Book Review: Unmasking the Myths of “Emergence” and “Self Organization”

Sara Nora Ross

Kalman’s Kosmos

Matthew Kalman is on paternity leave. We look forward to his return to Integral Leadership Review soon. In the meanwhile, we will offer the opportunity to review books (and other documents) to those with a capacityto “go deep.” Sara Nora Ross is one of those people. Additional comments about the book in which this chapter appears may be found in Leadership Emergining in this issue of Integral Leadership Review.

Complex Systems Leadership Theory coverGoldstein, J. A. (2007). A New Model for Emergence and Its Leadership Implications. In J. K. Hazy, J. A. Goldstein, & B. B. Lichtenstein (Eds.), Complex Systems Leadership Theory: New Perspectives from Complexity Science on Social and Organizational Effectiveness (pp. 61-92). Mansfield, M A: ISCE Publishing.

Sara Nora RossJeffrey Goldstein’s chapter is mandatory reading for anyone who uses the concepts of “emergence” and “self organization” in how they think, practice, teach and/or theorize about leadership, organizational change and development, or, in my view, any other social phenomena. I believe the same could hold true for any people who use developmental approaches in their work or thought, and have not yet seen how to integrate development with these concepts or complexity science in general.

Goldstein performs an uncommonly high-level service by dismantling the mythology that has typified the concepts, with major implications for leadership and organizational efforts that use them. By doing so, he clears the path for his offering of more complex—and therefore more mature and integral—understandings of dynamics that gave rise to such concepts in the first place.

Calling their origins “bits of ‘folklore’ and conceptual snares,” the myths that have traditionally attended emergenceand self-organizationassign passive, magic-like properties to complex systems like individuals, leadership and organizations: emergence and self-organization “just happen.” Leaders and structures should just get out of the way so these naturally emergent properties can manifest (and presumably make everything better): “Allusions to this kind of passivity on the part of leaders can be detected in just about every article or book (too numerous to cite here) promulgating complexity, self-organization, and emergence in relation to leadership” (p. 62).

To release myths’ grip on leadership and organizational studies, Goldstein’s approach is to offer a new model of emergence that “corresponds more closely to actual research into emergent systems where the idea of self-organization was first proposed” (p. 63), rather than to the “ popular interpretationsof research findings” (p. 65, emphasis in the original) that have prevailed. Thus, his work is anchored in complexity studies that inform leadership and organizational assumptions and foci.

After reviewing typical applications of emergence to organizations in the literature, Goldstein dedicates the next eight pages to elucidating three interrelated areas of “folklore” that have grown up around emergence: “the first is that complex, orderly dynamics emerge suddenly and en masseout of far simpler or random ones; the second is the idea that emergence brings about order ‘for free,’ an idea promulgated primarily by Kauffman (1995); and most importantly for the purpose of this paper, the third concerns the close tie-in between emergence and so-called ‘self-organizing’ processes” (pp. 65-66).

In discussing the third, he points out that for all the use of the term, “one would have supposed that the ‘organizing’ part of ‘self-organizing’ would draw attention to structure building in process” (p. 72). Organization, of course, implicates structure, without which organizing is not possible. Instead, “a review of studies interested in applying self-organization to leadership demonstrates that they simply don’t pay a whole lot of attention to exactly how structure is constructed as well as how structure is changed as further constructional operations take place” (p. 72).

Note the concept, “constructional operations.” Because nowhere in his chapter does Goldstein explicitly consult or refer to developmental stage or microdevelopment related literature—even those that take nonlinear dynamic approaches—on individuals and organizations, these interdisciplinary connections are left for the reader to make, and they are there for the making. This is because he employs a constructivist approach, which is inherently developmental, just as are dynamic systems that interact with their environment. He asserts that “since emergence ismore sufficiently understood as more in line with varied constructional operations, the model which guides organizational appliers of emergence needs to be accordingly revised” (p. 72, emphasis added).

To make his contribution in that direction, the remainder of the chapter is divided into two major parts, which, judging from citations of his previous work, appears to be the fruition of some years now spent by Goldstein to crack this nut in a substantive way. This model of “self-transcending constructions” (STC’s) builds on late 19th and early 20th century work for its insights, and takes its term from Kaufmann (1978, as cited by Goldstein, 2007), who used it to disparage Cantor’s transfinite set theory in mathematics. In a well-laid out yet brief technical discussion that provides the conceptual background of this model of emergence, Goldstein traces Cantor’s influence on such “greats” in the mathematics, physics, and complexity science fields as Gödel, Turing, von Neumann, and Holland, as well as others. Goldstein’s summary conclusion here is that “whereas a model based on self-organization would tend to emphasize how emergent order happens on its own when controlling mechanisms are relaxed, a model of emergence based on self-transcending constructions instead emphasizes a host of structuring operations” (p. 78).

The next major section is dedicated to an impressively coherent discussion of self-transcending constructions and Goldstein’s “reinterpret[ation of] those philosophy of science issues which have been troublesome for the idea of emergence in general (Goldstein, 2000)” (p. 78). These issues are treated in subsections titled as follows: Beyond Bottom-Up Descriptions of Emergent Order, The Ontological Status of Emergent Phenomena, The Type of Coherence Characterizing Emergent Phenomena, The Nature of Emergent Levels, Emergence and Causality, and The Unpredictability of Emergent Phenomena. From my perspective as a consumer of complexity science works (though not their mathematics!) Goldstein’s considerably strong analyses of these issues are the most coherent and even succinct treatments I have read on these subjects to date. His scholarship is impressive and his writing extremely accessible even while dealing with scientific explanations.

Those discussions are sprinkled liberally with relevant insights for leadership studies and practice, offering a reframing of assumptions that makes former myths unnecessary, even undesirable. His analyses flesh out the significance and necessity of structural constraints and “containers” to

open up a system to new possibilities by moving it away from pure chance…. [L]eaders can ‘play’ with various ‘containers’ and constraints to see which kinds of outcomes emerge. For example, ‘containers’ can be firmed-up and loosened (see Goldstein, 1994). These ‘containers’ can be psychological (e.g., a sense of safety), social (e.g., rules of interaction), cultural (e.g., rituals and stories), technological (e.g., computer networks), even physical (e.g., the actual physical attributes of the workplace). Moreover, leaders can actively work with these ‘containers’ in conjunction with their staffs in a more directive way than a pure self-organizational model would allow. (p. 89)

In his conclusion, Goldstein supports his advocacy for his model’s relevance for leadership by citing studies that indicate the need for active design and related roles by organizational leaders if one’s efforts are not to mirror results of studies that indicate high quality outcomes are not associated with passive roles and random chance.

So, what is this new model of emergence Goldstein proposes? It is a complex, complexity-science-based model that unfolds through his discussions, beginning with the conceptual groundwork anchored in Cantor’s work and continuing through each issue he reinterprets, listed above. A mathematical form is suggested in his chapter’s appendix, which offers a “formalism” to “render a definition of an examples of a self-transcending construction,” modified from Simmons’ work (1990, as cited by Goldstein, 2007, p. 91) on Cantor’s formulations. It is beyond the scope of this review to offer more depth, and it certainly warrants reading Goldstein first-hand. However, although framed in complexity science terms, it is helpful to recall that complexity science, which is a generalscience, studies many of the same dynamic systems and phenomena as other sciences do. When considering the domains of leadership and organizations, we are in traditional behavioral science territory, which includes social science. Thus, if we drop attachments to such categories, it is possible to view this as transdisciplinary territory, where multiple sciences are looking at the same phenomena, just using different vocabularies and sometimes focusing on different tasks and dynamics. Each different perspective, however, can gain insights—and even avoid re-inventing wheels—by crossing boundaries and learning from other fields of study. Because it is first and foremost a generalmodel of emergence, it is applicable to human or non-human dynamic systems. Goldstein presents it as relevant to leadership and organizational concerns, and proposes a number of research questions in those domains. Yet, as we know, the terms “emergence” and “self-organization” are employed in a wide variety of domains.

Therefore, I offer my synthesis of his model in the following way. It is a thoroughly integral model that explicates dynamic systems’ behaviors developmentally. Self-transcending constructions, in Goldstein’s intuition, are behavioral dynamics of whole systems that develop greater complexity at each level of development, here called levels of “emergence.” The systems and nests of systems and processes are interactive. In this application, they are human systems, so they encompass all that is individually human and humanly social.

Based on the homework I have done to date (Ross, in preparation), Goldstein’s intuition actually transcends the capacity of the set-theory origins of the concept he is using (self-transcending constructions). But I believe his intuition is right on target and he is making an essential contribution. From my perspective, and hopefully for that of his readers, that is the benefit of Goldstein’s work here: using complexity science terms, he takes the magic out of “emergence” and “self organization” and recasts them in down to earth, dynamic, real world behavioral terms. He describes dynamic developmental processes, and indicates how leadership efforts need to create the supportive environments, that is, structures, where they can lead to greater productivity than if left to bear fruit magically, by chance, on their own.

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Sara (Nora) Ross is founder of ARINA, Inc. In addition to serving ILR on its Management Review Board of Integral Leadership Review, I serve on the editorial boards of several refereed journals: Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research, and Prax i sInternational Journal of Public Participation; and, Behavior Analyst Today. My professional affiliations include the Society for Research in Adult Development (governing board and program committee), Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology & Life Sciences (membership chair and Newsletter Editor), International Society of Political Psychology, and American Psychological Association. I contributed as an associate author to Bill Torbert & Associates’ Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership (2004, Berrett-Koehler), and as the co-editor of an upcoming special issue in World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution.