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Paleo Leadership

27.07.2012 von Mark Poppenborg (Kommentare: 3)

The rise of the natural.

Paleo Leadership
Paleo Diet

Since I started my Paleolithic or Caveman diet three months ago, i.e. a diet based mainly on meat, veg, little fruit, nuts and water, I have been diving deeper into the idea of a more natural approach to, let's say, everything. Recently it occurred to me that it is probably only a matter of time until someone will introduce the term Paleo Leadership. Is there any good in that?


Paleolithic refers to the Old Stone Age. In short, Paleo followers will tell you to consequently refer to our ancestors when dealing with a certain situation or problem. The argument goes like this: Although the Old Stone Age is a long long time ago (began around 2 million years ago), it was only in the last 5.000-10.000 years, that radical changes made their way into our modern society. The agricultural revolution and human settlement changed virtually everything. Until then we behaved similar to early mankind. Evolution isn't fast enough to change humans within this relatively short amount of time, hence our genes are pretty much what they were like in the Paleolithic era.


For some years (5-10) we have been experiencing a growing movement around the Paleo approach, especially in California (where else?). So far this movement has focused mainly around the nutritional benefits but I have come across numerous websites addressing the fitness, psychological and other positive aspects of Paleo.


So what does Paleo mean for us today? Here are some relevant examples that come to my mind when I think of management. Feel free to complete.


Group size

Researches know that the natural group size of human beings is somewhere between 8 to 12 people. Our brains have evolved to work and live with this condition. Therefore we find it hard to lead a discussion within larger groups and this is also why larger groups can seem incapable of solving problems. In today's businesses groups do tend to be around 5 to 14 employees BUT typically they are formed by function. Therefore they are dependent on other units/departments/functions within the organisation. This in turn means that they need to either work in a larger group or delegate the problem upwards to their superior. The former leads to inefficiencies and signs of paralysis due to the larger group sizes, the latter leads to work overload in management positions. All of which we are well aware of today.


Linear thinking

Human's ability to make predictions about the future is one of the most distinguishing traits of all. We can anticipate and therefore judge and plan far more extensively than any other creature on earth. But these anticipation abilities are limited to linear thinking. We have evolved to identify causalities wherever possible. This was good until recently, i.e. 5.000-10.000 years ago, when the world gradually started increasing its complexity, i.e. non-linearity and unpredictability. It used to go “Oh, if I approach my pray from two sides with a group of hunters, then chances of catching it are higher than if we just run after it.” But today it goes: “How can it be that our sales figures have dropped after we invested so heavily into marketing and the growth rate forecasts looked so promising. Maybe we need to…” - predictions have become almost impossible. This trend has increased heavily within the last 10-40 years depending on the sector of work. The interdependencies in today's world and organisations are not comprehensible to anyone in the slightest. Even the arithmetically simple exponential function, that almost all growth is subject to, largely exceeds our intuition. Many of us still believe in cause and effect but this is just our desperate urge to satisfy those linear thinking needs. Instead of accepting the complexity we deny it and assume linearity. This ubiquitous error in reasoning leads to many misjudgements, false plans and a consequent fall for the narrative fallacy, i.e. believing in stories that are trying to explain observations that don't comply with our anticipations, e.g. the rise of Google and Facebook, 9/11, the financial crises, etc. After their appearance we then try to reason them with a cause and effect logic, call it news and are reassured of our assumptions about the laws of our world, where often all it really was is chance.



In the Old Stone Age no human being would have performed the same movement or task twice. Every challenge was unique though very similar. I contrast, today we go to the gym to run on treadmills and lift weights, we sit in offices all day, we follow routine processes and instructions, we obey rules and policies. Briefly spoken, we are reduced to the norm and therefore most of human output is mediocre. We systemically avert creativity. Scary when you think about it.


Informal hierarchies

Any group will always form natural, i.e. informal hierarchies. If you were locked in a room and given the task to build a wardrobe, naturally the lead would be given to the person most respected as a wardrobe builder (whatever that is). Leadership requires followers.

In business though this natural tendency to form informal, highly effective hierarchies is overridden by imposed hierarchies. This hasn't always been the case but since the introduction of Taylorism, in the early 20th century, thinking was separated from doing into what was then to be known as the organisational pyramid, non-existent before those days.



I have my reservations whether it is necessary to introduce another buzzword to the world of management, seeing that we have already coined a whole bunch of terms that promote a new, more natural approach to organisational design and leadership. At we call it Intrinsifiers (the companies) and happy working people concept (the approach), others call it betacodex, Beyond Budgeting, Management 3.0, Holacracy or Stoos, the latter being the newly emerging international movement that I mentioned in this post.


However, I think any idea embracing a more adaptive, networked, natural, democratic and human based, not mechanistic approach to organisations will help us overcome this periodic disaster that we call management and that served us well only during this short era of low complexity, when markets were wide and competition was low, during and after the industrial revolution.


I am very curious what you think of this and the idea of introducing yet another term (Paleo Leadership) for a future that will be all about the perfect reintegration of work and life, not a work-life-balance.


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Kommentar von Ardalan | 29.07.2012

Three associations reading your thoughts on Paleo leadership, Mark. For this time I ignore my idiosyncrasy against "leadership" as I think only the blind want to be lead. Everybody else wants to accompany and be accompanied as he/she sees him/herself where he/she wants to go and can contribute something to a common goal instead of just following a leader...

1.) The first one is just a question as I missed the the answer on this one in your post: What will you do different / What will get better if you use the concept of "Paleo Leadership" in difference to using it not / using another concept?

2.) It reminds me of the three laws of the unconscious I learned in my lessons in business coaching:
- The unconscious knows only two categories: Makes fun / doesn't make fun.
- The unconscious can only deal with the concrete, abstractions don't make any sense to it.
- The unconscious ignores negation, a fact that causes very funny effects (and sometimes drama) in education of little children.
With this background especially the high level of abstract talking and abstract working in nowadays business seems "non-paleo" to me. If you want to call it so man's soul needs daily recovery from the world of abstraction we work in. I'm not sure if we can change this without dropping some way to many atomic bombs and really live in a paleo world again. What do you think about this?

3.) The third association is about "linear thinking". I wonder what "non-linear thinking" is? It may mean something completely different but my first association is all our young ones doing multi-tasking all the time (gaming and anything else on their smartphones in the midst of a conversation, being kind of absent-present). What I learned in my studies of philosophy is this: People of former ages had a far better memory capacity concentrating only on ONE thing for a longer time without any disruption or distraction. For example when I read the dialogues of Plato I was surprised by the fact that the persons in this fiction still knew exactly (word by word) what was said let's say two hours ago in the conversation. The dialogues are written presupposing the readers have same ability - but nowadays the readers have NOT this ability, being used to zapping while watching TV or jumping between 36 windows open in their PC at the same time. I guess this practice of using our brains really changes our brains no matter what our genes say about it.
But for sure this practice isn't much "Paleo". But what this mean to our living and working in modern companies? Do we get happier or more productive if we wilful decide to do less or no multi-tasking any longer and instead concentrate on only ONE thing at the same time and even for a long time? But the first question to me is: Are we able to keep us from multi-tasking. Personally I (or should I say "my brain"?) feel annoyed after a very short term when I try to consequently concentrate only on one thing at the same time. So I'm kind of addicted to multi-tasking and I have the impression people younger than me (the so-called "generation Y") is even on much harder multi-tasking drugs than I am. Again I'm interested what you, Mark, think about this point when it comes to Paleo's "linear thinking"?

Kommentar von Mark Poppenborg | 15.08.2012

Challenging questions. Thanks Ardalan.

I won't address the leadership term issue either as I understand we have a different opinion on it anyway.

Let me try and answer your three questions:

1) I believe that someone leading in lign with Paleo Leadership, or Stoos, or betacodex, or similar concepts will create more successful businesses and happier employees.

2) I agree that some of the mentioned aspects are irreversible. We can't change the complexity of the world. Neither should we naively believe that we will reach a point in the nearch future where work and life are integrate-able for everyone. Nevertheless, if companies and leaders start to realise that they are better off treating their employees like adults and acknowledging the fact that command & control management has lost its effect in this complex world, then a lot could be changed for the better. I believe that in 30 years time we will be better off than ever. Better off than today and even better off than 10.000 years ago, before we started going downhill. We need not drop an atomic bomb to start over. I believe we are gradually realising that rediscovering the natural inside us and combining it with our modern world can bring wealth to everyone.

3) I'm sorry I was so unclear in my explanation of linear thinking. I wasn't at all referring to multi-tasking. Linear thinking, the way I use it, means first and foremost that our brains are tuned to see and search for unidirectional, short-term cause and effect.
We find it hard to understand that cause and effect is hardly ever unidirectional. We tend to look for the culprit, be it a person or a department. Though the truth is, our behaviour almost always influences our environment and vice versa. E.g. if as a manager we don't believe in one of our employees skills, we are prone to give him or her less responsibility and apply more control. In return this employee will feel less self-determined and limited in his influence. This will make it hard for him to feel and act responsibly which will in return cause us to feel reconfirmed in our pre-assumptions and lead us to increase our directional management style yet again. Systems thinkers call this a reinforcing feedback loop. Systems thinking as opposed to linear thinking is all about seeing the whole and accepting the complex interdependencies, not decomposing everything into its parts.

We also find it hard to comprehend delays in cause and effect. If a small action today has a great effect in four month time, we will inevitably search for causes in the recent past and possibly overreact. E.g. if we weren't sensitised by instruction leaflets about how to take aspirin we might overdose if after 10 minutes our pain was still unchanged. Delays are another element of systems that are hard for us to understand.

I don't believe that our brains are built for this complex world, but nevertheless we could be doing better. Because linear thinking is trained in excess at schools and universities, we face the challenge of re-embracing a more holistic view on things and accept that we cannot intellectually comprehend the cause of a single problem within a dynamic system such as a company. All we can do is try to understand the underlying forces and build mental models, as Peter Senge calls it, to help see patterns that bring about problems. This we are capable of doing  if only we overcame our love for causalities.

So I do believe that Paleo people were more capable of using their intuition or you could also say, allowing their intuition do take control of their actions rather than having to rationalise everything.

Kommentar von Ardalan | 20.08.2012

Thank you Mark for your additional insigths! :-) I really like your realistic & pragmatical optimism.

On my last holiday trip I've read two books of Theo Fischer ("Wu Wei" & "Yu Wei") a former Management Consultant who then turned to Taoism and writing books. He seems to be convinced that it is possible for everybody at any time to leave "total control" ;-) to intuition and leave all linear thinking behind.

I see lots of productive links between what you describe as "Systems thinking as opposed to linear thinking" and what he describes as "Wu Wei" - A very mindful and active form of non acting and non planning. But what Fischer writes is for sure an approach far more interesting to individuals tired of the disappointments of planning than for the development of organizations.