Management thinking may be blinding leadership
By Justin Menkes, originally posted on HBR.org
The management sciences have always been dominated by what is widely known as the Cartesian method, as invented by French philosopher René Descartes and later expanded upon by physicist Isaac Newton. In today’s world, management scientists are asked to study a problem, create a tool to fix it, and then conduct a study testing the correlation between the suggested solution and its effect. At the heart of this methodology is reductionist thinking — breaking issues down into component parts that can be isolated and measured for their cause and effect. This approach has undeniable merits, but can also prevent us from uncovering the larger truths that the management sciences seek to reveal.
For over a century, reductionist thinking has offered an excellent means for generating clear, concise, and evidence-based answers to important questions. It is also perfectly suited for rendering compelling statistical evidence to support these answers. For instance, when Johnson & Johnson sought to treat children suffering from high fever, they discovered the efficacy of Tylenol and compiled volumes of data demonstrating a high correlation between the administration of Tylenol and the subsequent elimination of fever. Reductionism’s widespread acceptance and application has generated countless advancement around the world that have vastly improved the human condition, and it remains the foundation of the scientific method taught to all grade-schoolers as the fundamentals of “real science” today.
But the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in this method, as South African philosophy professor Paul Cilliers discussed in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. By “cutting up” a system, the reductionist method destroys that which it is trying to understand.
The most widely known challenge to reductionist thinking was introduced in 1905 by Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity was so revolutionary because it attacked thinking on two topics — space and time — that had been assumed to be ideally understood using Isaac Newton’s reductionist terms.
Einstein showed how one’s understanding and measure of these two phenomena could vary drastically based on their perspective. For instance, the actual distance and speed of a train would be very different to a person standing still than to someone moving on a separate train going in the opposite direction. In other words, space and time cannot be comprehensively understood if treated as if they exist uninfluenced by other variables.
While physics has never been the same since Einstein’s theory, this complex thinking has yet to reach the same sort of critical mass in the management sciences. This is despite the fact that leadership, which is based in the complex interaction between a leader and his or her people, is just the kind of phenomenon that is best studied using a more complex, interactionist approach. Peter Drucker, my former professor and the greatest mentor to my work, was a pioneer in promoting this interactionist method. Among his most famous quotes defining great leadership was, “Great leaders are great conductors.” The conductor is influencing his orchestra, which in turn is influencing his behavior, and within their exchange is created great music.
The practical limitations of reductionist thinking can be observed the everyday workplace. Take, for instance, a discussion I had with Bayer’s CEO Marijn Dekkers about the surprisingly costs of impatience. Early in Marijn’s career he worked for a CEO that used to bark out orders about what to do, and then bang on the table during Monday morning reviews, screaming about activities still pending and demanding to know why they weren’t getting done faster. Marjin’s response to him, “Well, they weren’t our idea to do.”
I asked Marjin what he meant by that. “Impatience is a funny thing,” Marijn said. “You can go around barking orders to your people about what they must do and how they must do it. But what you gain in the three days of step-by-step instruction, you lose in the following three months of execution.” Marijn’s point was that if you present people with the challenge that must be overcome and allow them to figure out the best solution, while it may take a little longer, they tend to be much more dedicated to its implementation, and ultimately witnessing the success of their idea.
Imagining leadership as a one directional process in which one barks orders and results are the effect is horribly misguided, never more so with than with the highly trained, sophisticated knowledge workers we have today. While real leadership is complex, perhaps inconveniently so, that does not mean it is beyond understanding. Interactionist frameworks are able to highlight identifiable organizing principles that cause directional flows. They also enable us to move beyond overly simplistic, reductionist views of human beings to shed new light on the fluid, recursive quality that is real leadership.
Just as other disciplines have broken down previously limiting barriers to reveal important new truths through complex thinking, the management sciences will also inevitably join Drucker in yielding to the value of complexity approaches to leadership. Using interactionist models, we will be able to far more accurately understand the causes of professional success. And this new knowledge will leave us better able to achieve that success ourselves.
Justin Menkes is the author of Better Under Pressure (Harvard Business Review Press).