Leadership of Attractors

May 24, 2011

In my last post I discussed how leadership could be viewed as interactions that create attractors. These are usually tactical, day-to-day, seemingly minor events that shape our landscape. These attractors can coordinate activities, stabilize groups, or even start radical movements. This is seldom talked about as the stuff of leadership yet I believe that it is as important in moving a group forward as anything that a single person who has been given the title of “Leader” can do. Nonetheless, there are people who either have the title or those that people informally look to for guidance. Other than creating many point attractors (sometimes called micromanagement), what can these people do to influence large areas of the social landscape? Are there ways to “lead” attractors?

Robert G. Lord (2008) discusses how leaders might create biasing factors in social systems. The term biasing factor is borrowed from neuroscience that in turn is borrowed from physics and the behavior of spin glass. This is akin to a small force in one direction that shapes dynamic behavior in complex systems. We can think of this as the entire fitness landscape tilting slightly in one direction thereby adding a small bias toward or away from certain attractors. Lord identifies 3 types of biasing factors; emotion, goal orientation, and identity.

For example, if a leader exhibits negative emotion, mirror neurons can replicate these emotions in followers. These mirror neurons can then affect the brain’s pre-frontal cortex decision-making processes such that a small bias is placed toward avoidance goals (e.g. not fall below a certain performance level) and away from approach goals (e.g. try to achieve a certain level of performance). In complex systems, the structures that emerge will be influenced by these diffuse biasing factors. Positive emotions would have the opposite effect. This suggests that in a climate of negative emotions, say during a downsizing, it will be difficult to create attractors with approach goals. In other words, a new vision for the company’s performance won’t be attractive if people are worried about keeping their jobs.

Identity can create some strong boundaries where the edges can act as repellers and the centers (our “core” identity) as attractors. Since people are a rich intersection of identities with any one or more active in a given context, leaders can create biasing factors by activating some identities and subordinating others. For example, if a leader talks about how “our” division needs to work with “the other” division.

Vision is a goal that can create a biasing factor as people are attracted toward the idea of the future. This can be a long-lasting biasing factor though we have observed times when a vision does not seem to create an attractor. We have facilitated groups who expend a great deal of time and energy creating a documented vision and then once created, it does not affect behavior. Our theory is that in these cases it was not the shared vision that created an attractor but the goal of having a vision statement. As I previously discussed, goals cease to be attractors once they are attained so once the vision statement is created it no longer affects behavior. The attractor of having a vision statement rather than a shared vision is particularly strong in large bureaucratic companies where institutionalization (wanting to look like peer companies) is strong. Indeed, institutionalization might be a biasing factor by itself.

I call the goal of having a vision statement a “check box” vision. We can “check the box” once we write the vision statement and move on to the next goal. Perhaps one way to avoid a check box vision is to use social processes that create rich, subtle, multi-facetted, and multi-interpreted ideas of the future. Certainly one method to accomplish this would be through creating a bricolage (see Laruie Webster’s earlier post) of multiple narratives and anecdotes of the future.

Lord, R. G. (2008). Beyond transactional leadership and transformational leadership. In M. Uhl-Bien & R. Marion (Eds.), Complexity Leadership Part 1: Conceptual Foundations (pp. 155-184). Charlotte, NC: IAP, Information Age Pub.

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