First Edition
The World View of the Quantum Leader
In the previous edition, I wrote about agility – both in terms of leadership and organisations, and suggested that the world of Quantum physics can give us a metaphor for re-conceptualising leadership. I want to develop this further in this edition. In the next edition, I will explore the implications for leaders in more detail.
For the past three centuries our thinking in the physical and social sciences has been based on assumptions about causal relationships and the predictability of nature. Reductionist, cause and effect reasoning, derived from an engineering perspective, have dominated organisational thinking.
This is often referred to as mechanistic or Newtonian or systems thinking. This is characterised by assuming that the laws of nature are predictable, events are predictable, and control is possible even in the human domain.
• Assumes that nature is certain and predictable
• There is one best way
• A primary emphasis is control through hierarchy, power concentrated at the top – tyranny of a minority
• Division of labour, functional specialisation, competition
• Individuals are passive resources
• Organisational change is initiated at the top and is reactive
• Values efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation
The Newtonian paradigm gave rise to systems theory, which focuses on the parts of a whole and how they mesh. In this way it is atomistic. A central concept is that systems have a strong tendency to move toward order and stability (homeostasis), with disorder kept at bay by defining boundaries and roles clearly. Change occurs through redefinition of boundaries and roles.
However, another way of thinking, derived from the new sciences especially quantum physics, chaos theory, complexity, suggests that we could assume instead that :
Nothing in nature is fixed
Events are not predictable
Control is an illusion
In line with these assumptions, comes a new paradigm, in which coherent patterns emerge through interaction rather than any blueprint or plan.
• Assumes that nature is uncertain and unpredictable
• There are many ways of getting things done
• Relies on non-hierarchical networks, influence is a function of personal attributes and distributed widely among members
• Personal versatility, integrated effort, co-operation
• Members are co-creative partners
• Change can start anywhere in the organisation and is experimental
• Values meaningful relationships and individual wellness
In the quantum paradigm the most basic units are seen as having both particle and wave properties, as being both separate and connected. Because of its particulate aspect, a quantum unit can be pinned down in space and time and can be measured. But it also has a wave-like aspect – dynamic energy, vibrations of further potential – through which it is linked inextricably with all other units which, in turn, have their particular dynamic energy and potentials.
It is this relational nature of every quantum unit - its contextualism - that makes it impossible to view it and to see its characteristics for more than a fleeting instant. Its contextualism ensures that it changes whenever there is a change elsewhere in the system. This image is holistic and emphasizes relationships and integration in the quantum unit.
The holism of the quantum perspective leads to an emphasis on free-flowing interaction and co-determination. It emphasises relationship building, trust building, networking, operating in the shadow side (Gerard Egan : Working the Shadow Side: A Guide to Positive Behind-the-Scenes Management Jossey-Bass Management 1994). It places a virtue on values and moral purpose, community, inclusiveness - what Danah Zohar (Rewiring the Corporate Brain : Using the New Science to Rethink How We Structure and Lead Organisations, Berrett-Koehler 1997 calls ‘spiritual intelligence.’
A meeting of the Newtonian and Quantum worlds has been highlighted by the economic crash. Stephen Foley in the FT (October 2013) writes ‘Banks and hedge funds have lured physicists for more than two decades, from the shrinking ranks of academic science or from corporate research departments such as Bell Labs in the US. The heads of trading desks were hungry for anyone who could bring new theory to the chaos of the markets or who could model the price of complex derivatives the same way they could divine laws for the physical world.
However, Emmanuel Derman (The Financial Modelers’ Manifesto, wilmott.com, 2009) gives a stark warning about the limitation of models which assume predictability ‘People are not like apples, dropped from Newton’s tree; by describing the financial world, one changes behaviour. Models only work until they don’t. “Don’t take your model so seriously. Rather, use your model, put it to the things you can see. Then use it to interpolate to things that you can’t measure – and hope that it more or less interpolates directly. And when the world blows up that model is going be bad and the interpolation isn’t going to work.”
Other physicists continue to aspire to scoop in outlier phenomenon and to divine laws that can be used to predict the future, despite the daunting complexity. They reject the notion that financial systems tend towards a theoretical equilibrium and instead go hunting for inspiration in nature. Markets may be more like a body of water whose surface is constantly disturbed by new events and information, creating great waves whose energy is dissipated beneath the surface.
Of course, these paradigms are not entirely new: pre-Socratic society characterised these differences as ‘being’(fixed) and ‘becoming’ (flux and change). A suggestion of a new paradigm doesn’t mean that the old one is dismissed. There is BOTH a place in everyday transactional management for a Newtonian perspective AND a transformational sphere where leaders need to move into a thinking space, informed by different assumptions, where thinking biases are challenged and which allows them to make sense of a complex world, feel empowered to generate options and make decisions.
Quantum physics provides us with a metaphor to conceptualise leadership in a new way, which takes account of our messy, unpredictable, unstable world. It fits alongside our pragmatic model of agility, supporting its emphasis on interaction, relinquishing control, energy and emergence.
PS Danah Zohar was a keynote speaker at one of the private-public interchange programmes I organised and ran in the early 2000s. She was very impressive and her book is still worth a look.
PPS Apologies to physicists for any errors in interpretation or explanation
PPS thanks to Jane Maitland for helpful FT tip