Opinion

What quantum physics can teach us about business leadership

5 min read

09 September 2015

Leadership: it is rocket science, says OPP principal consultant Kate Lyne – who argues that businesses are ecosystems full of interconnected parts.

The reopening of the Hadron Collider in Switzerland a few weeks ago prompted great interest across the world as physicists attempt to further untangle the mysteries of the universe. Recent advances in science have prompted new understanding about how the natural world operates, challenging some of our longest-held beliefs. 

Increasingly, these insights are having repercussions beyond the rarefied world of quantum physics, giving new perspectives on how organisations function. Rather than using Newtonian reductionism to view organisations as machines with cogs that can be independently adjusted, these new perspectives help us to view them as dynamic ecosystems full of life and interconnected parts.

In her classic book “Leadership and the New Science”, Margaret Wheatley highlights the learning we can gain from “systems” thinking such as chaos theory: new discoveries have recognised the inherent order and beauty in chaos and the potential for creativity that seeming disorder can bring. 

She draws parallels between how organisations and organisms in the natural world are primarily impacted by dynamic interconnections and relationships between intangible forces. Just as atoms are held together by invisible forces of attraction, individuals and teams also possess a dynamic tension between them in their relationships. This leads to patterns and fractals of behaviour that are mirrored unconsciously across organisations, sometimes recognised as “culture” but often remaining unexplored in terms of potential impact and influence on organisational life.

In a dynamic environment where powerful internal and external forces play out across teams, departments, businesses and even whole industries, leaders need an advanced ability to respond to the shifts and changes within their organisations – riding these developments like a wave, rather than trying to pull levers to manage them with formulas like a predictable machine. 

This requires the ability to take the widest possible view on what is happening, taking a systems perspective on the shifts and patterns that are emerging. Ron Heifetz, professor at Harvard University refers to this as “taking a balcony perspective” – standing back to view the whole dance, rather than focusing on the individual steps of one dancer. From the balcony leaders are more clearly able to see the fractals of behaviour and the overall shape of the dance-floor.

Read more about the convergence of science and business:

Given the environment of increasing complexity and ambiguity within which most leaders are now working, the ability to understand, manage and develop relationships within “living” organisational systems is now more important than ever. Leaders need to be able to work with intangible dynamics and also recognise their own impact on the wider system. 

The need for self-awareness is becoming increasingly important as dynamic systems require leaders to understand the effect their behaviour and role-modelling has. Like the proverbial butterfly that causes a tornado in Texas by flapping its wings in Tokyo, seemingly small actions can have a huge impact. Rather than being paralysed by this, leaders need to have high levels of awareness of their strengths and blind spots in order to avoid making mistakes that result in unintended consequences.

Armed with this insight, the question many leaders may have is: “How do I act on this knowledge?” The answer is to pursue a leadership development approach that focuses on building self-awareness in a complex and dynamic leadership environment. There are currently world-class psychometric tools available, which can provide both a framework that leaders can use to develop their own self-awareness, as well as a way of understanding relationships and the way others work. However, leaders don’t exist in isolation, and a pure focus on models, tools and techniques ignores the complexities of real life. Good leadership development practitioners will recognise the huge potential of developing leaders to respond to the challenges they are facing individually – to ride the wave of dynamic organisational change in a flexible and adaptive manner. 

This is often through a combination of leadership development programmes and individual coaching, where leaders are supported and challenged to have the courage and confidence to grapple with the complex demands their ever-changing organisational systems require of them.