Attractors of Leadership

May 23, 2011

Recently, I’ve been thinking about attractors. What are they? Where do they come from? Where do they go? And specifically, where does leadership fit in this picture?

This the other morning I woke up with a strong desire for a cup of coffee. Getting coffee became a significant goal. Perhaps it was because of waking up to a radio news article about the benefits of coffee or perhaps it was because I needed caffeine. Obtaining coffee was a strong attractor. I could make coffee at home, drive to the local Starbucks, or drive to work and make coffee there. Getting a later start than I wanted, I decided to make coffee at work. Finally, cup in hand, I moved on to the next goal – writing a blog. As soon as I had my coffee, it was no longer an attractor. In fact, if you had offered me another cup while I was still drinking my first, I’d probably decline. Such is the case with goals, once attained they are no longer attractors. Attained goals become repellers or at the very least, are no longer attractors.

Attaining coffee was a personal attractor for me though I was not the only person with that goal given the number of people waiting in line at Starbuck’s as I drove by. All of us who wanted (dare I say needed) coffee had similar attractors but not the same attractor. If the same attractor influenced all of us, then we would have had a group attractor such as our team winning a football championship. The difference between a personal attractor and a group or company attractor is that though both drive people’s behavior, when a group attractor is attained it directly affects the whole group. When we achieve our company goal of introducing a new product that particular goal ceases to influence my behavior along with everyone else that shared that goal. Likewise, when I got my cup of coffee, no one else cared; others continued to strive toward getting their own coffee. Leadership is by definition creating group attractors. By leadership, I refer to the acts that form attractors not the people with formal hierarchical positions.

The discourse in management literature and indeed in organizations focuses more on The Leader rather than the acts of leadership. If we focus instead on interaction and ignore who is The Leader then we might see a very different scene – one in which some people propose (create attractors), others agree (align attractors), then actions follow (trajectories change), and a state change occurs (renewed dynamic stabilization). Imagine a fitness landscape made up of many overlapping fitness landscapes – one for every person. Some of the peaks and valleys will overlap (alignment) and some will not (potential conflict). Then picture the peaks and valleys in constant flux as the landscapes dances with the rhythm of daily activity. Then picture at certain points in time a dimple will form for everyone, it may be deeper or shallower for some, but the location is aligned in the landscape for everyone. This would be a group attractor. If someone’s act of proposing, envisioning, claiming, declaring, etc. created this attractor, then we can be certain an act of leadership occurred. I can also imagine an idea, vision, decision, etc. that emerges from the group and no one person had the greater hand in its creation. This would also be an act of leadership though attributing it is a bit trickier. I think that probes can be of this type – perhaps more on that idea later.

Certainly some people enact leadership as I’ve outlined above more often than others. Some even create attractors because they have positions of authority. Nonetheless, my interest is on leadership as intentional creation of attractors. This is a necessary but not sufficient description of leadership since direct intentional attractor creation is not the whole picture. Are there ways in which leaders can influence behavior without directly creating group attractors? I believe so and I’ll talk about that in my next blog.

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