Leadership X.0
30 May 2021

The rhizome is a type of root made up of germinal nodes and connections capable of proliferating autonomously, creating new nodes and new connections. For this reason, the rhizome is a compelling metaphor for the thought pattern suitable for a VUCA context.

“Ours is no longer the age of ties, but of connections.”


“Life has always made me think of a plant that lives on its rhizome: its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome … What we see is the flower, which passes: but the rhizome persists”


In this article we introduce the concept of rhizome and explain why it represents an effective metaphor for characterizing the thought pattern that emerges in VUCA contexts. The rhizome is a type of root that develops horizontally underground. It is characterized by interconnected nodes. The rhizome carries out two fundamental functions: the preservation of nutrients and germination. The rhizome grows and develops always below the ground due to the germinal capacity of its own nodes. The development of the rhizome is without direction: it does not have a starting point and it has no point of arrival. Each pair of nodes can be connected in innumerable possible ways thanks to the connections between the nodes themselves. Because of these characteristics the rhizome lends itself to offer a powerful metaphor for the thought pattern that can be associated with VUCA contexts that do not lend themselves to being approached according to the traditional thought pattern based on the principle of linear causality. 

The essential element that characterizes Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) contexts is complexity, that is, the impossibility of tracing back a sequence of events that led to the current situation and of predicting how the current situation may evolve in the future. It is the complexity that gives rise to the uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity of the context that we call VUCA.

The principle of linear causality

Unable to trace a starting point from which the sequence of events unfolds and in absence of an arrival point to which the sequence of events is deemed to lead, history no longer seems to obey a narrative dictated by a linear causality principle, for which the particular succession of observed events can be traced back to a chain of events linked to each other by a causal link.

The loss of a linear narrative structure undermines the foundations of the ontological model that characterizes Western thought and that clearly emerges in every discipline, from linguistics, to psychoanalysis, from logic, to biology and to human organization. All these disciplines are modeled as hierarchical systems (there is a causal sequence according to which events follow each other) and binary systems (narration evolves by binary choices, for example, yes vs no, right vs left, up vs down, right vs. wrong, etc.).

The tree metaphor

Botany helps us by offering a simple metaphor to represent the traditional thought scheme, which is comparable to the structure of a tree: starting from the roots of the tree all the rest grows, for example, the trunk, the main branches, the secondary branches, the leaves, the flowers and the fruits.

In a complex context that by definition violates the bases for the development of a linear thought scheme, structured according to the tree metaphor, with a clear starting point (the root), a clear line of development (trunk, branches, leaves) and a clear point of arrival (flowers and fruits), one wonders according to what other scheme the thought may develop, on what elements such scheme would be based, and what characteristics this scheme would display.

The rhizome metaphor

Botany helps again by providing us with a different metaphor, based on a different type of root: the rhizome. Contrary to the traditional root that gives rise to the tree, the rhizome has a horizontal development, entirely below the ground. The essential characteristics of the rhizome are very different from those featuring linear development roots. For example, the rhizome:

  • has an a-directional structure,
  • carries out a storage function for nutrients, necessary for the plant’s vital functions,
  • presents interconnected nodes, with germinal function (Angiosperms) key for vegetative reproduction, real gems that enable the development of new “individuals” (nodes ​or connections).

Due to its branched, interconnected and extended nature, the rhizome provides a very interesting conceptual representation of the thought pattern that can be associated with complex contexts: any point of the rhizome is connected to the other points through a multidirectional expansion. Furthermore, since each node has a germinal function, the rhizome offers a very convincing interpretation of the system’s ability to “innovate from within”, through the interaction and combination of sprouting nodes, creating an endlessly innovative and generative potential, accessible from any node.

This characteristic has been used by contemporary philosophy and sociology to develop new ontologies and identify new phenomenological perspectives. The rhizome, however, is not yet used in social sciences, such as economics, strategic management and leadership.

The rhizome for Deleuze and Guattari

In philosophy, the rhizome metaphor was used by two French philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari (G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Thousand plans: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980), to characterize a specific semantic model that can be opposed to the tree model on which all disciplines have been historically based. The tree model is characterized by a center, a direction, a causal hierarchy of events, and a temporal order according to which the knowledge encoded by each discipline is organized, regenerated and developed.

According to Deleuze and Guattari “unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point with any other point, and each of its traits does not necessarily refer to traits of the same genus, bringing into play very different regimes of signs states and even non-sign states: with respect to centric (also polycentric) systems, with hierarchical communication and pre-established connections, the rhizome is an acentric, non-hierarchical and non-significant system … “(Deleuze and Guattari, Op. Cit.).

Rhizome’s “Multeplicous” Nature

Therefore, unlike the tree, whose branches grow from a single trunk, the rhizome does not have a single source from which its development takes place. The rhizome is heterogeneous and “multeplicous“, its structure has no entry points or exit points, each node of its structure is connected and connectable, directly or indirectly, to the other nodes of the same structure. “The rhizome cannot be reduced either to the One or to the Multiple … it is not composed of units but of dimensions, or rather of moving directions.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Op. Cit.).

By connoting the rhizome as a “multeplicous” we intend to highlight how its nature combines multiplicity and multiplication. In other words, its nature goes beyond a multiple structure, denoting a structure based on a multiplicity of elements, to claim also, and above all, a multiplication function, denoting the ability of the structure to generate and multiply the nodes and the connections that define the multiplicity itself.

If we now compare the generative capacity of a narrative based on a hierarchical tree-like structure with that characterizing the rhizomatic structure, the ability of the rhizome to offer an effective metaphorical representation of its generative capacity in a complex context appears in its whole formidable potential.

Like the rhizome, in fact, a complex context is characterized by numerous interconnected and interdependent individuals (nodes), capable of generating and innovating, through the adoption of different interpretative perspectives and the development of subjective narratives.

Implications of the Rhizomatic Model

Here are some important implications of a rhizomatic semantic model that offers many fertile hints to the social sciences scholar:

  • Subjective perspective: the perspective to approach a complex system is subjective rather than objective.
  • Interpretative function: the subjective perspective is inevitably based on interpretations of reality, that is to say, on the subjective attribution of a meaning to the observed reality.
  • Prejudices and pre-comprehension: the different attributions of meaning across individuals reflect the different prejudices and “pre-comprehensions” by the individuals themselves (H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
  • Narration: history, narration, thought and its development over time, are the result of this attribution of meaning, which influences both the way in which individuals are generative as well as the way in which this generation activity reflects connections and combinations of elements (individuals and ideas).
  • Generation capacity: the innovation capacity of a complex system does not rely only on the germinal potential of each single individual, but also and above all, on how the individuals are “combined” with each other and is affected by the meaning that each individual attributes to the other individuals, ideas, and their combinations.

This cross-dimensionality is an important feature of the rhizome which differentiates it from a system based on a multiplicity of elements. In view of this feature, the rhizome appears as an adualistic system (that is, a system that is not capable of distinguishing between itself and the external world) which offers infinite planes (plateaus) of intrinsic meaning. Deleuze and Guattari hang on to Bateson’s epistemological reflection on systems and state “A rhizome is made of plans. Gregory Bateson uses the word plan to designate something very specific: a continuous or intensity region, which vibrates on itself and develops itself by avoiding any orientation towards a culminating point or external end”. Therefore, it is in this sense that the rhizome is a systemic principle that cannot be studied and characterized on the basis of the linear causality principle.

Values of Rhizomatic Thinking

The metaphor that emerges is that meanings arise from the proliferation and combinations of nodes, rather than from a central nucleus that forms the original multiple structure. We therefore witness the subversion of the traditional order of thought, also from the point of view of the values ​​against which thought is evaluated:

  • from the “depth of thought”, of which one appreciates the ability to deepen knowledge by entering its most remote meanders and acquiring an exhaustive completeness that would not otherwise be possible by remaining on the surface,
  • to the “breadth of thought”, which refers to the surface (i.e., extension) of thought, as the ability to embrace heterogeneity, value variety, and epitomize.

The old order of values according to which the verticality of thought is good because implies deepening while superficiality is bad because implies no deepening or banality, is overcome by a new order of values in which verticality is no longer sufficient to nurture an effective perspective of thought. In fact, the verticality of thought, if not accompanied also by an inclusive thought embracing heterogeneity, is poor and one-dimensional and offers a limited (if any) capacity to interpret the world. The verticality of thought must be accompanied by the breadth of thought, which offers richness and fertile interpretative asset, in contexts like the VUCA one, which do not lend themselves to be objectively read and do not obey to the linear causality principle.