Friday, November 20, 2009

How long is a piece of 32cm string? Why are these ways of measuring a piece of string also a measure of your leadership?

There is much we can learn about leadership from trying to measure a piece of string. I recently saw a documentary on trying to measure the length of a 32cm string. I found it fascinating and decided I would share the leadership reflections that it triggered.

Measuring a piece of string is not as easy as it sounds. It is a mathematical and a physics problem first considered about 5000 years ago. But science alone has not solved this problem. A great deal of philosophical thinking has been applied to this conundrum. How long is a piece of string is not a simple question. In trying to measure a piece of string, we discovered

  1. The whole of the human race can be compacted down to the size of a sugar cube
  2. The string can be infinitesimally small
  3. Fundamental building blocks to life can be at many places at the same time
  4. The string only exists because we are measuring it
  5. The more you measure the string, the longer it gets
  6. The string can be infinite in length

1. The Standard Measures (string length = 32cm)

The challenge with ‘measuring’ is that you want the measurement standard to be the same and stable for everyone. In the UK’s National Physics Laboratory, they have a metal ‘Standard Metre Rule’. The metal is made from 90% platinum and 10% iridium – discovered 200 years ago to be the most stable combination of materials under every conceivable environmental pressures and stresses.

Measuring the piece of string will only be as accurate as the scale you can read off the Standard Metre Rule.

Leadership Reflection #1

Can we come up with the ‘same and stable’ standards for measuring leadership? What should be the leadership equivalent of ‘90% platinum and 10% iridium’? i.e. something that can withstand every conceivable environment pressures and stresses. What combination of values, virtues, ethics, hope, principles etc works best?

2. Speed of Light Measure (string length = 319.445mm)

Using the speed of light can produce a much more accurate measure. However, for the measure to take place the string needed the help of a reflective surface to bounce light off the two ends of the string. The dull surface of the string doesn’t work.

Leadership Reflection #2

How reflective are you as a leader? Is your leadership like the string … dulled and can’t be measured. Perhaps you need the help of reflection (or a reflector) to make sense of your leadership?

3. Fractal Measure (String length = infinite)

Using a ruler to measure distance on a map compared to using a map wheel results in different results. That is because a map wheel can follow the contour lines much more accurately. In effect, the map wheel zooms into the detail. However, in the mathematical science of measurement, the more detail you reveal and the longer your length becomes (there’s a joke here about men looking at their private part – but we won’t go there). This is a branch of mathematical science called Fractals.

Fractals are mathematic repetitive shapes that look the same no matter how zoomed in they are. Their shapes are repeated over and over again. A piece of string can be seen as a fractal shape because the closer you look at a string, the more crinkles there are. So, if you had a small enough map wheel to trace all the crinkles – the string could indeed be infinite in length.

Leadership Reflection # 3

Do you exhibit ‘Fractual Leadership’? Does who you are and what you stand for remain the same – no matter how closely you are scrutinized. Does what you stand for retain it’s shape no matter how much others ‘zoom in’ on you? In other words, really deep down, are you the same person as the one you project externally?

4. Atomic Measure (String length = infinitesimally small)

Surely, if we measure the string using the smallest unit possible - the atom – we will get the definitive answer. Sadly, no. The atomic level is when things get really complicated.

Most of the atom consists of space. The only real mass is the nucleus. If we took out all the spaces that make up a human being, the entire human race would be reduced to the size of a sugar cube. So, you won’t even find the space if we just measured using the mass we can see from the atom.

The point is, we are made up of space … space is important.

Leadership Reflection #4

How much are you valuing space? Space to think. Space to learn. Space to explore possibilities. Space to change. Is your leadership thinking cluttered? What, in your head, do you need to get rid of in order to make space?

5. Quantum Measure (String length = don’t know)

Quantum mechanics tells us that the particles in the string can be in many places at once. The Interference Pattern experiment of shooting one photon at a time demonstrates this. What this means is that the fundamental building blocks of the universe don’t have fixed positions. Therefore, using fixed positions to measure something is not a good idea anymore (not just at the quantum mechanics level, but at any level)

Without fixed positions, quantum mechanics gives a totally different perspective on ‘observation’ – which is … ‘observation’ is something that is really only there when we are there to see it. By measuring the string – and seeing it being measured – the string has a length. It doesn’t have a length until you actually look at it. So, in the world of quantum mechanics, reality doesn’t exist until we are observing it. The act of observing it creates a reality. What an ambiguity!

Leadership Reflection #5

Is your leadership real? Does your leadership exist when no one is there to see it? Are you violating the fundamental principles that create the human being – that we are made of building blocks with no ‘fixed positions’? What are your fixed positions? What realities are you creating? When you interact with your environment (family, friends, colleagues, business, planet, community), what is the environment’s observation of you? Can you live with ambiguity? If not, why not – why are you not able to live with ambiguity when your living cells are a walking manifestation of ambiguity?

So, how long is a piece of string? How does your leadership measure up?


  1. The scale just indicates how well people stand on and manage the scale of certainty. Isn't it?

    That is what I guess leadership is all about. If everything were certain, you never need leaders, and if all was uncertain, leaders do not really help. It is between these two ends, the game is played.

    -- Vinay Chaganti

  2. A remarkable post that touches the different realms of leadership and challenges conventional thinking. Brilliant!

  3. Thank you Vinay and Navinder. I appreciate it very much indeed.

  4. I have to admit Kwai, I never would have thought of measuring leadership against a piece of string before. As Navinder said, "Remarkable".

    This one question "Does your leadership exist even when no one is there to see it?" to me is the most important measurement of a man. If the answer is 'yes', then there is authentic leadership, a true head/heart connection.

    I have a personal favorite tag line that says the most inspiring thing to me is when you can look inside your heart and like what you see.

    That's worth much more than a piece of string.
    Another great post Kwai, thank you.

  5. There is no standard measure of the string.
    Even though you might have the most accurate standard measure instrument made of the material least likely to change under environmental conditions, that IS NOT TRUE for the string. Each time you take a measure of the string the measure will rarely be exactly 32cm. The length of the string and the measurement of it will fluctuate around 32cm as the natural variation in environmental conditions fluctuates. The string will only measure 32cm on the average. What can this tell us about leadership? And what does this add to leadership reflection #1?