By Prof Randall Carolissen, Dean: Johannesburg Business School
The Chinese word for “leader” is “Lingdao.” “Ling” means “to know,” and “dao” means “the way”. The Chinese believe it is the role of leaders to know the way of the cosmos and nature, and bring them into the world of human activities.
From time immemorial scholars have strived to make sense of human behaviour through the study of science and natural phenomena, and by extension leadership attributes and decision-making.
The tongue in cheek, yet world-famous, quantum physics thought experiment conceived by Austrian physicist Erwin in Schrödinger 1935 is worth exploring as an example.
In this hypothetical experiment, a cat inside a box is assumed to have a 50% chance of having been poisoned by the triggering of a radioactive element. To an observer outside the box, the cat can be either dead or alive.
Once the box is opened, only one state is possible and the other possibility collapses.
And yet, in another world or universe, as postulated by quantum mechanics, the outcome may be different to that perceived by the observer on earth.
Assuming the uncertainty inherent in this experiment, it is useful to examine the implications of multiple possible outcomes particular to different observers in real life experiments.
I would like to delve into the relevance of this paradox for business leaders faced with the ongoing challenge of having to manage rapid change and ambiguity in what has become a permanently non-linear, multi-disciplinary and networked environment, brought into sharp focus in the Covid landscape.
Duality and the emergence of quantum leadership
The duality represented by the Schrodinger experiment illustrates that different quantum states can result in vantage dependent outcomes. The hypothetical cat in the box is a potent metaphor for the scientifically accepted and validated wave-particle duality of light.
Einstein won the Nobel Prize for formulating the photo-electric effect which can only be explained by viewing light as discrete particles or photons with quantifiable energy packets or quanta.
This particle nature of light however completely fails when interference patterns of two light sources display succinct and incontrovertible wave behaviour as was shown by the Young’s double slit experiment.
Scientist have learnt to live with this irreconcilable uncertainty and accept that that it is part of nature. Ironically, when attempts were made to trick light by placing photon detectors at the slits the wave patterns just disappeared and the particle nature evinced itself.
Scientific understanding of complexities like these have given birth to the mathematics required to model complexity and uncertainty. This, in turn, is being incorporated into the behavioural sciences, giving rise to quantum leadership models.
What we can learn from Chaos Theory
Fractals, which are recurring patterns made from random components, may initially form random (uncertain) patterns. Eventually, after many iterations, the patterns will begin to mimic natural phenomena such as snowflakes or the patterns on leaves. Order evolves from chaos, a concept that finds expression in Chaos Theory.
This gave birth to the biomimicry discipline where design across almost all spheres of life draw from naturally occurring phenomena.
The flow of air through ant heaps are used by designers of buildings to limit carbon laden air-conditioning.
Understanding Chaos Theory and developing deterministic models based on this theory can deliver many competitive advantages for astute leaders.
A chaotic system does not settle into a predictable pattern due to its nonlinear processes. Chaotic systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions and a slight change in these conditions can have a significant impact on outcomes.
The most frequently cited example of this is the ‘butterfly effect’, a concept postulated by Edward Lorentz in the mid-19th century. Lorentz, who trained as a meteorologist, developed a model to show that a butterfly stirring the air in the Amazon could potentially precipitate storm systems in the USA.
Any modelling of deterministic chaos must therefore incorporate the extreme sensitivity of events to initial conditions.
For an example of how sensitive outcomes are to initial circumstances, we need look no further than the events that unfolded in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. On that day, the driver of the vehicle in which the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Frans Ferdinand, was travelling took a wrong turning, creating a new set of conditions for the journey.
The driver, confused, came to a stop and, in that unexpected window of opportunity, the Archduke and his wife were assassinated. This precipitated World War I which, in turn, led to World War II; two historic events that cost the lives of millions of people and ushered in not only a new world order, but a persistent Cold War between the superpowers that emerged after the war.
The case for quantum leadership
The lessons to be learnt from examples like these are evident.
Traditionally, markets have valued and rewarded certainty, predictability and continuity in business.
However, in a new era of chaos and complexity, they value and reward an entirely different set of capabilities.
Today, the sustainability and, ultimately, the success of a business depends on a different approach and a different frame of mind. In short, the ability to survive and thrive depends on adaptability, agility and resonance with natural processes.
It depends on being able to manage uncertainty at multiple times and taking into account multiple points of view.
As a result, the world needs leaders with a quantum mindset; leaders who demonstrate the ability to understand and manage recurring ambiguity and non-linearity.
Despite this, most management frameworks still rely on a clockwork paradigm of certainty and predictability, as characterised by Newtonian physics.
And while Newton’s laws opened up new vistas in the 17th century, precipitating the Industrial Revolution, they cannot accommodate the intellectual and technological advancements precipitated by the publication of Einstein’s theories of relativity in the early 20th century.
In a similar vein, a new model of leadership is needed in a world that has changed irrevocably due to forces such as globalisation, technological advancement and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Quantum leadership is a novel management construct that draws on the framework of quantum theory and integrates it with the recent emergence of neuroscience.
This approach arises from the proven effectiveness of mathematical tools to model complexity, uncertainty, nonlinearity and chaos.
The potential to draw lessons from this science into social constructs provides a new form of advantage as survival and prosperity are inextricably linked to the ability to adapt and respond to uncertainty and complexity.
According to Gary Burnison, a best-selling author and the CEO of Korn Ferry, the world’s largest organisational consulting firm, successful leaders, which we can now define as quantum leaders, must display:
- Adaptability: The ability to be comfortable with unanticipated changes and diverse situations; to be able to adjust to unforeseen constraints and rebound from adversity.
- Curiosity: The innate desire to achieve a deep understanding of things and a tendency to approach problems in novel ways; to see patterns and to understand how to synthesise complex information in order to address novel problems.
- Tolerance of ambiguity: The ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and to be willing to make plans and decisions with incomplete information.
- As implausible as it may sound, the implications of the Schrodinger thought experiment are pointing leadership development towards quantum theory. This means leaders have to develop a multi-faceted vision in order to consider all potential outcomes and make sure we are ready for a future in which outcomes may well be counter-intuitive.
Prof Randall Carolissen is the dean at Johannesburg Business School.