Change paradox

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We are here to develop “The Great Narrative”: a story for the future ... In order to shape the future you have first to imagine the future, you have to design the future and then you have to execute.[1]

—Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum

We take it that, like any other intellectual proposition,[2] every management initiative must be driven by some theory or other — that is, it must be designed to prove out a hypothesis that already exists in someone’s mind.

Now, however much they might present to the outside world as embodiments of all that is laissez-faire, remember: within their walls, large commercial organisations are dictatorships.[3] Only those at the top, or in human resources, have any kind of wherewithal, other than to keep quiet and do what they are told.

Thus, the minds whose hypotheses tend to get tested belong to those at the top: they can mandate organisational change: a “mandate” is an order. Orders come from the top.

Indeed, the very point of being at the top is to change things. If you don’t, what are you even being paid for? In your best case, the organisation is ticking along nicely by itself and does not need your help. In a worse case, it does need your help, but you are not giving it. In either case, prenez ton manteau.

Passive leadership is, thus, somewhere between a zero-sum and a negative-sum game.

Therefore, we coin a proposition: To lead is to change things.


To want change is to believe things are sub-optimal: that the organisation is dysfunctional, elliptical or somehow out of whack. But those who lead organisations are precisely the ones who have lived their best lives within, because of, and thanks to, the organisation as it presently is. They have flourished absent change.

These people, if they know what is good for them, do not really want change.

The paradox, therefore: those at the top are empowered and compelled to make change, but have the most to lose if they actually change anything. The key, therefore: look like you are changing things, and sound like it, but on no account actually do it.

The making of leaders

So, how do leaders get to lead? Well, an organisation is a system: a pulmonary lattice of stocks, flows and feedback loops, sending information, consuming resources, generating artefacts and, over time building itself: speed up the frame-rate and you will see the organisation grow: whole new subsystems spawn and fiefdoms mushroom, while others wither and desiccate. The firm is alive; an organism: it makes itself. In a strangely loopy way, the firm emerges from its own recursive systems.

Besides products, externalities, fiefdoms and its stock-in-trade, another thing a firm self-generates is its own leaders. In an odd way, the organisation makes its own personnel: it selects, fashions and moulds them; it weeds out those who are misaligned, promotes those who are fittest and, where home-growns are not yet match-fit, brings in and enculturates external candidates.

Only the most successful of these personnel — the most paradigmatically of the organisation; who most perfectly resemble its essence — ever make it to the executive suite.[4] The selection process by which one ascends that greasy pole is relentless, unending and brutal. It fashions people, the way a river fashions stone.[5]

Leaders as a mirror of nature

All this is a baroque way of saying: these men and women who run the firm, who have the means to change it — they owe their very position to their synchronicity with how it is now. All its idiosyncrasies and imperfections; everything about its cock-eyed, peg-legged, pie-bald, skewiff, existing self.

The answer to the question: “if this firm, as it is now, made its own leaders, what would they look like?” is: LIKE THIS.

The answer to the question, “if this firm were changed, and then made its own leaders, what would they look like?” is: NOT LIKE THIS.

Hence, the conceptual problem with change from the top.

On the difficulty of changing from the top

So the idea of current management changing the very machine that has contrived to put them where they have the power to change presents a variation of the time-traveller’s paradox: By changing something, do I kick away the very ladder I climbed to reach my own exalted station? If I throw off the rope, do I leave myself stranded, should the weather change? If I fiddle in this way with the geometry of corporate spacetime, might I not disprove my very being? Will I dissolve before my own disbelieving eyes?

Yet we live in a time of change. We must change or die. We select our leaders to drive change.

Thus, management has derived some kind of prime directive: “I must change. For it is what leaders do. But whatever change I make, I must make it, without ...” — it is difficult to put this any way other than bluntly, readers — “... whatever change I make, I must make it without changing anything”.

And so it comes to pass: no outsourcing program, no employee survey, no cost challenge, no well-being outreach, no human resources initiative in history has ever been designed to prove that, for example, the chief executive is a useless, glad-handing dilettante, nor that the echelons of upper management, though in place for decades, have never made an ounce of positive difference; nor that the problem with our stars is not the cost of front-line staff but the sediment of useless management pressing down upon them, hindering their reactions to the changing needs and desires of their local markets, and stopping them from being able to bring about meaningful change. We dare say it would be rather fun if someone were to try to launch such an initiative, but it would be a work of science fiction.

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Only their staff would do that, if anyone asked them. So no-one asks them.

How change happens

Change comes from fracture, disruption and disharmony: when shafts of light are thrown from unexpected angles by unintentionally broken windows, and they illuminate old problems or new opportunities in unexpected ways. Leaders are not positioned, or disposed, to see these opportunities. They lie around on the ground, in accidents, problems, snafus, temporal shifts, breaks in the weather, transitory vistas: fleeting opportunities hidden well beyond the visible range of the executive suite.

Penicillin, the microwave, Velcro and the theory of the Big Bang were all discovered by accident. So too, Teflon, vulcanised rubber, Viagra and Coca-Cola.[6]

The great cultural changers of the last century, whatever you think of them — Tim Berners-Lee, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Sayyid Qutb, Mick Jagger, Sam Phillips, Trey Parker, Muddy Waters, Peter Thiel, Matt Stone, bel hooks, Tupac Shakur, Germaine Greer, Chelsea Manning, Nigel Farage, Steve Jobs, David Graeber, Nelson Mandela, Judith Butler, Greta Thunberg, Elvis — did not start out life as princes, presidents, prime ministers or chief executive officers. They were not of the establishment. They changed the establishment, so it became them.

Utopia is not a stable state.

See also


  1. Well spotted Gillian McKeith
  2. We speak of none other than the Duhem-Quine thesis as to the theory-dependence of observation: that it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because any test presupposes one or more background assumptions and auxiliary hypotheses.
  3. We are not (just) being provocative here: the analogy is eerily precise: there is a tight command-and-control structure, no meaningful democracy; the centralised dissemination of information that is filtered, framed and sometimes rewritten to make the administration look good, and all is ably supported by a clandestine internal agency with unlimited power whose job is to keep the ranks in a state of fear and mistrust of each other and the powers that be.
  4. Cry bitter tears, my friends: almost certainly, you are not so destined. The sooner you realise this, the easier becomes your burden.
  5. Now you may notice another paradox here: however singly directed from on high it seems, the very illusion of command-and-control emerges from the subconscious machinations of the beast.
  6. According to Popular Mechanics Magazine.