The physics of leadership

Albert Einstein

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY With physicists closing in on the elusive Higgs boson -- the long sought-after "God particle" that could explain so much about the origins and makeup of the universe -- I think it's time to reveal an Earth-shattering revelation of my own.

To all of you, I'm a friendly neighborhood management consultant and former corporate executive, but that's just an alter ego to hide my true secret identity. In reality, beneath the leadership facade, I'm actually a science geek.

That's right, folks. My undergraduate degree is, of all things, in physics.

Not only that, but my fascination with all things science isn't even limited to the real world. I grew up a science fiction and comic book superhero freak that spent way too much time fantasizing about what might be going on in the night sky.

If all that's true -- I couldn't possibly make it up -- then you've got to wonder how I lost my way. Actually, I didn't. Believe it or not, there's an eerie symmetry between the physical world and the business world.

You wouldn't believe how much of my leadership and management philosophy is based on physics. Just take one of those core principles, "keep it simple."

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Most people tend to complicate things. Not me. I'm a big fan of simple. Simple logic. Simple goals. Simple marketing. Simple management. Not that I'm a simple person, mind you. I'm not, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

My mind, for example, is overly active. It always wants to be doing something. So I have a tendency to be distracted. It takes energy to focus. But when I do that -- reject distraction and focus -- it always generates positive results.

When you come up with a simple solution to a complex problem, what you're really doing is creating order out of chaos. It takes energy to do that. That's because the physical world always tends toward chaos, or higher levels of entropy.

So organisms and organizations are constantly fighting a never-ending battle against the chaos of the physical world. Ever wonder why, just when you seem to have things under control, everything goes to hell, just like that? Now you know why that happens. It's called entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics also explains one of the key reasons why the vast majority of great companies don't stay that way. Haven't you ever noticed how few perennially successful companies there are? I mean, sooner or later, they all hit a wall.

The reason for that is also simple. There are actually a ridiculous number of factors that influence a company's behavior and performance and they're all subject to change over time. People, competitors, technology, markets, customer buying habits, it's a long, long list.

Actually, the whole concept of perpetually great companies is flawed if not entirely fictitious because entropy always wins in the end. Even great leaders like Lou Gerstner and Steve Jobs had to pull off miraculous turnarounds so IBM and Apple could escape disaster at the hands of entropy.

Perhaps the most elegant articulation of "keep it simple" is the principle known as Occam's Razor. Occam was a 14th century Franciscan friar. He was a simple man. The principle, which says that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the right one, has implications in virtually every field of science, not to mention philosophy, aesthetics, marketing, economics, and yes, management.

You know, I've always marveled at how physicists can spend years filling black and white boards up with thousands of formulas, only to end up with one simple equation like E=MC2 that explains everything. Everything that is elegant and beautiful in the world -- indeed, the universe -- is simple.

Now, I can go on and on about how various principles of physics relate to the real business and management world, but the point is this: The physical world was here long before we were and it will be here long after entropy has taken its toll and returned us all to the molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and yes, Higgs bosons, from which we came.

Some may find that morbid, fatalistic, even depressing, but not me. I find great humility and comfort in the knowledge that certain principles permeate everything. It certainly puts things in perspective, that's for sure.

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