Quantum Mechanics of Leadership with Maree McKeown

We conducted a Q&A interview with Maree McKeown, Leadership Specialist, around leaders, their correlation to business strategy and the way in which AI will affect leadership.

Could you introduce yourself and a bit about what you do?

With a background in education, behavioural science and leadership development, I have worked with well over 1,000 leaders over nearly two decades from emerging talent to CEOs of large corporations. My approach to leadership comes from Complexity Science and is founded in the physics of Quantum Mechanics. This approach to leadership is built on the premise that we have much to learn and gain from the quantum world of chaotic atoms in better navigating the complex adaptive social systems in which we operate. To navigate our complex world, we need to get better at being agile and open to unanticipated change and confident in iterative step-change as opposed to a static long-term strategy plan. At an applied level I support leaders through individual and team coaching sessions as well as educative leadership programs on Complexity Leadership and Complexity Coaching to facilitate the growth needed for our leaders to develop the understanding and lived experience of thriving in a dynamic and uncertain environment.

If you had to name 3 characteristics of great leaders what could they be?

When we consider great leaders, we tend to let the romance of history cloud the reality of what truly makes for a great leader. Also, the world has changed and what once constituted great leadership is of dwindling relevance in a fast changing environment and uncertain future. Where foresight and decisiveness were once key to great leadership, the world is now in need of leaders who are nimble in changing their tactics as circumstances change and courageous in enabling their people to try new and bold approaches to traditionally mundane ways of going about their business. The world is complex. Leaders need to be comfortable, but not complacent, with complexity in an environment of evolving information and communications technology (ICT). Leaders also need to have an appreciation for the way the world interacts socially: online and in real-life. Conviction is key to navigating through the sound bites, short-lived trends, and fickle nature of a general public who often doesn’t know what it wants and isn’t aware that it doesn’t know!

So the three core characteristics of great leaders are:

1. Adaptable and agile,

2. Courageous and creative in failing fast and failing forward and

3. Adept at dealing with and leveraging complexity. Also underpinning a leader’s ability to succeed is a strong connectedness and respect for their people.

What weighs heavier in importance; mission, vision or values?

The weight of importance depends on the intent and perspective from which each is viewed. In general, all three are highly overrated and misused terms, thus the weight of importance placed on them does not tend to live up to expectations. The articulation of formal mission, vision and values statements enables senior leadership to align on what the business does, how it does it and why. From this, business strategy and messaging can be extrapolated to engage and inform the customer, key stakeholders and most importantly the employees. Setting a mission and vision is a fantastic activity for an organisation to gather its collective thoughts and ideas. It needs to be inclusive and based on fact. Jim Collins seminal work in Good to Great (2001) is well worth a revisit if you’re grappling with why your organisation exists and how to formulate a successful and confident way forward. However, traditional approaches to crafting mission, vision and values runs the risk of being too rigid, contrived and overly simplistic. From a complexity perspective, we each have our own personal attachment to certain values, beliefs and bias. We interpret messaging through our own lens of experience and understanding. Thus the rigid application of predetermined business messaging is at risk of exacerbating worker disengagement and fostering cynicism, creating an environment of ‘corporate spin,’ where senior leadership is perceived to be operating outside the stipulated expectations while asking their people to operate within it. Organisations need to move to ensuring that any business messaging is genuine, consistently upheld and any contradictions are acknowledged. The way to achieve alignment and ensure a united culture, is through self-ownership and accountability, whereby business embraces a complexity approach to enabling everyone to set and live up to their own vision, mission and values within the broader remit of why the business does what it does. For more on this, you can read by article: ‘Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast!

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

According to KPMG, Agility is the number one factor CEOs believe they need to embrace:

“To be resilient, organizations need to be comfortable disrupting their business models if they want to continue to grow. This is what we mean by being agile (2019 Global CEO Outlook, KPMG).”

In order for leaders to maximise agility businesses must get on top of their cyber certainty. We hear a lot about cybersecurity, which focuses on ensuring computer systems, including hardware, software and electronic data, are safeguarded from theft, damage, disruption and misdirection. Cyber certainty deals with ensuring businesses have 1) the computer technology required and 2) the systems and skills in place to work the technology to greatest advantage. Two core challenges businesses are struggling to manage, innovate and fund.

How has the changing world of work had an impact on the leader’s role?

The world of work has changed exponentially from one of job certainty, labour intensive, autocratic governance where information was limited and leaders were specialists. We now live in a world of information abundance, digital connectivity, constant and unexpected change, new and disrupting technologies, automation, and casualization of the workforce. Where once a leader could command authority over their subordinates by leveraging their hierarchical position, leaders must now ensure they are more consultative, inclusive and flexible in what they demand and what they allow. This greater collaboration also requires stronger, more confident leadership, whereby the boss is comfortable with not being the smartest or most experienced person in the room and can call out mistakes and misbehaviours (their own as well as others) without blame or reactivity and leverage these missteps to advantage.

With the constant discussions around AI in the workplace, do you think that robotic leaders are the future despite their lack of human aspects, or will there always be a place for human leaders?

Despite the hype we are still a very long way off any possibility of robotic leaders. Currently, AI can win at a game of poker in constrained circumstances and fascinate us with driverless machinery and moving parts imitating life. But until we can understand the mysterious existence of consciousness and then replicate it, we will not be seeing AI replacing leaders anytime soon. What we will continue to see is increased automation and greater computing power, but this technological advancement tends to bring with it even greater need for human intervention in more specialised and complex ways. Leadership today is more important than ever before.


This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.


Maree is a leading expert in leadership development. She knows that the way managers behave and perform determines the way teams behave and perform, which has a palpable impact on business outcomes. Maree is on a mission to elevate leadership in executive leadership teams.

She does that through:
♦ Leadership Team Performance
♦ Executive Leadership Development
♦ Leadership Facilitation

Maree coaches and collaborates with individuals and teams to develop customised leadership programs targeted to meet the unique needs of an organisation and to ensure maximum impact beyond the program. This, combined with her focus on a real return on investment, creates substantial benefit to clients. She is a speaker, facilitator & coach as well as the author of the upcoming book “Return on Investment: Making Leadership Development Initiatives Count”. She has been coaching and facilitating for more than 10 years and works with corporate organisations, not-for-profits, public sector and government agencies, enhancing leadership capability and business outcomes.