What Systems Leaders Should be Learning from Meteorologists…

Iceland at sunset © David Welbourn 2016

I’m more excited than I’ve been for ages. Starting my holiday is one factor.  Even the most eagerly anticipated holidays rarely creates this level of excitement.  This is special.  I am heading to Iceland:  meeting up with 5 people I’ve never met.  We six are spending a week with two Nikon professionals to nurture our photographic skills.  Hopefully we’ll gain photographs of a quality only previously dreamt of.  With the otherworldly variety of Icelandic landscapes, the strong prospect of capturing an aurora is almost a bonus.  Yes, I’m excited!

Close to the Arctic Circle in November should be unpleasantly cold, but, courtesy of the gulfstream, Iceland’s temperate climate is on my side. That hasn’t stopped me packing salopets, thermal long johns and layers as if they’d gone out of fashion.

Sitting in Heathrow’s lounge, I have little immediate interest in climate. Yes, I’m concerned about the sustainability of our planet, and the prospects for my daughters.  I care passionately about humans’ impact on planet earth whose far reaching effect is reflected in the naming of a new geological epoch: anthropocene – in which human impact makes its permanent tectonic mark.  It places climate change firmly in the spotlight.

None of that concern about earth’s climate will affect the quality of photographs captured. It won’t indicate if I’ve packed over-zealously, or influence how many thermal layers will stay in the suitcase unworn.  However important climate is for survival, it matters not a jot on day-to-day experience.

Aurora Borealis © David Welbourn 2016

In stark contrast, I’m VERY interested in weather. Weather will determine if the evening sky is sufficiently clear, to witness the choreography of ions in the solar-wind dancing down the polar magnetic field in a blaze of colourful glory.  Cold weather may prevent my gloved hands holding the camera steady whilst pressing the shutter. The fate of weather will dictate whether leaden skies destroy all sense of depth, or cast landscapes in glorious light reminiscent of Turner or Constable.  Will spirits be as dampened by rain as the waterproof gear, chosen in the hope it will not be needed?


I enjoy the way metaphor can provide incomparable insights for leaders. Contrasting climate and weather provides a powerful metaphor to encourage leadership wisdom in difficult times.

For meteorologists, “climate” describes the trend of long term macro effects: “weather” focuses on local micro-effects.  Climate encapsulates prevailing weather conditions whilst affecting the probability with which particular weather events occur.  We experience climate change because it has given rise to more extreme variation and turbulence in weather.  Winter freezes have ravaged the USA, despite the world experiencing year-after-year of the warmest measured temperatures.  Lightning and tornados, flash floods and hurricanes have devastated communities.  Climate change may have allowed more frequent El Niño events, or supported greater instability making extremes more prevalent, but it is the weather that has caused disruption, chaos and catastrophe.

Uncontrollable variables impacting our weather are so numerous, that it is a mathematically chaotic system. When we consider climatic effects, dominated by long term trends, the pareto principle works well and we can work with generalities. When looking at weather as a chaotic system, the pareto principle breaks down totally.  Extremes of weather are memorable and dominate our experience.  These are always caused by the very small and exceptional perturbations in the margins: the very results averaged away by the pareto principle.  Hurricanes start life as small variations where hot and cold air streams collide growing rapidly as they are amplified by positive feedback.  Small, exceptional beginnings grow to dominate.  Exactly counter to prediction based on trends and averages!

Connections at work


The organisation of complex, interconnected systems, such as extended enterprises or public services, especially healthcare, behaves like an ecosystem subject to both climate and weather. Organisational ecosystems are similarly chaotic with countless individuals and organisations each following their own priorities and agendas within a loosely co-ordinated whole.  A system governed by watching the “climate” will always suffer the unexpected consequences of extreme “weather” conditions in which catastrophe beckons.  When we try to treat these “weather” conditions as if they were the “climate”, we are likely to over-react and fuel wilder swings between extremes.  Well-meaning intervention plays right into the vagaries of chaos, causing unintended consequences.

Whenever we experience local turbulence and unexpected performance our weather metaphor helps us to understand that when it happens once, it is part of the reality of chaotic systems – just like an extreme of weather. One occurrence does not predict the future.   It is vital that politicians, regulators, media pundits, and system leaders all stop seeking ways of “doing something” after every single incident in the hope of securing headlines.  They must learn the very different rules for “weather-like” events and “climate-like” trends.  Large scale and political intervention should focus on influencing these long-term climate-like trends whilst giving local leaders freedom to interpret and respond to local weather-like conditions.  Continuing to get this the wrong way round, can only be a recipe fuelling even more extreme swings of performance with catastrophic and unintended consequences.

David Welbourn

Visiting Professor, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

All photos © David Welbourn 2016

Bonus photo – Iceland© David Welbourn 2016


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