Leadership and Synchronicity

April 29th, 2014

Cheryl, a newly hired Executive Director of a medium sized non-profit health care organization fell into a trap that so many leaders fall into. In her deep desire to affect change and prove that the Board hiring of her was a good move, she made a mess of things. She was hailed as the next great leader for a non-profit that had enjoyed steady growth for well over three decades. Due to the wonderful leadership of its founder, the organization had established itself as an industry leader in outpatient health care. Having grown to almost 400 employees, the past few years it had stagnated. Although it still had a strong reputation, it had lost some of its luster. Cheryl, a highly charismatic leader, was brought in from the outside to re-instill the vigor the organization had once had.

Feeling the pressure as well as excitement to affect change, she fired two key leaders rather quickly and rattled off in short order a list of changes she was to institute. But employees were not ready and the list appeared to be simply a list of all things “wrong” with the organization. Put simply, the employees and the leaders felt they were being told they were unproductive and ineffective and recent results were their fault. In her effort to signal a change through a couple of firings, instead she instilled fear. In moving so quickly, she made the typical mistake so many unconscious leaders make. She failed to understand the fragility of the system as well as how the system was constellated. Her changes not only were poorly instituted, but she could not rectify the backlash caused by the way she came across (“all high and mighty” said one dissatisfied leader”).

Two changes in particular, proved fatal. The first was the removal of someone who had been there a long time and who was seen as the heart and soul of the organization. His removal cast a pall on the organization as a whole that reverberated throughout. The second was the change in one of their major processes. While it was designed to make the organization more efficient, patients no longer felt cared for. The people in the community who caught wind of the change, rapidly referred patients elsewhere and 30% of their customer base was eroded within a year. Cheryl persevered nonetheless believing that all changes needed time to take effect. After two years, and an extraordinary number of losses, Cheryl was finally removed. The cause: She was out of synch with your organization and she was unaware of it.

In a rather obscure and yet surprisingly relevant Tedtalk , Steven Strogatz speaks to the issue of synchronicity.


In this extraordinary talk, he points out that fish, birds and other animals in nature naturally swarm—they act in unison. They follow a simple set of rules that appear at once obvious and yet at the same time are quite profound. The rules are:
1. All of the individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors
2. All of the individuals have a tendency to line up
3. They are all attracted to each other, but they try to keep a small distance apart

It strikes me that understanding natural systems is crucial to leadership, especially as it relates to synchronicity. Among other things, it is the job of leaders to create conditions where all employees are aligned. They need to follow vision, a shared strategy, and a set of operational principles and values, the culmination of which represent an organization truly in alignment. Put simply, great organizations act in unison toward a goal and the job of the leader is to encourage or inspire that to happen.

The human laws of synchronicity are not so different than the laws of nature.

If we were to express them, similar to the ones above, they might be:
1. All individuals are aware of one another, their needs and desires
2. All individuals mutually adjust to one another
3. They care about and are committed to each other and to the system as a whole
4. There is a shared goal or reason for being

The principles of conscious leadership as they relate to these natural laws might look like this:
1.  In our essence, we are collaborative beings. We seek great comfort and satisfaction in community. Knowing this,  conscious leaders create shared goals and a sense of shared purpose.
2.  Leaders need to create conditions where everyone can communicate toward that shared goal in a way that allows for mutual co-creation and mutual adaptation.
3.  Conscious leadership is about harnessing the wisdom of the community.
4.  The key has something to do with understanding the larger underlying social system in any organizational effort.

Leaders that are guided by these principles and lead in a way that encourage the natural synchronicity of human beings and organizations seem more likely to accomplish great things and do it in a way that is ultimately satisfying. Cheryl violated these principles by failing to recognize that change requires a mutual co-creation. Leaders need people to join them more than follow them. She believed that leadership required a strong push and her own undeterred commitment to a vision, but couldn’t see that the heart of change required that others join and not be forced to the change. Freedom of choice and psychological commitment are key, and any form of coercion, fueled by fear, is bound to backlash, sooner or later. When it did, Cheryl saw it as a moment of truth for her to push forward as opposed to an opportunity to be inquisitive, see the larger system of forces at play, and adjust her game plan accordingly.

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