Leadership and the New Science – Lessons for Agile Living and Thriving in Chaos

Leadership and the New Science

A Review

by Ariane Benefit
Originally Published April 1994,in the Human Resources Development Review Quarterly

LEADERSHIP AND THE NEW SCIENCE – Video, 1993, 23 Minutes, by Dr. Margaret Wheatley.available from CRM Films, Carlsbad, California, 92008. 1-800-421-0833

2011 – I posted an updated review of Leadership and the New Science on Amazon here

This is the original 1994 Version.


Based on Dr. Margaret Wheatley’s book of the same name, this video is one of the best I have ever seen for use in organizational training and development. It powerfully conveys complex ideas via a clear, concise, and jargon-free script. Furthermore, its audio-visual production values and special effects rival the best Hollywood feature films.

Leadership and The New Science presents refreshingly innovative, thought-provoking ideas and perspectives on how leading edge discoveries from the world of natural science can be applied to help organizations become more adaptable in the face of constant change and achieve new levels of order and effectiveness.

The video opens with a beautiful location shot of Dr. Wheatley herself contemplating a waterfall. The Narrator introduces the topic by discussing how natural systems, such as clouds, (and people) are able to fulfill their missions without precise predictability, and amidst seemingly chaotic conditions.

Dr. Wheatley then provides insight on how our new understandings of nature can help us in creating the organization of the future–organizations that can respond and adapt to chaotic change over time and yet achieve a common purpose.

Her basic premise is that today’s organizations are products of 17th century paradigms of the universe which led to a “machine model” of the world. The “machine model” emphasizes a view that the world is made up of discrete parts, which put together and controlled properly will operate efficiently. According to Wheatley, the “machine model” is breaking down.

The new sciences, such as evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics have revealed that the world is far more chaotic than we have ever imagined, and ultimately not very controllable or predictable. Survival in the “new world” will require a new way of viewing the relationship of order to chaos.

Unpredictable relationships, not order, are at the very core of everything. Weather, for example, is unpredictable from moment to moment, but over time, it conforms to certain boundaries. It is caused by the myriad of relationships among the movement of the earth, natural disasters, man-made interventions such as pollution, etc.

While the “chaotic” interaction and relationships of all the forces contributing to weather cannot be accurately predicted, certain boundaries, such as seasonal patterns, do provide a certain order. It is within these boundaries that weather occurs.

In new science terms, chaos is defined as “order without predictability”. Unpredictable relationships among the elements are at the core – they determine what will be. Dr. Wheatley’s premise is that, to survive, the organizations of the 21st century must reinvent themselves, and incorporate these natural lessons in the way they are structured. The rapidly changing context in which they operate will require that they evolve from the machine model” into “natural systems” — in which order is NOT imposed from without, but rather develops from within.

Leading organizations of the future will grow and develop in a much more natural way–much like human beings develop. The development of human beings occurs within the boundaries of genetic makeup, but within this “order” or boundary, individuals are shaped, unpredictably, by their internal responses and relationships to their environments.

Just as we learn who we are in relationship to others, so will organizations of the future find that their visions and missions will emerge from teams and the interactions of those teams as they respond to their contexts.

According to Dr. Wheatley, the new organizational structure will emerge from four critical elements:

  1. The acceptance of chaos (order without predictability) as an essential process by which natural systems, including organizations and individuals, renew and revitalize themselves. Chaos is necessary for creativity to flourish.
  2. The free flow of information (AKA Organizational DNA), which is the life blood and energy source that leads to continual reorganization and creativity in response to the environment.
  3. The development of positive, constructive relationships among its members, and with the environment.
  4. The ability to create a “field of vision”– a force that serves to energize the organization and provide the boundaries within which chaos, information flow, and relationships occur.

Having reviewed hundreds of videos for use in leadership and management training that provide only superficial understanding of the significance of change and/or a laundry list of “how tos” for coping with change, I found this video’s message to be refreshingly inspirational and thought-provoking.

It provides the clear and substantive rationale needed to evoke a paradigm shift in the way we view change, ourselves, and the organizations in which we work.

I can’t recommend this video highly enough for use in leadership development or other programs designed to help people understand, accept, and participate in the changes taking place in their organizations.


August, 2011

Re-reading this I realize that what I’m doing in my coaching work today is teaching people how to apply our new understanding of the natural world to break through the dominant cultural beliefs that cause those of us who are different to feel bad about ourselves.  Learning to see your creative self in a whole new way and learn how to find the order ing the natural chaos that comes with a creative brilliant mind you can see your self, your relationships and your life in a whole new way that does cause so much suffering.  It really strikes me that almost 20 years ago when I first read Wheatley’s work, I understood it and thought I “knew” it.  But only in the last 5 years have I truly been able to develop the details that allow me to really get it at a level that I am applying and living the 4 elements with ease.

Wheatley says

“Just as we learn who we are in relationship to others, so will organizations of the future find that their visions and missions will emerge from teams and the interactions of those teams as they respond to their contexts.”


It’s not easy to live with such dynamism, but it is the natural way.  When we stop trying to live as if we were machines that could control our lives, the sense of peace is stunning.

I only hope that I can continue to find better and better ways to help my community find this place of full on acceptance of chaos and the paradoxical serenity that comes with it.