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Notes on Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson6 min read

I realized I missed the opportunity to highlight a woman’s work for international women’s day, so while it is a week late, I want to share the work of Nora Bateson. Bateson is a writer, filmmaker, and researcher. She practices transcontextual research. This is a study of the interdependencies that form complex systems. This research produces relational information Bateson calls “Warm Data.”

Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a tough book to describe. It is a collection of essays and poetry that gets to the heart of how we know what we know and see the interconnected patterns in what is around us.

Edges and boundaries

When thinking about organizations, Bates coins the term Symmathesy, which she defines as

an entity formed over time by contextual mutual learning through interaction. For example, an ecosystem at any scale, like a body, family or forest.

This view of mutual learning not just as an activity, but as the genesis of organizations can really help us shift our thinking from organizations being concrete entities, to something that is unfolding.

In symmathesy thinking, the idea of agency should be treated as a paradox that necessarily resides between the existence of the organism as a unique entity, and the simultaneous impossibility that this entity can be decontextualized or in any way uninfluenced by its contextual interactions.

You are as you are (and your team is as it is) not just because it you are a unique entity, but also because of all the contexts in which you exist. You can not separate yourself from your history and the many contexts you live in. Nor can your team. Because those contexts exist within and beyond the individual or team, where does the individual or the team end?

To be a participant in a complex system is to desire to be both lost and found in the interrelationships between people, nature, and ideas.

The outlines we draw around ‘parts’ (like a hand or a kidney) are useful to us as arbitrary separations that conveniently contain our study within limits we can manage; but these outlines more aptly serve to indicate areas of interaction, transmission, and reception of information.

If we think of the boundaries of our team and even ourselves as merely outlines that show areas of interactions, we come to see those boundaries differently. Those boundaries don’t limit but connect. This can seem overwhelming and if everything is connected to everything else, how can we hope to understand it enough to move forward? Fortunately, Bateson shares a path forward.

Learning and Knowing

We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better. The evolution of our own ability to understand and interact with the world around us is an increase in our ability to be sensitive to information we have previously been blind to. That is learning to learn.

Fundamentally, the work of being in complexity is learning, and mutual learning. It is easy to fall into the trap with complexity that if something can’t be fully known, there is nothing we can do. This is far from true. Bateson advises we don’t fall into the trap of what we can know fully and what is a mystery.

The problem with making a place for mystery is that it so easily gets co-opted into an eddy, where ideas go in easy circles instead of lending themselves to the movement of a wider stream.

Rather, we should seek to deepen our understanding.

The deepening is not finding an answer, not looking for a final truth, but becoming increasingly familiar with the many complexities that surround all that we study.

I find this to be hopeful as it creates a path forward. It relieves the pressure of having to come to the right answer and instead focuses on the practice of learning.


With these thoughts on complexity, where does that leave the role of leadership? Bateson has a perspective that changed how I thought about leadership when I first read it, and I continue to evolve as I think through its implications. (I recently shared some thoughts on LinkedIn about how this idea relates to the boss vs. leader meme.)

Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders. Our fatal flaw may be the idea that an individual or institution can single-handedly penetrate new frontiers of possibility. This is an obsolete but undead dream of heroes and rescuers pioneering innovations.

It can be really easy to fall into that trap. When we recognize that our context shapes us and is a product of those interrelationships, focusing on individuals as leaders can impede genuine progress in acknowledging those connections. As managers, we can often fall intros the trap and assume we are being called on to be a hero.

So I don’t want a leader. I am sick of heroes. I look back at how we got where we are now and I wonder what kind of systemic imbalances have been created by the thinking that longs to canonize leaders…In fact, I think our notions of leadership are toxic to the ecology of communication and collaboration in a social system.

Focusing on the individual rather than the entire social system in which the individual plays a role is a problem. So, as people in positions of leadership, what can we do?

Instead of being activists for this or that cause, we need to tend to the contextual capacity for those changes we would like to see…Leadership does not reside in a person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community…The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then, most importantly, stand back.

This is more than a call for servant leadership, it is a recognition that what is needed and even who is needed in a situation can change. Leadership is serving the needs of the community. This isn’t the role of an individual but something that calls each of us to serve where needed and not to control.

One type of thinker plots a trajectory into the future that can be controlled. The other does not consider control, but is sensitive to the aesthetic, attempting a multilayered ecological shift at the level of context.

I will close with one final quote that truly resonated with me.

It seems to me the ultimate act of love is to allow ourselves and others to be complex.

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