Leadership and the New Science

Margaret Wheatley (Berrett-Koehler, 1993)

A Simpler Way

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers (Berrett-Koehler, 1996)

Reading Leadership and the New Science created images in my mind, of what it might have been like to talk to Christopher Columbus before he set sail on the trip where he accidentally ran into the New World. Columbus espoused beliefs that ran contrary to popular opinion in the fifteenth century. To say to someone then that the earth was round and there was another path to the Orient along the back side of the globe might make sense to another sailor, but to most everyone else it would be either foolishness or metaphysical nonsense.

Meg Wheatley maps out a similar journey in her book. In our times the flat earth perspective has become Newtonian science and linear thinking, and Columbus’s understanding of the earth as a globe has been updated by Wheatley’s conception of the corporation as a living complex adaptive system.

Wheatley begins her journey by stating that there is a simpler way to lead organizations that requires less effort and produces less stress than the hierarchical command-and-control methods that most companies employ today. She goes further to suggest that there is no one right way to do anything, best practices are more mythic than real, and the best solution is one that is created out of the unique relationship that people craft to their environment and their circumstances. She borrows the analogy from quantum mechanics that subatomic particles come into being and are observed only in relationship to something else. “They do not exist as independent things.” Business, she believes, shares the same underlying characteristic and can truly only be understood in relationship to itself and its environment.

Wheatley’s writing style is both lyrical and evocative. If you want cookbook answers go find something else to read, because you won’t find them here. When I first picked up the book three years ago I was in search of an “answer,” a clear direction, a statement of fact, and some of what I was reading seemed to me to get in the way of my destination. Rereading it, with more leisure and a much deeper understanding of the entire notion of complex adaptive systems, I find myself enjoying the journey more now that I understand that the very notion of a destination is a remnant from the land of linear, mechanistic thought.

If that last statement sounds like new-age fluff, welcome to one of the challenges of reading Wheatley’s books. She grounds her statements with scientific insights gained from the new science of quantum mechanics, but it isn’t always obvious what action one should take to go about creating the environment that Wheatley postulates.

Wheatley talks about the fact that strange attractors—that force that causes a random, unpredictable system to stay within observable boundaries without becoming either nonrandom or predictable—reveal the order that is inherent in certain kinds of chaotic systems. This order only appears over a long process of observation. Looking at the system on a moment-to-moment basis will only show chaos. There’s something seductively attractive about this concept.

When I read Leadership and the New Science, this concept was the one that I was most fascinated with, because it has an almost instinctive resonance with observable phenomena in corporations. Something holds these crazy, dysfunctional organizations together. Something—unobservable—even allows them to thrive (based on employment growth and stock-market valuation). Wheatley postulates that the strange attractor present in corporations is a sense of self. It’s the authentically shared vision of what the corporation is and why it exists, rather than the words printed in the company’s vision statement.

Concepts like Senge’s shared vision (from The Fifth Discipline) take on concrete importance when looked at through the lens of the science that Wheatley holds for us. Our vision is what holds us together, it’s what we live every day in our corporations, and it is only at that level of self that we can change who were are and how we interact with the world.

Wheatley concludes the book by saying that all we can expect of each other is new and interesting information—that answers aren’t possible in the broadest sense because we live in a world of continual unfolding and that solutions are temporary events specific to a context and can only be developed through relationships. Other reviewers have said that “Wheatley’s vision is by turns impractical, whimsical and outrageous,” but it is an interesting and challenging journey.

Where Leadership and the New Science explored our changing perception based on the work being done in quantum mechanics, A Simpler Way covers the same ground from the perspective of the emerging thoughts in biology. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers begin with the proposition that life is interested in survival of the fit not the fittest; in what works, not what is right.

Join me on a random walk through along their yellow brick road:

Playful tinkering requires consciousness. If we are not mindful, if our attention slips we can’t notice what’s available or discover what’s possible.

This quote lays the foundation for most of what empowers the authors’ worldview. In order for organizations to thrive and flourish, we must be involved, committed and consciously present. We can’t be perceived or perceive ourselves as cogs in a wheel. Who we are, what we know, and the energy we bring to our organizations form the raw material that the organization needs to survive. Like everything else they say, implementing this concept has some interesting ramifications. For example, much of our current corporate training doesn’t really support this model. We need renaissance individuals with as much breadth and depth as possible, not narrow specialists.

The authors describe the two-billion-year process that bacteria went through creating an environment that would allow the gradual evolution of more complex life forms. The parallel that struck me from this thought is that maybe we really are in the Information Age. After all, the authors’ concepts can’t exist in a vacuum from the self-organizing system that they postulate. If we are now hearing about a different way to manage and we’re more receptive to giving up our command-and-control methodologies, it is because the environment is more supportive of its happening. The Web, e-mail, cheap voice communications, the growing trend and technology for enabling video communication, might in fact be the nutrient environment that we need to organize our corporations in a different manner.

Life organizes around a self. Organizing is always an act of creating an identity. A self that fails to create itself as a contribution to others is irrelevant in a systems -seeking world.

If you structure jobs so that people are not engaged, excited, and passionate (one of Wheatley’s favorite words), then something other than the work becomes the basis for establishing the exchange rate. If you change that paradigm, organizations like labor unions and collective bargaining units become a thing of the past.

The authors also observe that our current trend toward efficiency and supposed productivity are self-limiting concepts, since emergent systems require redundancy and messiness to allow them to work. The only true approach that achieves success (defined as sufficient stability for the system to develop a sense of self) is the empirical one. Keep trying until it works. It doesn’t matter whether it works well or poorly; if it works at all and will hang together it satisfies the imperative.

When we realize that the world creates newness in every relationship, we can only laugh at these studied attempts to control. We can’t predict at all how we or others will perform together. We can’t know ourselves in isolation. Life seeks systems. Systems are full of surprises.

A little over two years ago, I sat in a room and listened to Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers discuss the concepts that they espouse in this book. Midway through the evening, the audience began asking pointed questions about what focused actions could be taken to implement these concepts in their own companies. Wheatley’s response was to recommend the path of nonaction: that the organization didn’t need to be led or changed from the outside; that the work that needed to be done of managing the company was already happening.

Wheatley enumerated four assumptions about a self-organizing organization:

  1. Human beings and their organizations tend toward change and development.
  2. Change is a power present everywhere in organizations.
  3. Resistance reflects our need to protect our sense of dignity and identity as presently defined rather than a fundamental tendency toward inertia.
  4. Organizations are creative; they constantly seek more effective ways of organizing themselves in response to their environments.

I admit that I found myself shaking my head in frustrated disagreement. I knew the companies for which I had worked weren’t changing for the better by themselves. After rereading A Simpler Way this time around I both have a better understanding of the nonaction and can see a clearer path toward facilitating change. A friend of mine once said, “The problem with you westerners is that you want to be the instrument of karma. You don’t have enough faith that things will eventually right themselves.” That thought is very tightly coupled with much of what the authors tell us about organizations, and I find myself more willing to accept their view. The path toward facilitating change can be summed up for me in the following sentence: “Hold lightly, walk softly, be creative, and encourage others where ever you can.”

Definitely read Leadership and the New Science. It’s a wonderful introduction to what’s happening in science right now and Wheatley’s conclusions are thought provoking. If her writing style is too leisurely for you, then get the audiotape and listen in the car on the way to work. You’ll find yourself as engrossed in her story when you hear her as reading her prose previously frustrated you. The audiotape is slightly abridged and you’ll miss the famous Lorenz butterfly picture, but it’s an enjoyable way to experience her book.

A Simpler Way falls into a different category. If you’re already among the converted and want to spend the time interacting with the book, then by all means pick it up and savor the journey. My copy now has notes all through it, and it struck me that this would be the perfect book for a group to work with. It’s thought provoking and challenging in its simplicity. It’s also an even better choice then Leadership and the New Science for listening to on tape, since the pictures serve more to set a mood than to illustrate examples. If you’re not among the converted, then I’d recommend crossing A Simpler Way off your reading list. Pound for pound it just doesn’t pull its weight, and there are too many other books reviewed in this journal that you’d probably get more out of reading.


To the untrained scientist—most every American manager— Meg Wheatley’s bestselling books are an inspiring call for transformative leadership, based on metaphors from avant- garde theories in the natural sciences. In Leadership and the New Science and A Simpler Way, the connections between management and the new sciences are inventive and provocative, providing an optimistic vision for a “simpler way” to lead organizations. Their ideas, based on easy-to-understand descriptions of physics, thermodynamics and biology, legitimize a relational and playful approach to leading organizations that is engaging and motivating. However, the accessibility of these books stems from a series of simplifications that can restrain the development of a formal organizational science of complexity (McKelvey, 1999).

To begin, we should ask: What is the “new science” that these books are based on, and how is it different from complexity science? In general, the new sciences are a set of rigorously developed theories and frameworks in multiple disciplines that describe the world in ways that are more dynamic, evolutionary, human-centered, eco-relational, and connected to the non-material aspects of existence (Berman, 1988; Lichtenstein, 1999). Expanding well beyond the domains of complexity theory, new sciences have been emerging in every scientific discipline, including mathematics, physics, biology, ecology, evolution, medicine, psychology, sociology, economics, political science, philosophy, theology, and consciousness (Ogilvy, 1983).1

In Leadership and the New Science and A Simpler Way, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers introduce many of these new science theories, using concise descriptions and rich imagery that avoids scientific jargon. Each new science description is creatively linked to a normative injunction that calls for creating a “new” style of management. It is the inventive connections between physical/biological sciences and organizational behavior that distinguish these two books. For example, in Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley uses the construct of a “strange attract o r” from deterministic chaos to talk about system behaviors that stay within certain boundaries or “basins of attraction” (cf. Thelan and Smith, 1994; Guastello, 1995). She then suggests that in organizations there is a similar “magnetic force” that pulls all behavior toward it, creating coherence:

One of the most potent shapers of behavior in organizations, and in life, is meaning ... If we search to create meaning, we can survive and even flourish ... In chaotic organizations [which] had been tipped into chaos by reorganizations or leveraged buyouts, [some] employees were wise enough to sense that personal meaning-making was their only route out of chaos. (pp. 133-5).

Similarly, in A Simpler Way, the two authors use theories of self-organization to show that “systems emerge as individuals decide how they can live together. From such relationships, a new entity arises with new capacities and increased stability” (p. 33). This leads to a recognition that “our wonderful abilities to self-organize are encouraged by openness. With access to our system we, like all life, can anticipate what is required of us, connect with those we need, and respond intelligently” (p. 39). Those with some knowledge of Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984; Nicolis and Prigogine, 1989) may recognize the authors’ allusion to self-organizing structures that emerge out of environmental fluctuations, and how that allusion provides a new metaphor for managerial behavior.

Using examples such as these throughout these two books, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers’ interpretations offer an optimistic human-centered management style that many writers and business people are seeking (e.g., Ray and Rinzler, 1993; Whyte, 1994; Reason and Herron, 1996). Wheatley says, “As we let go of the machine models of work, we begin to ... appreciate our wholeness, and to design organizations that honor and make use of the totality of who we are” (1993, p. 12).

However, when the metaphors are stretched too far, the conclusions end up hardly connected to the sciences from which they are derived. This strains the credulity of Wheatley’s analysis and limits the generaliz- ability of her ideas. An important example of this problem is found in her use of the “Schrodinger’s cat” thought experiment in quantum physics. There, expressing a paradox distinctive to the quantum level of reality, Erwin Schrodinger described a mythical cat in an experimental box that is rigged with a quantum device (Wolf, 1981). This device, which has a 50/50 chance of releasing poison into the box, is triggered by a quantum event. According to quantum mechanics,2 the triggering event exists as a probability wave function, thus a determination of the event’s outcome can only be made when the device is actually observed, i.e., when the box is opened. According to Schrodinger’s interpretation, after the trigger goes off but before the box is opened, the cat is both alive and dead, a paradox that shows the perils of applying quantum-level logic to our Newtonian-level reality (Pagels, 1984).

Notwithstanding this peril, Wheatley uses Schrödinger’s paradox as a metaphor for organizational behavior when she says:

I realized I had been living in a Schrodinger’s cat world in every organization I had ever been in. Each of these organizations had myriad boxes, drawn in endless renderings of organizational charts. Within each of those boxes lay a “cat,” a human being, laden with potential, whose fate was determined, always and irrevocably, by the act of observation. (1993: 60).

Her analogy highlights the problems of making inexact analogies from theories in the new sciences. Here Schrodinger’s experimental system— the “box”—is compared to organizational roles—”boxes” in an organizational chart. The probability wave function is then compared to human potential, and the mathematical collapse of the wave packet is compared to self-fulfilling prophecies. Although the language sounds scientific and Wheatley’s interpretation makes good managerial sense, the link between science and reality has all but vanished. People do have potential, but to make its realization dependent on an observer is to discount individual initiative and personal power, which is completely antithetical to her overall approach.

This self-contradiction is the result of uncritically translating scientific theories into figures of speech. These figures of speech make enjoyable reading, but they do not provide the operational rigor that is needed to generate an organizational science of complexity (McKelvey, 1999). Wheatley inadvertently admits this when she claims that due to the new physics: “Nothing really transfers; everything is always new and different and unique to each of us” (1993: 7). Here again, her respect for organizational dynamism and individual sense making is valid, but if she is to be taken literally then her own ideas would be neither transferable nor gen- eralizable, making them virtually impossible to apply in other situations.

In most business situations, the level of accuracy that I am proposing might be considered overly arcane. However, we as complexity scholars have a unique opportunity to support the constellation of an organization science of complexity. I suggest we take this responsibility seriously, such that our excitement to share the important organizational implications from recent advances in the natural sciences does not become an “exaggerated zeal” (McKelvey, 1999, p. 5). Instead, by drawing careful analogies using rigorous logic (Garud and Kotha, 1994 provide an excellent example), we can “seize the promise” of these new sciences, and develop legitimate and useful extension of the complexity sciences for organizations and their leaders. Following the advice of Einstein:

Our goal should be to make everything as simple as possible—but not any simpler.



1 Some examples of new sciences theories are found in mathematics (Lorenz, 1963; Thom, 1975), physics (Bohm, 1973), thermodynamics (Nicolis and Prigogine, 1989), biology (Eigen and Schuster, 1979), evolution (Laszlo, 1987; Kauffman, 1993), systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968), medicine (Pert, Ruff and Pert, 1985), sociology (Berger and Luckmann, 1967), economics (Boulding, 1978; Rosser, 1991), political science (Lerner, 1996), philosophy (Bernstein, 1985; Bleier, 1986), and consciousness (Wilber, 1977; Pelletier, 1985).

2 Specifically the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Einstein’s lifetime disagreement with this probabilistic interpretation is often recounted in the quote: “God does not play dice” (Bell, 1964; Einstein and Infeld, 1966).


Bell, J.S. (1964) 'On the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen paradox’, Physics, 1: 195-200.

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Boulding, K. (1978) Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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A Simpler Way expands on Leadership and the New Science. Where the latter shared Wheatley’s personal understanding journey using chaos and complexity theories, A Simpler Way focuses on what it means to use these theories. The book, incorporating photos, poetry and persuasive prose, presents the authors’ interpretation of a new worldview of life, with the caveat that it represents their still-evolving understanding of how to apply the theories.

A “photo essay” of repeating patterns illustrating the fractal nature of many systems begins the book. Next is “an invitation” to join Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers in examining their new worldview. Their set of organizing beliefs is presented. Readers should determine their own sets of beliefs. A Simpler Way follows, where they argue for a worldview change. The book continues with a poem, “poetics,” by A. R. Ammons.

In the chapter entitled “Play,” the authors contrast being embedded in a creative, playful world with the Darwinian worldview of existence as “warfare” with only one winner. Their perspective views life as creating possibilities even as it engages current possibilities. Yet, order is always sought. With such a perspective, the organizing factor is identity and all participate in creating of the identity.

“Organizing as play” addresses issues of creativity where focusing on exploring and experimenting is called for. Acknowledging that messiness and redundancy will abound, they assert that errors are expected and create opportunities for more exploration. Parsimony is not a goal, because the logic-in-use requires multiple and possibly simultaneous attempts at discovering and organizing. Such an orientation results in a plethora of solutions.

Next, “organization” focuses on the importance of understanding the emergence and meaning of a whole pattern versus the meaning of any one element that creates the pattern. The authors propose that emergent patterns appear from messiness (apparent chaos) and are relatively stable. Living systems are symbiotic, since the entire system is needed for any one pattern to emerge. They suggest that, instead of attempting to “control” the pattern that emerges, we explicitly partner in the process of patterning.

In “Organization as organizing,” the authors propose that we shift from the concept of planning (which implies a known destination) to one of allowing for self-organization with emergent structures. A system where people support one another with information and nurture one another with trust creates the conditions for both stability and personal discovery. The authors make the point that stability is found in freedom to change, not in conformity and compliance.

In “Self,” Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers bring in the complexity theory concept of autopoiesis. The original freedom of a living system becomes limited by boundaries arising from earlier actions and decisions.

This circular, self-referencing aspect of living systems leads them to conclude that we can not direct a system from outside of it. They delve into the paradox of boundaries and connections that are required in living systems. The authors observe that constant self-referencing, connectedness and co-evolution result in consciousness of identity.

“Selves organizing” links the seeking of order in living systems with the earlier discourse on creativity and identity. The authors assert that a clear identity is the equivalent of a strange attractor. They argue that linkages between “different” system members are important for overall system health. Such linkages may be uncomfortable, yet are necessary for the continuance of the entire system.

The chapter “Emergence,” ties the concept of self-organizing to the emergence of new system properties in living systems (ones that truly are the result of the system being interconnected). From this perspective, they argue that we should not focus on how we can force others to fit within our designs but on how, through our engaging with each other, we might be able to accomplish our goals. The organizing act itself is an experiment, a directed experiment but not one with each step already predetermined.

“Emerging organization” discusses organizational change. Human organizations emerge through human interactions. The processes can b comprehended, but attempts to control people really are futile since w can’t predict how the system will emerge. The system is an artifact of tf dynamic processes (the relationships between the elements of the system). Only by examining the availability of information to the system and the rules governing relationship building can we influence the system to change. A new system requires a new logic. The authors reiterate their call for a system of trust with open information flows and communication.

Finally, “Motions of coherence” acknowledges the dynamics involved (the motions of influence between individuals and the systems they create). The more stable systems have at their core coherence (a clear sense of identity of the individual, the system, and their relationships). Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers reexamine the idea of co-evolution given this perspective of interconnected webs of relationships. While in the past, change implied that the organization (the emergent system) was a static thing that required applied energy to transition to a new static state, the authors’ perspective sees the organization as inherently knowing how to grow and change.

I liked most of Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers’ interpretations of chaos and complexity theory concepts. Their reiteration of many issues across levels of analysis helped make their points. While the logic employed for many of the concept translations was evident, they lost me in the argument for identity as a strange attractor. I willingly suspended my disbelief on that particular point to see where their logic was heading.

As an academic, I had to struggle to get past the literary and prescriptive style of the book. While it is intriguing and offers some insight into how we might consciously do a better job of organizing, it is only a reflection of the authors’ beliefs. The caveat, that their ideas are still evolving, is mentioned at the beginning, but it is overwhelmed by the confident and persuasively toned format.

Despite these issues, I recommend this book to those who can agree with the basic precepts mentioned in the introductory section. I valued the attempts to link tough concepts from the natural sciences to social science. This book will appeal to non-academics as they try to make sense of chaos and complexity theories applied to organizations and organizing.