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White box, black box and self-organization. A system-to-envirnoment approach to leadership

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Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present two system identification models – “white box” and “black box” – as useful tools that help understand self-organization processes within and outside the organizations facilitated by leaders. Every leader is presented as a “systems designer” who plays a fundamental role in the process of self-organization, both within and outside the organization under study. Design/methodology/approach – First, “white box” and “black box” system identification models are presented as a basis for an integrated model of the “system” and its “environment.” Next, the ideas of “closed” and “open” systems as the prerequisites of self-organization processes are described. Finally, two basic leadership tactics as well as their combination are characterized and discussed. Findings – Two system identification models give a complementary view to the reality, as they combine both reductionist and holistic perspectives. The argument presented in the paper shows that there is a far reaching complementarity of the two system identification models. Practical implications – Since leaders need to comprehend complex adaptive processes taking place in the organizations and in their environment, they search for the best strategy to approach this task. The tactics presented in the paper could serve as a cognitive tools that help approach the reality leaders are immersed in. Originality/value – The paper utilizes two categories that are well recognized in systems theory and cybernetics, combines them with the idea of self-organization and puts it all in the context of leadership. It provides an integrated, yet relatively simple cognitive scheme that may be of theoretical and practical use.
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Krzysztof Kasianiuk
White box, black box and self-organization:
A system-to-environment approach to leadership
Final version of this text is available:
http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/K-02-2015-0057
Please cite:
Krzysztof Kasianiuk, (2016) "White box, black box and self-organization: A system-to-
environment approach to leadership", Kybernetes, Vol. 45 Issue: 1, pp.126-140, doi: 10.1108/K-
02-2015-0057
Contact:
krzysztof.kasianiuk@civitas.edu.pl
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Abstract
Purpose (mandatory): The aim is to present two system identification models ‘white box’
and ‘black box’ – as useful tools that help understand self-organization processes within and
outside the organizations facilitated by leaders. Every leader is presented as a ‘systems
designer’ who plays a fundamental role in the process of self-organization, both within and
outside the organization under study.
Design/methodology/approach (mandatory): First, ‘white box’ and ‘black box’ system
identification models are presented as a basis for an integrated model of the ‘system’ and its
‘environment’. Next, the ideas of ‘closed’ and ‘open’ systems as the prerequisites of self-
organization processes are described. Finally, two basic leadership tactics as well as their
combination are characterized and discussed.
Findings (mandatory): Since leaders need to comprehend complex adaptive processes taking
place in the organizations and in their environment, they search for the best strategy to approach
this task. Two system identification models give a complementary view to the reality, as they
combine both reductionist and holistic perspectives. The argument presented in the article
shows that there is a far reaching complementarity of the two system identification models.
Originality/value (mandatory): The article utilizes two categories that are well-recognized in
systems theory and cybernetics, combines them with the idea of self-organization and puts it all
in the context of leadership. It provides an integrated yet relatively simple cognitive scheme that
may be of theoretical and practical use.
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Introduction
A systems designer or planner not only must
construct systems that work harmoniously
individually and in tandem, he must also know a lot
about the environment that the system is intended to
match.
A.D. Hall and R.E. Fagen, 1976
Reality is sometimes depicted as an ever changing ‘system’, which consists of other
‘subsystems’. Such a system may present the properties of a self-organizing one
(Ashby, 1962; Haken, 1983). It is also sometimes assumed that each ‘subsystem’ is in
fact an entity that mirrors all properties of the ‘system’ under study, but at a lower level
of analysis. In many fields of scientific inquiry from physics to social studies this
assumption seems to underlie the general logic of investigation (James Rowe, 2006;
Meadows, 2009).
However, despite many attempts, the idea of a system itself has not been
sufficiently understood and remains a subject of a reasonable and long-lasting dispute
(Bailey, 1994; Banathy, 1996; Altmann and Koch, 1998; Laszlo and Krippner, 1998;
Silberstein and McGeever, 1999; Backlund, 2000; Yammarino et al., 2005; Hernandez
et al., 2011; Thalos, 2011; Hoffman and Lord, 2013).
The ambiguous nature of the ‘system’ is especially visible in contemporary
leadership studies, where the contemporary world seems to be perceived as constantly
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evolving and thus posing major challenges to leaders. It is often argued there that since
every organization may be viewed as a ‘system’, and since leaders are the ones who
influence reality at different levels from ideological and psychological to procedural
the leaders perceptions of ‘systems determine the ways in which organizations
function and adapt to the environment. Such an approach is presently widespread in the
leadership studies referring to the problems of complexity and emergence (James Rowe,
2006; Complex Systems Leadership Theory: New Perspectives from Complexity Science
on Social and Organizational Effectiveness, 2007, Complexity Leadership, Part 1:
Conceptual Foundations, 2008) and to the problems of ambiguity of the multi-layer and
multi-dimensional relationships in organizations in the contemporary world (Jon‐Arild
Johannessen and Hugo Skålsvik, 2013). But what are the deeper roots of this reasoning,
and what might be the consequences of such a rationale?
It seems that one of the ways leaders may cope with the world’s growing
complexity is the utilization of self-organization processes on various levels of social
systems (Zelený and Hufford, no date). In the article it will be argued that every leader
may be regarded as a ‘system designer’, who not only continues to define the structure
of the surrounding ‘subsystems’ (e.g. a ‘group or an organization) and specifies its
desired functions and operations, but also participates in the process of its modification
(Hall and Fagen, 1956; Geoghegan and Pangaro, 2009). Leadership is defined as a goal-
oriented interaction of the ‘system designer’ with the system’s environment, in which
the ‘system designer’ plays a fundamental role. One of the premises of this argument is
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that the constant interaction between the system designer and the system is dynamic
and results in the adaptation of both parties.
Moreover, it is assumed here that if the leader is to succeed in the dynamic
world (e.g. in terms of supporting the long lasting capability of adaptive behavior of the
people in the organization and the organization itself), the leader should make his or her
vision as consistent with the structure of the projected reality and with the perceptions
of people in the organization as possible (Ackoff, 1974; Hunt, 1999; Küpers and
Weibler, 2008). At the same time, in order to influence reality, every leader first needs
to envision the projected ‘system’ to himself or herself. Only then is one able to present
his or her ideas to others.
It will be shown that the problem with accurate conceptualization of the system
reflects some of the most fundamental ontological dilemmas faced by leaders. These
ontological problems pose further major epistemological problems, as they expose
practical discrepancies in the applied logic of inquiry. However, these ambiguities may
also serve as a valuable source of insight into leadership practice. Thus, the appropriate
definition of the systemmay not and will not be treated here as a technical problem or
the issue of conventional ‘naming of objects’, but a part of the method of dealing with
leadership phenomena.
In consequence, it will be shown that the dilemmas generated by the idea of a
system, namely whether one should consider an entity as composed of interlinked
objects (‘white box’ model) or as a transformation tool (‘black box’ model) could be a
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useful heuristic for leaders while generating their particular visions of their
organizations.
The argument will be presented on the basis of works presented much earlier and
thus seems to be consistent with the basic conceptual frameworks of general systems
theory and cybernetics (Wiener, 1948; von Bertallanfy, 1950). Hence some of the
introductory statements might look like recapitulations of commonly known ideas. Still,
these statements are necessary here as they could hopefully help understand some of the
qualities the systems might possess. They expose basic cognitive problems, which
determines the decision-making processes of every leader.
System identification models white box and black box
Many techniques of system identification are widely known and used (Åström and
Eykhoff, no date; Ljung, 1987). In engineering these are categorized and called the
‘white box,’ ‘black box’ and ‘grey box’ models of system identification. The white and
black box models seem especially useful here, as they most clearly depict the qualities
of leadership tactics discussed in detail later on. The grey box model may be considered
as a mix of the white and black box models, and will also be discussed, but only as a
consequence of the analysis of the basic leadership tactics at the end of the paper.
The illustration depicting a white box model is a direct representation of what a
system is most often declared to be a set of objects and relations between them. It
always remains a decision of a system designer (here: a leader) to include certain
objects into the system or exclude them, and such a choice may be either random,
wholly arbitrary or subordinated to specific criteria (like organizational structure or the
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leader’s goals). Figure 1 shows this idea there are multiple links (arrows) between
multiple objects (circles) in it. Although this is not presented below, the links may exist
between all the circles. Thus, each of the circles could be linked to all remaining ones,
similarly to the circle in the middle.
Figure 1. The system as a white box.
In order to identify a system, it is necessary to study the seemingly relevant behavior of
observable objects and their relationships. This model seems especially consistent with
philosophical reductionism, which entails the belief that larger entities are composed of
smaller ones (Quine, 1951). The main methodological reason for such a standpoint is
that if one possesses knowledge about the characteristics of basic elements of an entity,
one finds a clue to understanding of its larger parts. This is a well-recognized
assumption in contemporary particle physics (Feynman, Leighton and Sands, 1964;
Close, 2004; Braibant, Giacomelli and Spurio, 2012). A similar belief is inherent to
many subfields of social sciences such as anthropology, economics, sociology and
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political science, and functions in a form of methodological individualism (Udehn,
2002; Hodgson, 2007; Chmielewski, 2011).
In the white box model every system exists only because particular relations and
links are sustained between particular objects. In effect, in order to describe the
operation of the system, one must define the nature of the relations between the objects
constituting it. In short, if there is no ‘space’ (relation) between the objects, there is also
no possible link in the system. No cause and effect relationship may be identified or
projected by a leader. For leadership students and practitioners this seems to be an
essential issue in many cases the leader will not influence the followers (and motivate
them) if he/she is not able to identify them, understand the reasons for their behavior or
observe the results of their individual actions. On the other hand, the leader will not be
able to adapt his or her behavior when the individual actions of the organization’s
members do not have space to take place. But such is not the only possible rationale.
The black box model is visualized differently than the white box one. In the
black box model, the system is presented as all that is not its environment. Every system
is usually pictured as a rectangle with two arrows one pointing to it and one extending
outwards from it. As a rule, one does not show the system’s environment, although it is
always a part of the model. Figure 2 shows the standard way a black box is usually
presented.
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Figure 2. The system as a black box.
In the black box model it is assumed that one does not possess actual knowledge about
the way the system operates inside, and sometimes there is actually no need to know
anything about its inner operations. The environment is viewed here as a source of
impulses toward the system and a field of reception of the system’s reactions. In
dynamic, self-referencing models, a feedback loop between the system and its
environment is also included in the picture.
In the black box convention, the system is mainly defined in terms of its
function of transformation. In other words, it is understood as the object with the ability
to change ‘inputs’ into ‘outputs’. In this model, in order to understand what the system
is, one actually needs to understand how the system operates, in terms of its
characteristics as a means of transformation. The system’s function is deduced from the
input-output operations. In short, in the black box model, one should be able to observe
what goes into the black box and what goes on outside of it. This precludes that in order
to identify the system, a leader needs to be able to influence the behavior of the
inspected entity (or totality) and observe its reactions. This viewpoint is consistent with
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philosophical holism, in which objects are described as indivisible units. The holistic
perspective may also be found in physics, as well as in social sciences (Phillips, 1976;
Bohm, 1980).
It is worth noting that sometimes the students of a particular system have no
practical means of understanding that system, not only because of its high complexity or
its emergent properties. The researchers stand before an epistemological problem
stemming from the very fact that the system under observation interferes with the
environment, including the observer. Interference with the system changes the system’s
properties. This may be compared to the phenomenon of measuring the quantum
superposition, where a physical system (e.g. an electron) is thought to exist partly in all
its particular theoretically possible states in a particular space-time, until its properties
are measured (Peskin and Schroeder, 1995). More importantly, in the black box model,
the system appears always in relation to its context, and it is not possible to identify it
without referring to the environment. This provokes other theoretical challenges.
System, environment and structure
In both system identification models, defining a specific system (e.g. a person, a group
of people, or an organization) equals dividing the reality into two separate parts: a
system and its environment. At first glance it might appear that since the environment is
everything other than the system under consideration, the system is everything other
than the environment. At this level of analysis one may imagine a system without any
reference to the environment they may both be pictured as separate. In fact, the
environment may be considered only as a background for the system’s operation (note
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the standard vision of a system as a black box shown above). However, at a closer look,
this system-environment dichotomy does not seem so clear.
In the white box model, system functioning is determined mostly by a set of
links between objects. In the following figure, the linkage with the environment is
shown by dotted arrows (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. System and environment a white box model.
As an example one may analyze the situation of a group consisting of fifty survivors on
an island (grey circles). If the island had been uninhabited, almost all that could happen
to the survivors depends on their actions and non-actions. Although they might know
that there are other people somewhere outside the island, the ‘outsiders’ have no direct
influence on the survivors’ life on the island. One can assume that the potential
influence of the ‘outsiders’ (white circles) on the survivors will mostly be a reflection of
the survivors’ memory. In this sense, the outer social environment may serve as a
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psychological incentive or obstacle to the inner one. For instance, if previous relations
of the survivors and their families had been mutually positive, this might support the
survivors’ everyday attitude by strengthening their resolve to return home.
On the other hand, in the black box model, the system exists only thanks to its
connection with its environment. In fact, it is the mutual interrelation that constitutes the
system and environment, and this changes the perspective on the system-environment
dichotomy. In the black box model the mutual interrelation of the system and
environment might resemble the one in Figure 4.
Figure 4. System and environment a black box model.
The idea behind Figure 4 may become clearer when a different perspective is applied to
the example of survivors. If one compares the group of survivors to a system and the
island to an environment, than what happens to the survivors depends on them as well
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as on the island (Mazur, 1976). Theoretically, the group of survivors influences the
island as a whole. The group might decide to cut down trees, hunt animals, utilize the
stream to mill grain, etc. In other words, the group might utilize the matter and energy
of the island to improve their living conditions. This would obviously change the
structure and functioning of the island’s ecosystem. On the other hand, the island
influences the survivors behavior, simply by constituting their living space at a
particular time. The island forces the survivors to organize their daily behavior and
frames the possibilities for actions. For instance, in effect of island’s influence the
survivors might not be able to build a boat from the supplies present on the island at a
specific point (e.g. if there is not enough trees), and will need to wait for the rescue
team.
A closer analysis of Figure 4 draws attention also to other consequences of a
black box model of system identification. The analysis shows that the set of possible
options is finite here there is seemingly nothing else than a system and its
environment. This means that there is no other action possible than dividing either of
these systems into smaller parts. The figure suggests that the system and its
environment together define a ‘totality of the reality’, including its basic structure. This
argument may bring the leader to some interesting conclusions, some of which will be
discussed further on.
Closed and open systems
According to many scholars, including Hall, Fagen, and von Bertallanfy, two kinds of
systems exist closed (or isolated) and open systems (von Bertallanfy, 1950; Hall and
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Fagen, 1956). Closed systems have no exchange with the environment no influence of
one on the other takes place. Open systems are always interlinked with the environment.
However, almost all systems seem more or less open. This is visible both on a
theoretical and empirical level of analysis. On the theoretical level, the argument
presented in the previous section suggests that an exchange always exists between the
system and environment (a black box model), and every system may be composed of
many subsystems (a white box model). On the empirical level, it is also extremely
difficult to observe an isolated system. Not only in quantum physics, but also in
leadership studies one of the key epistemological problems is how to distinguish the
units of analysis; in essence, how to isolate the system under study. We have yet to find
a satisfactory tool that would help us draw an undisputable line between any particular
system and its environment the object of analysis and the rest of reality. If we apply
the black box model, leadership should be defined as the communication between the
leader (or the system possessing specific qualities) and the rest of the world (or a
singular outer system). If we apply the white box model, leadership should be defined
as the communication between the leader and the followers (outer subsystems defined
in plural). In the first case, one should focus on the factors that predetermine the
leader’s actions and reactions, such as cognitive schemes, vision, ideology,
competences etc., since the leader is treated as the ‘converter’ of reality. In the second
case, one should focus on the behavioral aspects of the relation between the leader and
his followers.
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However, the argument presented in previous paragraphs also suggests that only
one closed system exists namely, ‘reality’. If the system occupying the highest
position in the hierarchy of all systems is called a meta-system, it could be composed
of two subsystems: a super-system and its environment. Its basic structure remains
similar to Figure 4. Consequently, it seems feasible to argue that the leader (a ‘super-
system’) could either act upon 1) the environment as a whole (a black box model), 2) its
specific parts (a white box model) or to combine different tactics at different moments.
At this point it should be noted that the model incorporates the totality as well as
the parts, and seems consistent not only with the reductionist view of reality, but with
the holistic one as well.
Self-organization
The open nature of systems may have profound consequences for the way leadership is
understood and practiced, since it gives the leader space to utilize self-organization
processes. However, two other assumptions should be made in that respect. First, it
should be assumed that leaders influence the way individual and social energy is
utilized (Bailey, 1994). Second, it should be agreed that the law of conservation of
energy still holds. According to this law, the amount of energy in an isolated system
remains the same and energy can be neither created nor destroyed (Feynman, Leighton
and Sands, 1964). The energy exchange is constant every action upon a system finds a
reciprocal reaction in its environment. Consequently, if one assumes that the leader
functions in a self-organizing field, the way the leader identifies the system affects the
way the energy is structured and utilized automatically and instantly. This is called ‘a
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system-to-environment approach to leadership and is a basis for the analysis of tactics
available to leaders in subsequent paragraphs.
Conceptually, for every system identification model, distinct self-organization
mechanisms should take place (Crossan, Vera and Nanjad, 2008). Let us illustrate this
topic using the already introduced example of the group of survivors.
First, what could happen when the survivors land on the island? They could try
to live either in an unstructured or structured manner, which could be a subject of a
conscious or unconscious choice. In the white box model, every survivor could try to
live on his or her own individually gather food and water, build a shelter, signal for
help etc. At this level, self-organization processes take place due to the existence of
many survivors. The space of the island is the space of the self-organization processes.
However, the scarcity of resources would make the daily situation hard to bear, and the
probability of conflict could be extremely high. On the other hand, in the black box
model, the survivors may consciously form a group through which they could try to
cope with the scarcity of resources and unfavorable actions of particular members. In
this model, the social space of the group creates additional space for the members’
activity.
The leadership mechanisms would thus be different in each situation. In the first
one, leadership would probably emerge as the consequence of communication between
particular survivors who observe others, judging their activity and effectiveness. Since
everyone would be in almost exactly the same situation, the ones who cope better seem
better candidates for leaders. They would attract others basing on their individual but
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comparable activity, since they e.g. could show the effective way for survival. In the
black box model the leader could emerge when communication problems in the group
emerge. The one who e.g. finds an adequate and effective way of communicating within
the group could be the best candidate for the leader. For instance, the leader could
facilitate discussion within the group, so that many standpoints and many competences
could be revealed.
But could it make any difference whether the leader in fact perceives a number
of unorganized followers (a white box model) or a community of survivors (a black box
model)? Let the example of survivors on an island guide the argument further.
The leader on the island could be the one who understands that the only way of
survival is to leave the island. Such a leader motivates the rest of survivors to build
rescue boats with him. Since the leader has sailed around the world in the past and all of
the survivors seem to know this, they decide to split into subgroups, each with a specific
role in the boat building process. Some survivors are to cut down trees, some to cut
lianas, some to search for food for expedition, some to gather the daily supplies, and
other to construct boats. The leader instructs and trains all groups in all necessary skills
at each step of their tasks.
In a white box model the leader the dark grey circle in Figure 5(a) to (c)
would move around the island every day, talk with people in subgroups (light grey
circles) and communicate what should be done at a particular stage of the process. The
leader would decide whether the wood is of sufficient quality, whether the lianas are
strong enough, whether the food is well preserved for a long journey and whether the
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boat is durable. The leader would also have a chance to understand the daily problems
of the survivors and support their individual motivation. From the leader’s perspective,
people in subgroups would be more responsible for their actions, as personal
communication with the leader would probably create tighter bonds with him. The
leader would form a direct bond with the followers. The penetration of the island in
search for appropriate supplies and social processes would thus be easier to control
directly by the leader.
In that model, the self-organization processes would take place outside of the
relation between the leader and subgroups. For instance, the animals that had been
living in the trees (white circles) might migrate to other parts of the island. In
consequence, the structure of the situation between the system of survivors and the
environment would also change e.g. there might not be enough food for an escape. In
this way, the mutual adaptation of different subsystems in the network would constitute
a self-organizing process.
L Leader
Figure 5_Phase 1, 2, 3. The leader’s interaction with the followers within the
environment.
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On the other hand, in the black box model, another type of self-organization processes
might take place. Every action of the leader toward the group the survivors (considered
as the community) might stimulate the reaction of the whole group, which in turn may
affect the environment. In the example above, the same leader might work in a different
way (see Figure 6). The leader might e.g. gather the whole group of survivors
(community) every evening and talk with them about the events of the day, discuss the
state of the supplies and boat building process, and finally, decide together with them
what further steps would be necessary to leave the island. By doing this, all subgroups
would be aware of the situation of the remaining ones.
In the black box model, the leader would focus on planning the action of the
whole group and on the integration of the community. However, the communal
decision-making processes would force the leader to share his or her knowledge and
experience with the whole group, and make his competences disputable at the group
level. Also, the actions of particular people would be less effectively controlled by the
leader, and these people might not feel fully responsible for the final quality of the
attempt to escape the island. This model makes the leader unable to directly control the
actions of individual people. They would be forced to decide on some parts of the tasks
by themselves. The model suggests that perpetual feedback loops between the leader,
community and environment would encourage self-organization processes at lower
levels, namely within the whole group (a community) and within subgroups.
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Figure 6_Phase 1, 2, 3. The leader’s interaction with the community within the
environment.
Note that in both system identification models, the relationship between the
leader and the group of followers or the community is not an everlasting one. In both
models, the energy exchange should be constantly controlled, but at different levels and
in different ways. In the white box model the leader controls the exchange by sustaining
direct, interpersonal relationships with every survivor or subgroup. In the black box
model, the control and evaluation available to the leader are parts of a more general
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social process. Consequently, in order to achieve predefined goals and simultaneously
optimize the potential operations of the system, the leader should know how this control
on different levels of analysis should be operated.
Modelling the reality two basic leadership tactics
The system-to-environment approach to leadership phenomena presupposes the
existence of a constant, mutual interdependence and exchange between the leader, the
system (disregarding the type of the identification model) and the environment. In the
preceding paragraphs it was argued that system identification models pose ontological
and epistemological problems. This section is devoted to the presentation of the two
basic leadership tactics, which shows the argument from the practical side.
The tactics utilize self-organizational processes and are based on a number of
assumptions detailed below:
1. The leader, the system and the environment are observable parts of reality a
totality divided into a number of subsystems.
2. Every system is open, since every system and environment are mutually
dependent.
3. The leader, the system and the environment constitute a self-organizing
structure, in which the leader possesses the capability for intentional action.
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The leader may employ two kinds of tactics, which inherently work as a mode
for self-organization processes. The two leadership tactics are:
Opening a system.
Closing a system.
In essence, opening a system’ and ‘closing a system’ means changing the nature
of the system within the environment. When the leader opens the system, it becomes
less distinct from the environment. When the leader closes the system, it becomes more
distinct from the environment. Opening and closing the system triggers self-
organization processes. Conceptually, self-organization processes take place in two
ways: inside the system or in relation between the system and its environment.
A systematization of tactics and tools is presented in Table 1 below.
Table 1. System identification models and self-organization tactics.
Self-Organization Tactics
Opening the system
Closing the system
System Identification
Model
Objects
Links
Objects
Links
White box
model
(‘a
composite’)
Including new
objects into the
system
Weakening the
ties between
existing objects
in the system
Excluding
existing objects
from the
system
Tightening the
ties between
existing objects
in the system
Black box
model
(‘a whole’)
Neglecting and
deconstructing
the boundaries
between system
and
environment
Extending the
range and
character of
system
influence in the
environment
Sustaining and
building the
boundaries
between system
and
environment
Limiting the
range and
character of
system
influence in the
environment
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In the white box model, the leader is by definition an ‘insider’. He or she plays a
role of similar nature to other objects in the system his or her means of influence is
based on the capability to attract or repulse other people in the system and in the
environment. Here, leadership stems from the mutual relationships between all objects
in the system, out of which the leader is the most influential one.
If the leader defines the system as a white box, he or she should mostly work on
its internal structure identify and operate (include or exclude) the goals, interests, and
competences of people (and other relevant objects of the system). The leader should
design adequate links between the objects to make the desired mechanisms possible.
Leadership activity toward followers should be subordinated to his or her knowledge
about the characteristics of followers and other objects capable of action within the
system. In this way, the leader should focus on controlling the inner structure of the
system. This means creating and following appropriate standard operating procedures
and organizational norms in the network. In the white box model, system structure
(schemes and modes of action) predominates over human agency. This tactic gives rise
to the self-organization processes occurring between the system and the environment. In
particular, the environment, if left uncontrolled, adapts to the system.
On the other hand, if the leader designs a black box system, he or she is an
‘outsider’, who is capable of forming (shaping) a framework of reference for agents
inside the system. The leader should focus on laying out the right boundaries between
the system and environment and the links between the two. Such a framework creates
space for other processes to emerge, unpredicted but conditioned by the leader.
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In the black box tactic, the leader should enable the system to work unattended
and organize itself. This suggests that the leader should treat people in the organization
as individuals with a broad scope of autonomy, leaving their goals and interests to
themselves. The leader’s main task should be to control the formation of the system’s
boundaries. In this model, it remains the leader’s decision whether organizational goals
and interests overlap and conflict with the ones of the organization’s members or not.
Nevertheless, proper formulation of the organizational mission, consistent daily practice
of the declared values, and creating an appropriate atmosphere of trust should all be
equally important. In this way, the leader should increase the chances of self-
organization processes inside the system.
Combining tactics in leadership strategies
Should a leader rather think in a reductionist or holistic way, in a white box or a black
box manner? What should be done in order to achieve the goals the leader envisions?
The answer is: the leader should combine both tactics in a complementary way and seek
synergy in the actions of people around him.
The leader needs to decide almost simultaneously on two fundamental aspects of
his or her situation: what to include into the designed system/subsystem, and what links
if any are supposed to exist between the objects.
System identification models suggest that certain processes might render system
consistent and stable (black box model), while other processes may enable the system to
be flexible and dynamic (white box model). Combining two basic tactics helps the
leader design the system adequately to enhance the chances for consistency and
25
flexibility at the same time. In other words, the leader should seek balance between the
‘white box’ and ‘black box,’ and find the shade of grey that would suit the predefined
goals.
To accomplish this, the leader needs to answer three questions: What to include
and what to exclude from the system? How to define the system objects’ boundaries?
What processes should be controlled and what should be left unattended?
Vitally, the suggested tactics have two major effects: stabilization and
destabilization of the system. White box strategies are relatively easy to implement,
provided that it is possible to identify important people in the leader’s environment, as
well as their individual goals, interests and logics of action. Still, this requires
substantial effort and high interpersonal skills. Black box tactics appear suitable for
situations where it is possible to include and utilize the difference and exceptionality of
the organization, as well as the vision of common goals, interests and the system’s
function in the environment.
If a system is ‘too closed’, which means that the system-environment exchange
is radically restrained, the system may continue to evolve until the internal self-
organization process stops. In effect, both regulatory processes might end with system
malfunction or even system disintegration. When the system hardens its structure, it
also lowers its innovation and adaptation capabilities. On the other hand, if a system is
‘too open,’ which means that the system-environment exchange is radically increased,
the system continues the self-organization process within its environment. Thus, the
system evolves toward dissolution within the environment.
26
In this situation, the main task for the leader is to determine what the system
should do. This is the main reason why the leader should have a vision. Once the leader
knows the system’s purpose, he or she will be capable of deciding what is important for
the system’s proper functioning, what should be included and what should be excluded,
where the boundary lines should be drawn, and what should be controlled.
Simultaneously, there is a constant need for the leader to recognize the way in
which people in the organization see reality and how they understand the relations
within the system and between the system and the environment. The leader should
know whether the perception of the reality stems from a white box model or from a
black box model. The leader should be cautious as to what parts of reality are seen in
either way, and what is expected to be controlled or not. Such knowledge enables the
leader to shape people’s ideas and perceptions, in order to enhance the coherence of
future action.
Finally, at the most fundamental level, once the leader decides to change the
system and environment, he or she should be ready for constant change of his or her
own perception, although it is a demanding endeavor. The radical view of the system-
to-environment approach to leadership suggests that even a slight change in the way the
leader perceives reality affects the way this reality works. Thus, a paradigm shift
changes the leader’s daily perception of reality and his or her capability of changing the
system. Once the leader’s consciousness is changed, so is the leader’s behavior. Once
the leader’s behavior is changed, so are the perceptions of individual people and the
27
operations of the organization as a whole. Once individual perceptions and operations
are changed, so is the way the environment functions in relation to the organization.
It seems there is a thin line between a problem and a challenge. Between the
two, there is space for leadership.
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