Book Review: Margaret Wheatley’s ‘Leadership and the New Science”

30 May 2013

Leadership and the New Science“Curiosity, not certainty, becomes the saving grace,” management professor and consultant Margaret Wheatley writes in her seminal book, Leadership and the New Science. Indeed, she delves into complex science to inform her own, and in turn, our understanding of organizational phenomena and how to approach systems in a rapid paced 21st century

Margaret J. Wheatley made a discovery that led her to write her now well-known, groundbreaking book Leadership and the New Science, a discovery that, for me at least, harkens back to an article on curiosity I wrote some months back in which it becomes clear that innovative business leaders draw from sundry fields to inform their world- and business-view, whether it be history, art, or, in Wheatley’s case, everything from quantum physics and chaos theory to biology and evolution.Her area is management, but she found herself exploring these other fields in order to make links, in order to make sense of the world’s “deeply patterned nature, and its dense web of connections.” Her exploration into new science opened up a world to her in which change and development were “ways of sustaining order and capacity.”

What does this mean for organizations? In this world of rapid change, innovation and development, we need more than ever to know how to manage systems and people, and to not give up in despair when the rug is pulled from underneath us. As Wheatley writes:

…I no longer believe that organizations are inherently unmanageable in this world of constant flux and unpredictability. Rather, I believe that our present ways of organizing are outmoded, and that the longer we remain entrenched in our old ways, the further we move away from those wonderful breakthroughs in understanding that the world of science calls ‘elegant.’”

Our understanding of organizations and management, Wheatley says, derives from the natural sciences, from Newtonian mechanics. It is these perceptions that determine how we develop and run organizations, conduct research, and come to productive conclusions about organizational set-up, planning and processes. It is only logical, therefore, to look more deeply at contemporaneous scientific theories to propel our organizations successfully into the second decade of the 21st century.

Cue chaos theory, quantum physics, evolution, biology, chemistry.

The elegance of this book lies in its absorbing examination of the uncertainty of scientific exploration (despite the tightness of the eventual theories arrived at) and the ways in which order and change can be intertwined, and not necessarily detrimentally. Changes, the shifts underneath us, do not necessarily have to cause problems, and it is these scientific discoveries Wheatley so expertly links to organizational theory.

Science tells us that context is crucial and so one fit models are absent in this book. If we are to understand organizations as “living systems,’ as Wheatley does, then they are rendered moot. So, really, the point of this book is for you to take the concepts and see how they apply, how they can help you to find order in your organization, or to create structures that are adaptable, and so on.

It’s well worth a read.