The Physics of Leadership

Developing mastery in the “art” of leadership turns out to be a full-time, career-long discipline in the art of discovery.

By Kenneth M. Slaw, PhD

IStock 672340076

As we begin the leadership journey there is an insatiable need to understand the What and How. What IS leadership? What defines it? How is it manifested? What works and what doesn’t to improve it? The science conducted on leadership has been obsessed with the What and the How. It has generated hundreds of research studies, and thousands of books. On a practical/pragmatic level this is usually enough to satiate our desire to meet goals and resolve challenges, however, as so many on the journey have learned, the deeper you tread into improving the What and How of leadership, the more questions are generated. Developing mastery in the “art” of leadership turns out to be a full-time, career-long discipline in the art of discovery.

What We Know About Leadership

A distillation of the published literature on leadership yields several consistent and common themes:

Leadership Emanates from Within, but is Defined by Those Around Us

“Leadership is the capacity to influence others through inspiration motivated by passion, generated by vision, produced by conviction, ignited by purpose.” – Dr. Myles Munroe

The Why of leadership begins with purpose, focus and passion for a cause. Purpose drives us to share our vision and energy with the world in an attempt to influence it in an aligned direction. Yet, success in leadership and ultimately the impact we are able to make is almost entirely dependent on how we are perceived by, or resonate with others, thereby influencing transformation or change. Personal purpose and passion alone are not enough to lead effectively!

Purpose and passion give us “gravity” in the universe of human connectivity. It gives us “mass” and “motion,” so we show up on the radar of others, and whether intentional or not, our “gravity” or influence, draws others into closer orbit around us, and we them.

Gravity is an amazing force. It is strong enough to ground all of us on Earth, hold moons around planets, planets in solar systems, solar systems in galaxies, and galaxies in the universe itself, yet it is in and of itself weak. We defeat gravity every day by simply getting out of bed! This is because the strength of gravitational pull between objects depends upon relative size, mass, and distance. Because of my tiny size relative to Earth, I can defeat its gravity and move, but I can’t overcome it to jump off the planet.

Hard science around the study of leadership consistently tells us that to become effective and successful you need to grow your gravitational pull (influence) on others. In a leadership paradigm this means increasing your mass and proximal distance to others within a human system, so you show up and pulse on their radar. This cannot be achieved with enduring success by force of passion or personality alone. It requires mastery of a learnable set of behaviors and skills that become accelerators of your gravitational pull within the human system. A well-researched and simple model for these leadership “accelerators” was outlined by Kouzes and Posner in “The Leadership Challenge,” and is manifested by these behavioral clusters:

  • Modeling the Way
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision
  • Challenging the Process
  • Enabling Others to Act
  • Encouraging the Heart

Leadership is NOT Position, Title, or Power

“Leadership is about service to others, plain and simple, it is co-creation of a commitment to mission.” Robert Greenleaf

The literature on leadership cites this as a common source of confusion. To occupy a position of power or authority is to have greater access and leverage to influence the systems around you, but this is not leadership or leading. Mastery in leadership leverages position, title, and power to inspire the systems themselves to come alive as a source of change or transformation. When power (or one’s gravitational pull) becomes too great for the system it occupies, some form of collision is inevitable. As we will see later, sometimes good comes out of such conflict.

There is No Leadership Without Transformation, Change, and Ultimately, Results

“Leadership is the ability to step outside the culture to start evolutionary change that is more adaptive.” – Edgar Schein

Transformation or change requires a shared vision, a destination, and a collective will to arrive at that destination. It usually needs to be a compelling vision, because to lead change is to create chaos out of order, and then create new order. Thus, it is often said that leaders work LARGE…trying to see the “whole”, and the interrelationships and patterns of change rather than snapshots. At the end of the day, however, leaders are measured by whether they “got somewhere,” either themselves or with their team or organization. Vision is necessary but not sufficient without arrival at a destination.

Since success in leadership is so dependent on the will of others, relational communication and emotional intelligence are essential skill sets for leaders. Relating and communicating are the currency through which leaders instill passion/purpose, ignite the chance for others to grow and develop, create safe spaces for new systems to form and allow leaders to tap into the roots of human motivation

Leadership Growth Never Ends

“Great leaders produce more leaders, not more followers.” Ralph Nader

Finally, research tells us that leadership is a learning journey that never ends and cannot be optimized in isolation—we need feedback and support from others because it is only in their eyes that we become effective in leading.

Leadership clearly is about something larger than ourselves. It is about others rather than self, yet the power of leadership clearly emanates from within, and produces external evolution or change. If leadership had a tagline, it would probably be something like:

“People move the world; Leadership moves people.”

The (Astro-Meta) Physics of Leadership

Physics is the science and study of why things work, so is there a plausible model for the “physics of leadership?” Not yet, only theories that are a lot of fun to think about. I outline one such theory below, not in pursuit of truth, but in pursuit of “stretch,” because great discovery is almost always a by-product of pushing traditional or theoretical boundaries. Also, it’s just fun.

To truly begin to comprehend the Why of leadership we must accept that to understand leadership is to understand human behavior—to understand people. This is our tagline! “People move the world; leadership moves people.” To understand the human “universe,” let’s call it a “humanoverse”, we must explode out our minds and theories to understand the large-scale systems humans create and operate, and the forces that affect them.

The Universe, or potential multiplex of Universes if you believe in that theory, is the largest construct I can hold in mind. One of the more profound moments of my young life came from watching the original TV series “COSMOS” with Carl Sagan. The notions that we are but a “pale blue dot” in the Universe and we, all of us, are “the stuff of stars” touched me at a deep level. Which is the more unnatural thought? We are so unique and isolated we are completely disconnected and “special”, or we are part of a much larger system in a web of connectivity?

If it is true that at an atomic, elemental level we are made of exactly the same stuff of stars, how can there not be a connection between the forces at work “out there” and the forces at work “down here?”  The same universal forces and laws of physics that apply to the macroverse of galaxies and planets appear to apply to the microverse of atoms and molecules. Perhaps they apply to our Humanoverse as well.

It is a simple thought exercise to begin a stretch toward the Why of leadership. To my friends in science—physicists, astrophysicists, physicians, chemists, engineers, all of whom have suffered my relentless questions—this has become “innocently ignorant but very intriguing,” and the fact that we still talk about it means it as at least useful as a thought model.

The Physics of Leadership

The giants of physics, Newton, Faraday, Planck, Bohr, Schrodinger, Einstein, gifted us the original four forces of physics and their Laws and Principles. As you think about these forces, laws and principles, keep the thought in mind that they bind the physical world together, including us!

Do these laws appear to apply to our understanding of leadership? Strap in for the journey.

The Universal Forces:

Gravity

Characteristics: Force of binding/bonding that defines the influence and “pull” of one object on another.  The formula for increasing gravitational “pull” is increasing mass or closing proximal distance to other objects.

Leadership Application: The objects in a human system are people and the equivalent to gravity is “influence”. We increase our gravitational pull or influence in a human system by increasing mass (visibility/impact) and/or proximity to others (bowling alone or on many teams).

Electromagnetism

Characteristics: Force of attraction and repulsion that creates energy and penetrates all living things but exerts no force on the inanimate.

Leadership Application: Each person in a human system is emanating energy that is positively or negatively charged and permeates all others in the system.  In a complex human system forces of attraction and repulsion are in constant flow as the energy of individuals interact in a complex web. In general, energy that emanates from us, positive and negative, attracts like energy and repulses the opposite.

Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces

Characteristics: The strong nuclear force is the force of order- it is the strongest binding/bonding force-It is the force that holds the nucleus of cells, molecules, and elements together. It is origin of order. The weak nuclear force is the Force of decay—it is the creator of chaos. Strong and weak nuclear forces constantly interact to carry out a complex, symbiotic dance, for which chaos must ultimately win.

Leadership Application: Strong and weak nuclear forces define the dynamic interaction of leadership and management in our human systems. We are driven to bring order to chaos through management while leaders seek to explode out new ground destabilizing order and calling for new management.  It is the complex, symbiotic dance, of leadership and management for which leadership, innovation, and change…must win.

Four Laws and Two Principles:

Law of Gravitation

Characteristics: All objects with mass exert a gravitational force upon one another proportional to mass and inversely related to the square of the distance between them. We all occupy space in the “Humanoverse” exerting our own mass and proximal distance to one another. Every one of us exerts some influence or “gravitational pull” on all others just by our mere presence.

Leadership Application: With mass and proximal distance as the key factors influencing the force of gravity there are 3 ways to increase your gravitational pull or influence in a human system:

  1. Increase your own mass by increasing your knowledge, skills, and exerting greater energy into the world, thereby becoming a larger force in your own right.
  2. Combine your mass with the mass of others.
  3. Close the distance between yourself and others.

It is a primary goal of leadership to increase gravitational pull on others because without followers, there is no leadership.  But leaders must be wary.  The pursuit of influence to accumulate power is perilous.  If the gravitational pull, or mass, of one individual, team, community, organization, etc., becomes too large for the space it occupies, it invariably draws in and destroys/absorbs all other components, and often gets destroyed itself in that process.  The pursuit is not to become the largest mass in the universe.  It is to become the optimal mass to achieve intended purpose.

All human systems eventually settle in a gravitational balance for brief moments of time, but this lasts only as long as it takes for new forces to be introduced that change that gravitational balance. From a leadership perspective think of your team, department, organization, community as a “gravitational field”. Every change of larger and smaller masses in and out of the field creates new need and opportunity to rebalance or reposition the field. This the work of leadership…to optimize the field.

Law of Motion

Characteristics:

  1. All objects remain at rest or in uniform motion until changed by an external force.
  2. The rate of change is proportional to the force applied.
  3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Leadership Application: The Laws of motion have a lot to say about why change is so hard for people and the systems we create? The natural order of everything is to devolve into chaos. The natural order and drive of human systems is to make sense of chaos and bring it back into understandable order.

Once settled into a known orbit, people are extremely happy remaining in uniform motion, even if not optimal, as order is the preferred state over inviting chaos. The more people feel in balance and remain in uniform motion, the greater the force, spark, or energy required to initiate transformation or change. And as we all know and experience, for every action required to spark change you must expect an equal and opposite reaction.

When the spark of change builds enough momentum to exceed its opposite reaction, change has an exponentially greater chance to take hold. From a leadership perspective it is important to assess readiness for change and contemplate both direct and indirect consequences of your action on the motion of those who will be influenced most by change.

Law of Thermodynamics

Characteristics: The natural order of all systems, including the Universe, is to seek entropy (chaos).  If enough force can be applied and sustained, entropy can be contained and controlled.  If not, there is no stopping the system from reaching its ultimate end state.

Leadership Application: This is a very important, but very difficult concept for leaders to internalize. It is critical to have vision, passion, and purpose, and believe in it, but not to the exclusion of accepting feedback and experience to perfect it!  Often leaders get dug in on their vision and their ideas and fail to see imperfections that those around them see clearly. The law of thermodynamics tells us that even if you have the perfect vision or idea, it is perfect for only a moment in time, and while the conditions that make it perfect exist and can be tightly controlled, it is not easy to sustain in a human system constantly changing.

The more a leader exerts control the more the organization or system is cut off from its core creative force. Many leaders have commented that leading an organization is like mastering the optimal grip on a golf club, controlled but loose.

Law of Conservation of Energy

Characteristics: All mass and energy in the Universe remains constant and is conserved, it merely changes from one form to another: E=MC2

Leadership Application: Of all the applications to leadership in this model I think this may be amongst the most important to the work that we do in associations.  All mass and energy, that means thoughts, ideas, movements, initiatives, are conserved. Just because you or your organization say “no”, the energy or idea from a member or group of members, or an outside group, is not extinguished.  Ideas and energy do not die if you deny them a portal…they seek another, often with even greater strength. You have likely experienced this repeatedly. A group wants to form a SIG, or Committee, or Section or Chapter, or wants to achieve an initiative. You say “no” and a year later a new organization or a new initiative springs up within a major competitor who said “yes.”

The law of conservation of energy teaches us as leaders to become transformational agents to sustain success. We have finite resources, true, and every idea is not a good idea or an implementable idea. But rather than saying “no”, try to honor the intent and purpose behind the idea, and harness the energy by converting it to another useable form.

Great leaders are the great alchemists of our profession. We are often taking raw material into the lab and figuring out how to spin gold.

Think large and absorb all the aligned and positive energy you can. Harness it, channel it, transform it. Let the dark energy go.

Principle of Relativity

Characteristics:

  1. The laws of physics apply to all objects in the Universe (as long as the speed of light is proven to be a constant).
  2. Reality is defined by the perspective of the perceiver, thus there can be multiple realities occurring simultaneously.

Leadership Application: Einstein proved to us all that “reality” is defined by the person experiencing it. What we experience on earth and what an astronaut experiences from space are very different even when we experience the same thing at the same time. Every person in a system is experiencing reality uniquely.

It is one of the key functions of leadership to align realities around common destination or outcomes. This comes into play every day with communication. How many times each day do conflicts occur because two people hear exactly the same message from the same source at the same time yet come away with completely different messages? How often do you hear people say, “That is not the message I sent you”, and the other is saying “Well, that is the message I received.” The message “received” is the message sent, it is all “relative” to the way we filter the world.

Great leaders are great communicators not because of their message, but because they think a lot about the audience receiving their message.

The principle of relativity forces leaders to consider that there are always multiple perspectives to consider, and the more you can see the greater “whole”, the clearer the optimal path becomes. When you are problem solving get large, take multiple perspectives, and you are more likely to make wise choices.

Principle of Quantum

Characteristics:

  1. Everything in the Universe when broken down to its elemental state ends up particles of pure energy;
  2. All forms of energy appear to have a predictable wave form, and an unpredictable particle form;
  3. We know how many protons, neutrons and electrons exist in every element, we have no idea where these particles will be at any given moment, and it appears they can be in multiple places simultaneously

Leadership Application: I think quantum theory is awesome and it is an essential component of a “theory of everything” in leadership. Part of the reason we can even have this discussion as that quantum theory provides the underpinning of it all.

We are the stuff of stars. At the atomic and sub-atomic level, we are composed of pure energy, nothing more-nothing less, and that pure energy has formed itself into matter and substance that became…us. Each of us is composed of energy and we emit energy in multiple forms…physical (gravity/electromagnetic), thought (waves and particles). It explains why we do experience a sense of gravity between us, attractive and repulsive energy fields, how like energy between people combines and synergizes so easily, and why at the end of the day, we all seek as much freedom as possible, because that is the natural state of the energy that comprises us…to be free.

Quantum theory, like relativity, also challenges us to accept multiple realities and to understand that what is known is a very small fraction of what there is to be known. You can reach down and touch your arm, yet the electrons that make up the atoms in your arm may not really be there at all or may be in two places at the same time.

People move the world; Leadership moves people. This works because of quantum physics. We are all connected.

The Path to Leadership Mastery in the Humanoverse

Whether they know it or not, the role models, mentors, teachers and colleagues that you have always looked up to as leaders have been on a path to mastery in the “physics of leadership”. These leaders:

  • Understand their higher purpose and align to it when they emit energy into the world;
  • Preserve and strengthen their character and credibility at all costs, and understand it is the only thing worth dying for;
  • Develop the largest, widest, view they can and constantly check their position against what matters in the big picture;
  • Understand that the energy (positive or negative) they put out into the universe lives forever and has consequences;
  • Honor the energy of others and try to align or transform it to common outcomes;
  • Understand people do not resist change, they resist being forced to change. They reach people with common vision and purpose, ask for their help, give them the space to help, let go, accept periods of increased entropy and chaos as a predecessor of change and transformation;
  • Constantly learn, listen to others and seek feedback.

Toward a Theory of Everything in Leadership

Thanks for taking this little journey with me. I have tried very hard to kill this theory and shoot holes through it, but so far, it endures. Almost every single day I am reminded of one or more of these laws or principles in a typical day at the office. I think about the law of conservation of energy as I watch people interact. I have experienced someone sit at my desk and watched their energy transform from solid, to liquid, to gas, to plasma in 15 minutes! Same person, same energy, just taking different forms.

We are all the same at a foundational level, yet we all have different constructs and abilities that place us at different points within a system.  We tend to “gravitate” to a place we find comfortable or that energizes us. We cluster into “constellations” like stars and galaxies. We find a happy place, but it is never long before change forces discomfort and no matter how much force we bring to bear on maintaining status quo, we know somehow that entropy will win.

Leadership itself is a “force” that attempts to influence this human system. It catalyzes transformation of matter to different states creating change. It is especially potent and powerful when it serves a meaningful purpose. The “nucleus” of leadership, its protons and neutrons, are credibility and character.  At the end of the day, all “matter” in the Universe, or Humanoverse, matters.

Successful leaders have a near insatiable hunger for learning. Perhaps that is why we often look to the stars to find answers.

About the Author

Kenneth M. Slaw, PhD, is the executive director of the Society for Vascular Surgery. He can be reached at kslaw@vascularsociety.org.

Related Articles

,

Finding Your Balance

Membership in the age of coronavirus

READ MORE
,

Ready for Anything

Thanks to teamwork and quick pivots, HOPA kept its conference afloat amidst COVID-19

READ MORE
,

Tackling Tech

How to overcome your association’s struggles with technology

READ MORE