The New Science of Leadership:
An Interview with Margaret Wheatley

By Scott London

Margaret Wheatley
Margaret Wheatley

Meg Wheatley was thrown into the public spotlight in 1992 with the publication of Leadership and the New Science, a groundbreaking look at how new discoveries in quantum physics, chaos theory, and biology challenge our standard ways of thinking in organizations. It showed how our reliance on old, mechanistic models stand in the way of innovation and effective leadership.

Industry Week magazine called it "The best management book of the year" in 1992 and it went on to become a bestseller. A story in National Journal described how it even found its way into the White House where several members of the Clinton staff apparently took its message to heart.

Since then, Wheatley has become one of America's most sought-after and inflential management philosophers. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a research foundation working on the design of new organizations. She has also been a practicing consultant for some 20 years.

Her books include A Simpler Way (co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers), Turning to One Another, and, most recently, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time.

Scott London: How did you begin to explore the connection between management and science?

Meg Wheatley: I didn't have an interest in the new science. I had a realization that in my profession — which was vaguely labeled "organizational change," "organizational development," or "management consulting" in general — none of us knew how organizations change. When I talked to other consultants, I noticed that if we had an organizational change effort that was successful, it felt like a miracle to us.

I realized with a great start one day that we weren't even geared up for success. It didn't matter that we didn't know how to change organizations. We were all professionals who didn't hope to achieve what we were selling or suggesting to clients. The field was really moribund.

At the same time — and this is the serendipity of life — I had a friend and educator whom I had worked with for many years who said casually one day "Meg, if you're interested in systems thinking, you should be reading quantum physics." He didn't know where I was in my despair over my professional failings. But I said, "Okay, give me a book list." He gave me ten titles. I read eight of those and I was off. I always credit him with that casual, helpful comment that changed my life.

London: You looked into quantum physics, chaos theory, and the science of living systems — which is a diverse and interdisciplinary field. What did you discover?

Wheatley: I think there were several real breakthroughs. How do you understand a world in which the only material form is that of relationships, and where there is no sense of an individual that exists independent of its relationships? That was the gift of the quantum worldview. It said there are no independent entities anywhere at the quantum level. It's all relationships. That was something that made a lot of sense to how we were starting to think about organizations — as webs of relationships.

But the real eye-opener for me was to realize how control and order were two different things, and that you could have order without control. That was a major shift in my own thinking that I certainly discovered through the science.

London: How did that come to you?

Wheatley: I was looking at this wonderful phenomenon in life called self-organization where you look at the creation of fractals on a computer screen and see an incredibly complex well-ordered object on your screen. You say, "where did this come from?" It came from a very simple formula that repeats and repeats on itself and changes itself constantly. Somewhere in there, there's a pattern or structure of organization for a fractal object.

London: This is one of the discoveries of chaos theory.

Wheatley: It is. To understand order that arises, rather than order that is imposed through direction and control — that is a very significant new path. That is the path that we continued in A Simpler Way. That's the real theme of that book.

London: In Leadership and the New Science you described working with young students. They would very quickly look for a framework they could use to organize information and give it meaning and coherence.

Wheatley: Right — all the good outlining skills we were all taught in school.

London: But your approach was different. You asked them to generate as much information as possible.

Wheatley: Yes, to get into the messiness of the data before you try to see what it means. That process has served me well. That was six years ago, and I believe it even more now. I have been in enough experiences with groups of people where we have generated so much information that it's led us to despair and led us to deep confusion. I now know that that's the place to be if you want to really be open to new thoughts, if you want to be totally open to a total reorganizing of your mental constructs or your mind maps, or whatever you want to call them. You can't get there without going through this period of letting go and confusion. For somebody who's been taught to be a good analytical thinker, this is always a very painful moment.

London: In your book, you say: "We're not comfortable with chaos even in our thoughts, and we want to move out of confusion as quickly as possible." This seems to be part of the human condition.

Wheatley: Yes. I have made famous a quote from another author, Burt Mannis who, in The Leader's Edge, said, "In this day and age, if you're not confused, you're not thinking clearly." People respond to that. We know that our old thoughts are not going to get us into the future that we desire. So confusion is the only alternative for a while.

The other thing is that people are already confused, so to hear that it can be a healthy stage gives people a lot of comfort. It's not healthy if you stay in it your whole life, but it can be healthy if it's part of your process of moving on, of letting things reconfigure. To talk about chaos theory in that way — that confusion may be part of a much deeper process of organization — is a good thing, I think.

London: When we begin to extrapolate these ideas in terms of leadership, it puts a new spin on the whole question of democratic and authoritarian leadership. The democratic system has often been criticized as inefficient. For this reason some people feel that it's inappropriate in organizations. What's your view?

Wheatley: I actually hear something very different. There is a whole reappreciation of democracy as the form of governance that makes the most sense scientifically, even though we haven't perfected this form. It's a strange linking of politics and science. But scientists like Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute are looking at this question. The last chapters of his book were about democracy.

You can't look at something like self-organization or complex adaptive systems in science, no matter what unit you're looking — plants, molecules, chemicals — without realizing that this is a kind of democratic process. Everybody is involved locally and out of that comes a more global system. So it's hard not to see it through our political eyes; it's hard not to see the science.

London: It reminds me of Philip Slater's book, A Dream Deferred, where he says that "democracy is inevitable" because it's the only form of social organization that works under conditions of constant change and flux. Autocratic systems are very good under conditions of stability, where everybody just follows orders. But as soon as you upset the equilibrium a little bit and introduce the element of change, the whole system topples. It has to, he says, because change happens from the bottom up while commands come from the top down.

Wheatley: Yes. I believe participation is not a choice. You can't avoid including people, because life is about the creation of new systems through relationships and through inclusion.

It's also true that leaders who have worked in autocratic corporations realize that it's not a model of leadership that you can link to issues of sustainability. If you're interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can't do that through autocracy. You can work the numbers for a quarter or a half a year, you can drive people to exhaustion for a few months or a couple of years. But if you haven't focused on creating capacity in the organization, it will die through those efforts.

So it's not only in times of stability or rapid change that we see the failures of autocracy, I would say. If you're trying to create a healthy organization, one that can sustain itself over time, simply legislating and dictating behavior and outcomes doesn't work at all.

London: You've done some work with the Army Chief of Staff and his senior staff. What does the Army have to learn from your ideas?

Wheatley: I had a lot to learn from them. That was one of the interesting things. I went into the Army as foreign territory. It had never been part of my belief system or my politics, actually. What I encountered there, when I was willing to just look around, was a lot of paradoxes.

At the positive end of the paradoxes was the fact that I believe the Army is more interested in learning from its experiences than any organization I had ever been in. Many organizations are now trying to walk under the banner of "The Learning Organization," realizing that knowledge is our most important product and that that gives us our competitive edge. There is a lot of rhetoric now about how we have to create "learning" from our experience. But the only place that I've seen it, though, is in the Army. As one colonel said, "We realized a while ago that it's better to learn than be dead." So they had this deep imperative for learning that, certainly at the senior levels, frees them to want to learn from experience and see what they might not want to see.

The Army is an incredibly literate organization. They have internal journals that they use to correspond with one another. They study history carefully. They have a center for Army lessons learned. They document everything. And they have this wonderful process of learning from direct experience called "After Action Review," in which everyone who was involved sits down and the three questions are: What happened? Why do you think it happened? And what can we learn from it?

If you were in a good American organization and were able to get those three questions as part of your process, you could become a learning organization. What I observe in our business organizations — even in our public institutions — is that after a crisis or breakdown, or after something worked really well, we don't get together and say, "Okay, what do we each think happened, and what can we learn from it?" We either take credit for it, or, if it's an error, we try to bury it as fast as we can and move on.

We're not in cultures which support learning; we're in cultures that give us the message consistently: "Don't mess up, don't make mistakes, don't make the boss look bad, don't give us any surprises." So we're asking for a kind of predictability, control, respect and compliance that has nothing to do with learning.

So I don't know how any of these large organizations, both public and private, have a prayer to become a true learning organization, until they move away from these cultures of status and protection and fear of one another. That came real clear to me in the Army.

London: You mentioned teamwork and Peter Senge's concept of "the learning organization." Senge makes a very strong case for the fact that we need a different kind of leadership today. We need to get away from the old model of the hero-leader, the leader as individual, and think of leadership more in terms of teams and groups. Do you agree?

Wheatley: Oh, that's a sort of transitional stage. I support Peter Block's concept of "stewardship." But the ultimate destination — where I'm headed, anyway — is the realization that teams are quite capable of being self-managed, and that organizations require something very different from leaders and don't require nearly as many of them as we would like to believe.

But we, as followers, have to give up our search for the perfect leader and give up the urge to turn it over to someone who will take care of it. We need to give all that up.

And, on the other hand, I think leaders need to give up even the belief that it's their task to set the vision of the organization. They have to give up their belief that if they don't design the organization it won't structure itself.

London: How would you define a good leader today?

Wheatley: The definition that I like best right now is by Mort Meyerson from Perot Industries. (It's a strange source for this kind of thinking.) As CEO, he said, he realized everything he knew about leadership was wrong. Then he came up with these new definitions in which he said: the first task of a leader is to make sure the organization knows itself.

We need to think of the leader as a mirror, or as a supporter of the processes by which we know our competencies and we know what interpretations of our history we're willing to enter into. We need to make sure we know our customers, we know one another, and we know why we're in this business or in this public sector organization.

There is so much that an organization needs to know about itself. But it needs to know it; it doesn't ever respond to being told what it is or what it's supposed to do. It's just not in our capacity as human beings to take direction. I don't actually think it's in the capacity of anything alive to take direction when it's trying to exercise its creativity in response to what you just asked it to do.

London: We've been talking a lot about leadership in terms of organizations. Do these insights also apply to political leadership?

Wheatley: They do. I think our great failure to find good political leaders today is a deeper issue. I just read a quote by Laurens Van Der Post in which he said: the reason we don't have leaders is because we don't want them, that we've entered the era of wanting to be self-led and self-directed. I think he would credit this to a rise in human consciousness.

I don't think we will ever find a heroic leader that will satisfy us again. So we're in this transition time of wanting a different politics.

I would say that what we want, as it's clear in a lot of surveys that Yankelovich and others have done, is for our institutions to give us back the authority and the means for taking care of the major issues of our day in our communities, in our schools, in our local health-care facilities, whatever.

I also think that we still have a lot of politicians, as well-intentioned as they are, who just get swept into the dynamics of our political system which turns them very quickly into self-serving, difficult-to-take-a-stand leaders.

London: What do you think about all the talk today about "re-engineering the organization." One phrase I've heard you use is not "re-engineering" but "de-engineering."

Wheatley: Yes, I put that word out to the world. We really have to "de-engineer" our thinking, which means that we have to examine how mechanistically we are oriented — even in our treatment of one another. This is especially true in corporations. We believe that we can best manage people by making assumptions more fitting to machines than people. So we assume that, like good machines, we have no desire, no heart, no spirit, no compassion, no real intelligence — because machines don't have any of that. The great dream of machines is that if you give them a set of instructions, they will follow it.

I see the history of management as an effort to perfect the instructions that you hope someone will follow this time — even though they have never followed directions in their whole life.

When I spoke of "de-engineering" our thinking, I wanted us to realize that at bottom we are alive, we are human beings. We possess all of the attributes that somehow disappeared in the mechanistic way of thinking. At the organizational level, the same is true. You cannot give an organization of people a set of directions, a re-engineered business process, a new org-chart, a new boss, a new set of behavioral expectations. You can't just legislate that. It doesn't happen. Yet corporations were, at the time of the reengineering frenzy, spending literally millions and millions of dollars to develop new engineering plans for the organization.

The 70 to 80 percent failure rate of those re-engineering efforts was, for me, totally predictable. Some say it was even higher than that over the long-term. Wherever you are taking an engineering approach to human organizations, you are going to get an enormous level of backlash and resistance and bitterness because people have not been included.

London: I take it this is why participation is not a choice, as you mentioned earlier?

Wheatley: These are basic truths of life. Life needs to create and participate in the creation of itself. Why would that not also be true for human beings, with our levels of thought and self-awareness. Yet when you look at these organizations, the re-engineering is still going on — trying to perfect an org-chart as a way of perfecting an organization, and excluding people, and pretending that loyalty and love and the desire to work together are not important criteria for productivity.

A lot of our understandings of who we are as human beings has disappeared in this mechanistic imprinting that we've all gone through as Westerners. I believe passionately that we've got to reconnect with who we are as human beings, and our unique capacities because of who we are, as alive, vibrant human beings.

London: Your management philosophy essentially has very little to do with management, in the strict sense of the word.

Wheatley: You know, I walk into all these organizations, and I'm always puzzled when I realize that people still want to be there. Most people really want to love their organizations. We need that level of commitment in our life. Yet organizations have done very little to deserve that kind of staying-power.

I believe that the greatest testimony to the human spirit that I'm witnessing now is the fact that people still come back to work, after all that has been done to them. They are still willing to participate for a more positive future if they would be sincerely invited back in to help create that future. We didn't kill them off by the greed, the lack of thoughtfulness, and the total disregard for the fact that these are human beings at work and not just replaceable cogs. So this is all part of a profound shifting and reorganizing of how we think about production and society.

London: What do you think are some of the critical questions we need to ask during this period of transition?

Wheatley: For me, the basic organizing question is: What do we want to create? So, if we are in a school system, what do we want this school to mean in this particular community, in this context, with this population. What are we trying to create?

We've backed away from this fundamental question. I have a colleague who asks it even more strongly. She urges people whenever they organize together to ask: How is the world going to be different because you and I are working together? I think those questions are not being asked. I don't think they are being asked at the national level. We are grumbling about "What is America?" and "What holds us together as a nation?" But we're afraid to get into this as a national conversation about what we would like to create now that we're an America of the 21st century. What is the future that we want given who we are demographically, economically, and everything else? Who are we going to be in the future? What's possible and what's needed?

Corporations are going to have to at least acknowledge the fact that what they want to create in terms of growth and profit is not necessarily what people are willing to work for in terms of greater meaning and shared purpose. That's a lesson that's starting to creep in.

This interview was adapted from the radio series "Insight & Outlook." A translation into Croatian appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the management journal Quantum21.