Observer’s influence and Leadership

If asked whether you like physics most or many of you would probably answer “no”.

In next few paragraphs I would like to show you that it is quite an interesting field that can be used and applied in real life and definitively in leadership too. I will begin with a kind of  ‘strange’ theory that demonstrates “observer’s influence” on what is observed.

Heisenberg uncertainty principleThe Werner Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that the act of observation interferes with what is being observed. He defined that the position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously measured with arbitrarily high precision. More precisely the position is determined less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. This is even more relevant in dealing with human and organizational systems. But there is a difference. In human and organizational systems, the object of observation is aware of being observed and can react depending on the situation and perceived purpose of the observation. This can compound the challenges of leadership.

Brownian motionThere is definitively a version of the Heisenberg principle that works in leadership area. If a leader is present and steers things, they function differently than when he is present and doesn’t steer, or even when he is not present. Of course, it seems to work better when a leader is present. But shouldn't a leadership be about followers doing right things even when a leader is not present?

Next example deals with a different physics theory – ‘Brownian motion’.  It is a random motion of any of various physical phenomena in which some quantity is constantly undergoing small, random fluctuations. If a number of particles, subject to Brownian motion, are present in a given medium and there is no preferred direction for the random oscillations, then over a period of time the particles will tend to be spread evenly throughout the medium.

The mathematical model of Brownian motion has numerous real-world applications, i.e. a mass of pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. If you observe them on a single-item level, it is a straightforward walk and avoidance. If you look at it on a medium scale, it looks like chaos. But on a bigger scale or over a longer time, it shows some organization or system behavior. Exactly the same thing applies in group sports when playing on the ground. What looks like random motion on the playing field takes on systemic properties when one thinks in terms of both the position of objects (players) relative to each other, and their motion and thrust, relative to each other. A good team coach leads not just by identifying talent or telling each player what to do (there is no time for that) but leads by creating a team that can collectively adjust to the conditions of the moment.

What is the difference with an organization? Not much. Is an organization like a team alone on a playground? On the playground there are competitors, judges, physical constraints with the playing field, and spectators. And looking from organizational eyes it is the same. Organization is not alone as well; there are competitors, buyers, sellers, different state agencies, market and so on. All these are changing but form a system (see my post: System thinking).

matter and energyNow we return to a system behavior in leadership process and describe it yet again from the physics perception. I would say that most people understand that we conceive our Universe in two categories, matter and energy. We approach matter through discreteness and reductionism as particles and bodies. We approach energy as a force, constituted as gravitational, electromagnetic, and the like. This matter/energy framework translates to life, with bodies, and energies represented by the mind, the spirit, vital force, bioenergetics fields, and the like. Within quantum physics, the universe is one connected whole. Energy and matter are the same stuff as Einstein suggested almost a century ago. The same is valid for an organization – it is not only buildings, tools and employers, products … no, it is much more!

So, can physics then be used for better leadership approach?

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