Leadership and the New Science

The following “notes” are predominantly excerpts from the book that I found particularly interesting or noteworthy.  Most are the stuff that I ‘highlighted’ as I read.

In general, the author takes a look at a series of scientific principles or learning from those principles, and tries to draw parallels with the way we interact with each other, and with former and current theories of management.   – A. Guberman


Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret J Wheatley


Intro – searching for a simpler way to lead organizations

p.7 – No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it (Einstein).

p7 – Each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe.  We manage by separating thing into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we search continually for better methods of objectively measuring and perceiving the world.  These assumptions, … come to us from 17th century physics, from Newtonian mechanics.

p8 – we need to expand our search for the principles of organization to include what is presently known about how the universe organizes.

p8 – I do not believe that an organization ever changes by imposing a model developed elsewhere.

p11 — in the quantum world, relationship is the key determiner of everything.

p12 – Prigogine: any open system has the capacity to respond to change and disorder by reorganizing itself at higher levels of organization.  Disorder becomes a critical player, an ally that can provoke a system to self organize into new forms of being. … Chaos is necessary to new creative ordering.

p14 — in motivation theory, attention is shifting from the use of  external rewards, to an appreciation for the intrinsic motivators that give us great energy.

Chapter 1 – discovering an orderly world

p18 — Organizations lack this kind of faith [as water has that it will reach the ocean, regardless of how] … faith that they can accomplish their purpose in varied ways, letting forms emerge and disappear.

p 19 – fluctuation and change are essential to the process by which order is created.

p20 — Autopoiesis: self production
Eric Jantsch: Any living system is a never resting structure that constantly seeks its own self-renewal.

p23 – Eric Jantsch: “Caterpillar and Butterfly, for example, are two temporarily stabilized structures in the coherent evolution of one and the same system.”

It is hard to welcome disorder as a full partner in the search for order when we have expended so much effort to bar it from the gates.

p24 – Leadership is best thought of as a behavior, not a role.

p25 — If people are machines, seeking to control us makes sense.  But if we live with the same forces intrinsic to all other life, then seeking to impose control through rigid structures is suicide. If we believe that there is no order to human activity except that imposed by the leader, that there is no self-regulation except that dictated by policies, if we believe that responsible leaders must have their hands into everything, controlling every decision, person, and moment, then we cannot hope for anything except what we already have — a treadmill of frantic efforts that end up destroying our individual and collective vitality.

Chapter 2 – Newtonian Organizations in a Quantum Age

p 29 – many management theorists have an engineering background.  There has been a close connection between their engineering training and their attempts to create a rational, structured approach to organizations (from William Bygrave, physicist)

p 34 – What is important in any diagram is the overall process by which elements meet and change; analyzing them for more individual detail is simply not possible (Zukav)

p 35 – With relationships, we give up predictability and open up to potentials.

In organizations, which is the more important influence on behavior — the system or the individual?  (Quantum world says ‘both’)

p 37 – Weick … move away from arguing about who’s right/wrong, and instead focus on issues of effectiveness, on reflective questions of what happened, and what actions might have served us better.  We could stop arguing about truth and get on with figuring what works best.

p 38 – Instead of the ability to analyze and predict, we need to know how to stay acutely aware of what’s happening now, and we need to be better, faster learners from what just happened.

Jack Welch: in a world of constant flux, “Predicting is less important than reacting”

p 39 – No person or organization can be an effective co-creator with its environment without clarity about who it is intending to become

39/40 – Power in organizations is the capacity generated by relationships. … thus, we need to be attending to the quality of those relationships.  We would do well to ponder the realization that love is the most potent source of power.

p 45 – It’s never a question of “critical mass.”  It’s always about critical connections.

Chapter 3 – Space Is Not Empty: Invisible Fields That Shape Behavior

p 55- we can never see a field, but we can easily see its influence by looking at behavior.

p 56 – Garbage can metaphor of organizations.
Cohen, March, Olsen: “An organization is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decisions situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work.”  … Organizational anarchy relieved by occasional moments of accidental coherence.

Chapter 4 – The Participative Nature of the Universe

Schrödinger’s Cat: “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.”

A live cat is placed in a box.  The box has solid walls, so no one outside the box can see into it. 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.  At this point, the cat is neither alive, nor dead, until such time as it is observed.

P 63 – Is it awareness that evokes the world?  Is there any such thing as reality independent of our acts of observation?

Double-slit experiment: electron passes through either 1 slit or the other.  If only one is open, it forms a particle pattern.  If both are open, it forms a wave pattern.

p 65 – It is the existence of observers who notice what is going on that imparts reality to everything (Gribbin)

Every observation is preceded by a choice about what to observe.

Whatever we call reality, it is revealed to us only through an active construction n which we participate (Prigogine and Stengers)

p 66 — We worry more about the accuracy of the small bits of information we have and how best to analyze them than about the huge amounts of information we lose.

We need to be constantly asking: Who else should be here?  Who else should be looking at this?

p 68 – We know that the best way to create ownership is to have those responsible for implementation develop the plan for themselves.  No one is successful if they merely present a plan in finished form to others.  It doesn’t matter how brilliant or correct the plan is — it simply doesn’t work to ask people to sign on when they haven’t been involved in the planning process.

p 71 – a subatomic particle is defined by its energy and by the network of relationships in which it exchanges energy. … These particles are described as a tendency to participate in various reactions, a definition that honors the dynamic qualities of their existence.

p 72 — it is foolish to think we can define any person solely in terms of isolated tasks and accountabilities.  We need to be able to conceptualize the pattern of energy flows required for that person to do the job.  We need to see any person’s role as the place where energies meet to make something happen.

Hierarch and defined power are not what is important; what’s critical is the availability of places for the exchange of energy.

p 73 – I wonder why we limit ourselves so quickly to one idea or one structure or one perception, or to the idea that “truth” exists in objective form.  Why would we stay locked in our belief that there is one right way to do something, or one correct interpretation to a situation, when the universe demands diversity and thrives on a plurality of meaning?

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

p 75  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?

p 76 — Having noticed the negative effects of equilibrium so often, I’ve been puzzled why it has earned such high status.

p 77 — In venerating equilibrium, we have blinded ourselves to the processes that foster life.  … we have treated organizations like machines, acting as though they were dead when all this time they’ve been living, open systems capable of self-renewal.

Can we give up our clumsy attempts to keep things in balance and open ourselves to change?

p 79 – once it was noted that systems were capable of exchanging energy, trading usable energy for entropy, scientists realized the deterioration was not inevitable.  Disturbances could create disequilibrium, but disequilibrium could lead to growth.

p 82 — the viability and resiliency of a self-organizing system comes from its great capacity to adapt as needed, to create structures that fit the moment.

Story of “Oticon” — a Scandinavian manufacturer of hearing aids.  Nobody had desks, everything was on wheels, and everything moved around a lot.

P 83 — If an organization seeks to develop these life-saving qualities of adaptability, it needs to open itself in many ways. … Information must actively be sought from everywhere, from places and sources people never thought to look before.  And it must circulate to keep the system off-balance, alert to how it might need to change. … In a well defended organization … only information that confirms existing plans or leadership is let in.  closed off from disturbances, kept at equilibrium, such organizations run down, atrophy, and die.

Self organizing systems are never passive, hapless victims, forced to react to their environments. … they partner with the environment.

p 84 – Ecosystems display the pattern of adaptability to the environment.

Because [ecosystems] partner with [their] environment, they system develops increasing autonomy from the environment and also develops new capacities that make it increasingly resourceful.

p 85 – Self organizing systems have self-reference.  … they always change in such a way that it remains consistent with itself.  (Autopoiesis in action).  … it is the system’s need to maintain itself that may lead to it becoming something new and different.  A living system changes in order to preserve itself.

p 86 – Self-reference is the key to facilitating orderly change in the midst of turbulent environments.

Self organizing systems have stability over time.

p 87 — the more freedom in self-organization, the more order (Jantch)

In organizations, if people are free to make their own decisions, guided by clear organizational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength.  The organization is less controlling, but more orderly.

Whenever a self-organizing system experiences any amplification process, change is at hand.  If the amplification increases to the level where they destabilize the system, the system can no longer remain as it is.  (bifurcation point).

p 89 – When leaders strive for equilibrium and stability by imposing control, constricting people’s freedom and inhibiting local change, they only create the conditions that threaten the organization’s survival.

The attempt to manage for stability and to enforce an unnatural equilibrium always leads to far reaching destruction.  (e.g.: forest management that put out all fires led to a greater collection of fuel).

Chapter 6 – The creative Energy of the Universe — Information

Many organizations suffer from “poor communications”.  Is it a superficial diagnosis that covers up more specific issues?

What we are all suffering from … is a fundamental misperception of information: what it is, how it behaves, how to work with it.

p 94 – our strong focus on the “thingness” of information has kept us from contemplating its other dimensions: the content, character, and behavior of information (Gleik)

p 95 – A living being is not a stable structure, but a continuous process of organizing information. …
Who am I? Am I a physical structure that processes information, or immaterial information organizing itself into material form?

Richard Bach (Illusions): Who am I?  Where am I going?  What is important to me?  Ask yourself these questions over time and watch your answers change.

Jantch: asks whether a self-organizing system is best understood as a material structure that organizes energy or as information processes that organize the flow of matter.

p 96 – Information is a fundamental yet invisible player, one we can’t see until it takes physical form.  Something we cannot see, touch, or get our hands on is out there, influencing life.  Information seems to be managing us.

p 97 – the greatest generator of information is the freedom of chaos, where every moment is new.

p 98 – Intelligence is a property that emerges when a certain level of organization is reached which enables the system to process information.   The greater the ability to process information, the greater the level of intelligence

p 99 — Everybody needs information to do their work.   We are so needy of this resource that if we can’t get the real thing, we make it up.  When rumors proliferate and gossip gets out of hand, it is always a sign that people lack the genuine article — honest, meaningful information.

p 100 — We live in a society that believes it can define normal and then judge everything against this fictitious standard.

story: an organization that thinks of information as salmon.  If it’s organizational streams are well-stocked … information will find its way to where it needs to be.  It will swim upstream to where it can spawn.  The organization’s job is to keep the streams clear so that information has an easier time of it.  The result is a harvest of new ideas and projects.

p 101 – We refuse to accept ambiguity and surprise as part of life because we hold onto the myth that prediction and control are possible.

p 102 — Beyond our leadership skills, and often in spite of them, the system is self-organizing to accomplish its work.

p 106 – the work of any team or organization needs to start with a clear sense of what they are trying to accomplish and how they want to behave together.

p 107 – We need to challenge ourselves to create greater access to information and to reduce those control functions that restrict its flow.

108 – Organizations that want to stay vital must search out surprise, looking for what is startling, uncomfortable, and maybe even shocking.

Anything that supports reflective conversations among new and different parts of the organization is important.

110 – many more workers need to be able to interpret complex information.  Information and thinking skills that formerly were the purview of the leader are moving deeper into organizations.  …

Gifford Pinchot: “The measure of organizational intelligence is quite straightforward.  It’s one brain per person.”

111 – Jantch: contrast our traditional approach of building block by block to nature’s process of “Unfolding” … Order is never imposed from the top down, or from the outside in.  Order emerges as elements of the system work together, discovering each other and together inventing new capacities.

Chapter 7 – Chaos and the Strange Attractor of Meaning

p 116 — a “Strange Attractor” is the shape traced out by chaotic system over time.

p 118 — When we concentrate on individual moments or fragments of experience, we see only chaos.  But if we stand back and look at what is taking shape, we see order.  Order always displays itself as patterns that develop over time.

p 119 – The destruction created by chaos is necessary for the creation of anything new.

p 120 – Chaos is order without predictability (T.J. Cartwright)

In a nonlinear worlds, very slight variances, things so small as to be indiscernible, can amplify into completely unexpected results.

p 121 – our culture has come to believe that small differences average out, that slight variances converge towards a point, and that approximations can give a fairly accurate picture of what might happen. … In a nonlinear system, the slightest variation can lead to catastrophic results.

Example by Edward Lorenz: “butterfly effect.” — Does the flap of a butterfly wing in Tokyo affect a tornado in Texas (or a thunderstorm in New York)?

common: A casual comment at a meeting flies through the organization, growing and mutating into a huge misunderstanding that requires enormous time and energy to resolve.

p 125 – When we study the individual parts or try to understand the system through discrete quantities, we get lost.  Deep inside the details, we cannot see the whole.  Yet to understand and work with systems, we need to be able to observe it as a system, in its wholeness. … Systems reveal themselves as patterns, not as isolated incidents or data points.

seeing patterns is not a foreign skill for us; we are, after all, a pattern-recognizing species, and even as infants we are very adept at noticing them.

p 126 – A pattern has been defined rather succinctly as any behavior that occurs ore than once. … we need to encourage each other to look for recurring behaviors and themes to stay away from the seduction of examining isolated factors or individual players.  … ask: “Have we seen this before?  What feels familiar here?

p 129 — The potent force that shapes behavior … is the combination of simply expressed expectations of purpose, intent, and values, and the freedom for responsible individuals to make sense of these in their own way.

p 130 — Behaviors don’t change just by announcing new values.  … Little by little, tested by events and crises, we learn how to enact these new values.

p 131 — Mort Myerson: one of the primary tasks of a leader is to make sure the organization knows itself.

In this chaotic world, we need leaders.  But we don’t need bosses.  … we are best controlled by concepts that invite our participation, not policies and procedures that curtail our contribution.

p 132 — the most powerful force of attraction in organizations and in our individual lives is meaning.  “Our greatest motivation in life … is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning …” (Victor Frankl)

p 133 — One quality particular to human beings is the need to know “Why?”

When leaders honor us with opportunities to know the truth of what is occurring and support us to explore the deeper meaning of events, we instinctively reach out to them.

Chapter 8 – The Capacity of Live

p 138 – We assert that it’s a particular characteristic of the human species to resist change, even though we’re surrounded by tens of millions of other species that demonstrate wonderful capacities to grow, adapt, and change.

p 139 – From a systems consciousness, we understand that no problem or behavior can be understood in isolation. … a systems world cannot be understood by looking only at discrete events or individuals.

p 142 – If asked: “If we were to solve all the individual problems, every one of them, would this fix the organization?”, most people reply “No.”

p 144 — To become effective at change, we must leave behind the imaginary organization we design and learn to work with the real organization, which will always be a dense network of interdependent relationships.

p 145 – If a web breaks and needs repair, the spider doesn’t cut out a piece, terminate it, or tear the entire web apart and reorganize it.  She reweaves it, using the silken relationships that are already there, creating stronger connections across the weakened spaces.

p 146 – As a system inquires into these three domains of identity, information, and relationships, it becomes more self aware.

p 147 Any living thing will change only if it sees change as the means of preserving itself.

p 149 – discovering what is meaningful to a person, group or organization is the first essential task.

p 151 – a living network will transmit only what it decides is meaningful.  … To use a network’s communication capacity, we must notice that its transmission power is directly linked to the meaningfulness of the information.

p 152 – The same fundamental dynamics are always at work in any living system, no matter how small or large.  … Size doesn’t matter, but meaning does.

Meaning has many of the qualities of energy.  It doesn’t exist in physical form anywhere.

p 154 – The changing nature of life insists that we stop hiding behind our plans or measures and give more attention to what is occurring right in front of us, right now.

p 155 — We need less reverence for the objects we create, and much more attention to the processes we use to create them.

Chapter 9 – The New Scientific Management

[mostly a summary chapter of the rest of the book]

p 161 – Many of the concepts that I and my colleagues are curious to understand are concepts that traditional science won’t go near, such puzzles as identity, spirit, meaning, purpose, consciousness.

p 162 – Lewis Thomas: “Whenever you can hear laughter, and somebody saying ‘But that’s preposterous!’ — you can tell that things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab.”

Surprise is the only route to discovery, a moment that pulsates with new learnings.

p 164 – about 3/4ths of organizational change fads and new ideas fail. … most basic human dynamics are completely ignored: our need to trust one another, our need for meaningful work, our desire to contribute and be thanked for that contribution, our need to participate in changes that affect us.

Think of all the contemporary leadership problems that are variations on the theme that we don’t know how to work together.  … In all of these struggles, it is being human that creates the problem.  … We have been kept apart by three primary western cultural beliefs: individualism, competition, and a mechanistic world view.

p 166 — Information and meaning-making do not obey the classical laws of physics that govern matter.

Epilogue – Journeying to a New World

p 172 – people get frightened if asked to change their world view.  … They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea.  … I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.

p 173 – Since relationships are different from place to place and moment to moment, why  would we expect that solutions developed in one context would work the same in another.


Primary Goals sits at the intersection of three core ideas about communication:
  • Leaders create vision by communicating a compelling future to their teams.
  • Teams create success based on how effectively the communicate and coordinate with each other.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures are successful only when they communicate value to people with a concern that the business can take care of
In all cases, it’s about Conversations for Committed Results.  That’s our Primary Goal.  



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