Leadership & the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time. The second law also states that the changes in the entropy in the universe can never be negative.”  – Sadi Carnot

Basically all things degrade; all things run-down; all things tend toward chaos.

I write a lot about the 2nd law as it relates to human systems, management and leadership because I find it apt (and it makes me seem smart). I repeat myself in this area because I think this is an area that largely bears repeating – it is important and people forget about it.

Leadership and its subset, management, are critical bulwarks against entropy in organizations where the 2nd law is at work in determined and often rapid fashion.

Without sound, cohesive, intentional leadership over an entire system or organization a vacuum forms. When this happens another wondrous law of nature comes to play with entropy – nature abhors a vacuum.

Situational leaders, people who rise to the occassion for good or ill, fill the gap left by the absence of structured leadership and they do so in a haphazard, tribal and often ill-informed fashion.

Each of these sitch leaders attempts to slow the entropy threatening their particlar ecosystem. Their vision is often limited to their silo, they are rarely experienced leaders, and they almost never consider the whole but only the part they exist within. When they do consider the whole they do so with incomplete information.

As these leaders develop across an organization the irony is their efforts to stem entropy in their fiefdoms accelerate it across the whole. This often leads to selfish decision making and conflict – decisions that seem right for the area but do not work when the whole is taken into account.

The longer this state is allowed to persist the more difficult it is for an incoming leader/manager to bring it under control.

Lack of sound leadership can destroy organizations.

Leadership vacuums can occur for a number of reasons – the person in charge is not, in fact a good leader and abdicates authority to other managers down the chain. This is not the same as trust and one should know the difference.

A good leader enables their managers to do their job in order to ensure the hositic vision and goals of the organization are met. A poor leader simply lets their managers manage the whole organization out of laziness or fear of conflict and does not enforce a central vision and stays generally uninvolved.

Sometimes people leave an organization. This happens all of the time. I am a firm believer that organizations do not live and die on the basis of one individual – none of us are that important from the board chair, mayor, CEO, city manager on down.

That being said, having the right person in the right position is critical to organizational effectiveness.

This is why you should never promote someone to a position of leadership simply because they have been there the longest. This is the absolute worst possible thing an organization can do in these circumstances and it can be very destructive. It is like organizational Russian roulette. Do not take people who are performing excellently in one area and move them to another, different area, because you assume they will perform just as well.

You put good leaders into position of leadership regardless of their tenure and experience.

Many times when an organization loses it’s head, so-to-speak, after the departure of a senior manager in a position of overall leadership, it is thought that the best thing to do is to go into a state of sustain until the new leader can come in.

There is no such thing as sustain in organizations – you move forward or you degrade.

This is often the mistake of boards, councils, legislatures etc. Assumptions are made at the board level that the organization can weather the storm over a few weeks/months without any leadership – just business as usual.

When senior leaders depart it is the board’s responsibility to ensure strong operational leadership is in place even if they have to exercise it themselves.

This is not a popular opinion. It runs square up against the axiom that boards govern and staff operate and neither the twain should meet. But like all good rules (and this is a good rule) there are exceptions.

Boards must step up and ensure a strong central vision and the policies and procedures that go with it remain in place and are enforced in the interim between leaders or else the situational leaders take over.

This happens very quickly – not days or weeks but rather minutes and hours.

Boards must be intentional about this. They cannot sit back and assume staff will imform them if problems arise. They must appoint a representative who connects immediately with remaining management and staff to communicate the will of the board while the circumstance persists. They must be willing to ask questions and seek out info.

You get the point. To fight entropy in leadership vacuums contingency plans need to be in place for just such an occassion – plans that answer the question “what do we do if the CEO quits?” Plans that are actively and intentionally developed to ensure strong, central management persists through the transtion. Most importantly the organization needs to be ready to implment those plans immediately.

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