Quantum physics offers insights about leadership in the 21st century
By Randall Carolissen, Dean Johannesburg Business School, University of JohannesburgHuman Resources
Like scientists, business leaders need to be able to manage rapid change and ambiguity in a non-linear, multi-disciplinary and networked environment.
It may seem strange to look to the discipline of quantum physics for lessons that will help to create future-fit leaders. But science has a lot to offer us.
Like scientists, business leaders need to be able to manage rapid change and ambiguity in a non-linear, multi-disciplinary and networked environment. But, for the most part, businesses find themselves trapped in processes that draw on the paradigm of certainty and predictability. This approach is analogous to the Newtonian physics developed in the 1600’s.
The ambiguity that business leaders operate in is encapsulated in mathematical models developed by the advances in Quantum Physics developed in the early 1900’s. These advances culminated in massive progression in technology. And they can accommodate the complexity and uncertainty archetypes found in nature – and now by extension human behaviour.
These mathematical models allow for improved scenario and forecasting. They are therefore very useful in vastly improving decision-making, as pointed out by the author Adam C. Hall.
Quantum physics and quantum organizations
Throughout history, scholars have tried to make sense of human behaviour and, by extension, leadership attributes by studying natural phenomena.
According to complexity economist Brian Arthur and physicist Geoffrey West human social systems function optimally as complex adaptive systems – or quantum systems.
The newly developed field of quantum leadership maps the human, conscious equivalents onto the 12 systems that define complex adaptive systems or quantum organizations. These are: self-awareness; vision and value led; spontaneity; holism; field-independence; humility; ability to reframe; asking fundamental questions; celebration of diversity; positive use of adversity; compassion; a sense of vocation (purpose).
Quantum leadership is essentially a new management approach that integrates the most effective attributes of traditional leadership with recent advances in both quantum physics and neuroscience. It is a model that allows for greater responsiveness. It draws on our innate ability to recognise, adapt and respond to uncertainty and complexity.
My academic work has been in nanophysics. This is an study where the laws of physics become governed by quantum physics as opposed to the rigid and deterministic Newtonian approach.
When entering the corporate world my interest was piqued on how leaders should respond to complexity, ambiguity and non-liniearity. This complimentarity extended my curiosity. In turn this led me to navigate several disciplines dealing with complex systems.
Quantum Mechanics has been confirmed by scientific evidence. The most popularly cited experiment was the Nobel winning theoretical development by Louis-Victor Pierre Raymond de Broglie explaining the wave-particle duality of light illustrated by the double slit experiment of Thomas Young. This showed that the outcome of any potential event is multi-fold and dependent on the vantage point of the observer.
This doesn’t imply the correctness or incorrectness of any outcome. It just highlights how vantage point can – and does – influence behaviour and decision-making.
To come to grips with the vast change precipitated by the fourth industrial revolution businesses have to acknowledge that outcomes are vantage point dependent and random. This industrial revolution provides the potential to precipitate fundamental and positive changes in the way in which societies and work are organized.
Disruptive technologies such as mobile banking, practices such as remote working, and dramatic changes in consumer behaviour are inevitably rousing leadership from a linear mindset as they uncover non-linear opportunities.
The imperative of developing leaders that can deal with pervasive disruptions has being recognized by leading business schools. Examples include INSEAD’s programme in Executive Education. One course covers developing effective strategies and learning how to innovate in a disruptive, uncertain world.
Defining the quantum leader
The concept of a quantum leader is gaining traction in behavioural studies.
Quantum leaders, like the systems they have to manage, are poised at ‘the edge of chaos.’ They thrive on the potential latent in uncertainty. They are also:
- vision and value led
- adapt quickly,
- are unafraid to play with the boundaries and reinvent the rules, and
- celebrate diversity.
In this way, they are precipitating a radical break from the past.
Practically, quantum leadership is informed by quantum thinking and guided by the defining principles of quantum physics. Quantum leaders think ahead by formulating many scenarios for what the future might hold, encourage questions and experiments, and thrive on uncertainty.
Quantum leaders are guided by the same principles that inform complex adaptive systems. They can also operate effectively outside the direct control of formal systems. They have the ability to reframe challenges and issues within the context of the environment. And develop new approaches through relationships.
In short, they are curious, adaptable and tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty.
The charismatic and forceful leader like the iconic Lee Iacocca led Chrysler to the company to great heights. Yet he failed to anticipate the dominance of Japanese automotive manufacturers. Lionised leaders who consult only as a matter of form but impose what they believed to be their superior way of thinking are the antithesis of what a quantum leaders represents.
The ingrained categorization or divide between ‘hard, such as Physics’ and ‘soft, the Humanities in general’ sciences is self limiting. It creates unnecessary chasms between creativity and innovation. The quantum management paradigm recognizes that analytics, design, creativity and human behaviour has to be integrated into the mindsets of future leaders.
Where to from here?
The World Economic Forum estimates that digital transformation will transform a third of all jobs globally within the next decade. In addition billions of people will require reskilling. This trend will hit developing nations particularly hard. They have limited access to technology, remain locked into traditional teaching methods, and still practice top-down models of management.
In seeking solutions to this scenario, intellectuals across all disciplines need to come together to explore a more agile, multi-disciplinary approach to social and business management. Drawing on quantum theory concepts, we need to create a different way of looking at probability and possibility in the business world.
Business schools need to develop a new kind of business leader that can consider all possible outcomes. They need to be adaptable enough to function in a world in which outcomes may well be counter-intuitive. This is the way of the future.