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Invisible Leaders Emerge from Complex Networks

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 19, 2016

Networks of Echoes”

 Vice President Chester A. Arthur was an undistinguished politician when the assassination of President James Garfield propelled him into the nation’s highest office.  He didn’t know Julia Sand, a young woman who wrote him 32 letters urging compassion, nobility, and adherence to the best in his own nature. But Arthur read the letters, kept them, and some historians think they may have helped him rise above a tawdry past to become a respected leader.      

We’re always had invisible leaders—people who stay in shadow while influencing what happens on stage.  Julia Sand remains little known, and her letters weren’t discovered until 1958. Advocates and ideologues often pursue goals effectively behind the scenes. And as Bruce West and colleagues note, literature is filled with invisible leaders, some of whom were up to no good.  Lady Macbeth goaded her husband into regicide, and Iago’s malevolent insinuations make Othello distrust his wife.  

Bruce West, physicist and senior scientist of mathematics and information science at the U.S. Army Research Office, with colleagues Malgorzata Turalska and Paolo Grigolini, explore the scientific and human consequences of the way information travels through different kinds of networks and the interconnectedness of human and physical networks. Their book Network of Echoes, Imitation, Innovation and Invisible Leaders examines how influence, cooperation, leadership and decisions emerge from interacting elements of networks.  

When people are free to do what they want, the authors write, they imitate each other, but not perfectly.  They do it with uneven variations, and the authors hypothesize that those distortions create an echo response that is a fundamental mode of human behavior. The networks of echoes are the tenuous structures people create through their imperfect imitations of each other, they write, and this imperfect duplication generates a new kind of leadership, one in which leaders are invisible. People who become hubs in networks aren’t always superstars, but their large number of connections signify their capacity as leaders. They might be back room decision makers, the authors write, or protagonists in conspiracies, and “even when they are not identified they are postulated because society doesn’t believe the person out front is the real leader.”

“The thesis of this book and the result of our research is that being a leader is often not voluntary and that the leadership role is always transient,” they write. “Leaders emerge within a complex network, guide its behavior for varying lengths of time and then are silently replaced by other equally invisible leaders.”

Complex networks share four properties, according to the authors: emergence, nonlinearity, uncertainty and adaptation—they grow and evolve in unanticipated ways. The authors also call for a fractal view of human sciences. They have developed a decision making model, which takes those properties into account.  In addition to investigating the emergent properties of networks, the model is useful to analyze how we collect and organize data into patterns to form decisions.

The authors say scientists need knowledge of  the dynamics of complex adaptive networks and the consequences of decisions made by citizens, politicians and soldiers.  The Army’s new network-centric warfare—in which platforms of trucks and tanks are replaced by  a networked military of computers and intelligence gathering social webs—make it vital to understand decision making by networked individuals and groups.  

The author’s research suggests complex networks have intrinsic universal features that are characterized by complexity and independent of the type of network. Phase transition has a fundamental role in the emergent properties of networks. The influence of committed minorities can impact global opinion and change network dynamics. Information can be transferred among complex networks.  And real world events do not conform to simple statistical models.

This book is not hammock reading. You have to sit up straight, put your feet flat on the floor and take notes.   If you’re a scientist you may need to brush up. If you’re not a scientist you will have to skip some parts. But the effort is worthwhile, and the authors cite intriguing reader-friendly examples from literature and life.   

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