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E=MC2 for Leaders

It is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s dramatic breakthrough in our understanding of the universe: defining the relationship between energy and matter.

I am certainly not a scientist — “Science for Dummies” is still too complex for me.  As an observer of human organizations, though, I’ve been thinking about the application of Einstein’s discovery to how organizations function, and particularly how leaders function.

The premise is this:  The organization’s product manifests the culture that produced it.

To say it another way, there is a direct relationship between the internal culture of a system (“energy”) and the quality of its output (“matter”).

This might be most obvious in the service sector.  The staff of a hotel, for example, will mirror the internal culture of the management — in action, attitude, and deportment.  If that leadership is stressed, anxious, harried and hassled, this will travel through the system in such a way that a guest will find the experience unappealing.  Service will be slow and grudging, food will be cold and bland, the rooms will be stuffy and shoddy, etc.  Negative energy (anxiety) becomes “matter” — the output of the system.  Furthermore, the employees know it, and their own inferior product tends to reinforce the negative culture.  There is a reciprocal, self-reinforcing relationship between the people and the product.

The same applies to “hard” products (though Einstein helps us see that nothing is “hard”).  So even a tool produced by a company will be imprinted with the culture of that company.  Stanley tools are a reflection of a culture that is characterized by pride, dedication, loyalty, etc.  The hard product reflects the systemic culture.  And, I would imagine, the superior quality of the product helps sustain the energy of the culture that produced it.  There is a positive reciprocal relationship.

Einstein came to recognize that what we see as solid is actually energy, and what we think of as energy (heat, wind, etc.) can become solid (mass).  Today’s sophisticated energy-measuring instruments are also demonstrating the inarguable exchange of energy among us as human beings.  Enthusiasm can travel contagiously through a group.  Fear travels through the same group at a significantly faster rate!  Astute leaders pay close attention to this ongoing exchange.

Systems theory also tells us that organizations can be seen as having an emotional nucleus — typically the designated leader.  This person becomes the broadcast beacon for the energetic or anxious character of the system.  For a simple manifestation of this phenomenon, watch what happens when “the boss” enters the building in the morning.  People are immediately taking his/her emotional temperature.  That has significant impact on how they might approach or avoid that leader during the day.  And the word gets around too.  Over time, the culture is determined, for better or worse, by this phenomenon.  Jim Collins in his classic study of highly successful companies “Good to Great” cited this “presence” of the leader as the most influential factor in the eventual performance of the company itself!

In the work that I do with organizations, I’ve learned to tune into these cultural factors from the first time I speak with someone by phone, and the first time I enter their building.  Watching faces, hearing intonations, noting nuances, words, motions, etc. – these are invaluable cues to the vitality of the company, and therefore, the vitality of its leadership – and therefore the quality of its product.  Einstein’s theory applies well beyond the laboratory.

The enlightened leader understands these dynamics.  Beyond a simple intuitive grasp of this, he/she will consciously and routinely take the energetic/emotional temperature of the environment.  He/she will be alert to conditions that constrict energy flow, e.g.:

  • Rules and processes that inhibit creativity
  • Myopic thinking
  • Focus on the negative
  • Fear of retribution
  • Obsessive caution
  • Indirect, confusing, inadequate, or abusive communication
  • An overly anxious emotional nucleus (the leader!)

These leaders also intentionally generate conditions that foster a positive energy, e.g.:

  • Open thinking/brainstorming
  • Free choice
  • Meaningful incentive
  • Appreciation
  • Trustworthiness
  • Direct, open, honest and respectful communication
  • An energized emotional nucleus (the leader!)

There is a tragic irony in organizations striving for product or productivity improvements in an anxious way.  While the leader’s efforts might gain some improvement in the short term, she needs to pay careful attention to the impact of that improvement on the hard and soft resources that generated it (the equipment and the people).  Are the resources that produced the improvement being positively harnessed, or are they being “burned up”?  Higher product quality is only sustainable when its generation is consistent with the long-term vitality of the components in the producing system.

So the product and the producers are intrinsically linked.  An energized system (leader) will produce a superior product.  An anxious system (leader) can only produce mediocrity!  This is the organizational truth that mirrors Einstein’s theory of relativity.

This article originally appeared in the Rochester Business Journal, November 11, 2005.  Reprinted with permission.

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