Leading in Chaos

In simple terms chaos is order without predictability. That is, there are systems, physical and social, that are well understood and yet are fundamentally unpredictable. Thus, chaos is not anarchy or randomness. Chaos is order, but it is order that is invisible. T.J. Cartwright

Anxiety engulfs many in leadership positions today. To others they display a calm and confident persona. Inside they feel lost, scared, confused, and out of control in response to dangers seen and unseen; known and denied. They often attempt to reduce their distress via quick-fixes: mindless reorganizations, repetitive change programs, and superficial remedies to systemic issues.

They work futilely to avoid discomfort, gain control, and find security not understanding that what is asked of leadership today goes counter to the mental models of the Industrial Era ingrained within them, generally without their awareness. They try to lead from old beliefs in a new world.

Heroic leaders come and go each with their own painless program that promises to make everyone feel in control once again. Most of their programs end before being fully implemented when the next savior takes over with her own plan to restore stability. Most of the time, effort, and money are wasted. Little changes except the organizations become more insidiously paternalistic. No one talks about this repetitive and addictive pattern of behavior.

Dr. Rachel Remen wrote, “In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs we may be left without mercy and compassion. In rejecting change and risk, we often cheat ourselves of the quest. In denying suffering, we may never know our strength and our greatness.” Deep change, which is required, is difficult: scary, painful, and uncertain. Such transformation also renews people and organizations and improves the chances for the sustainability of the enterprise.

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.” Much angst comes from people’s refusal to see the world as it is and themselves as they are. We live in the midst of multiple global transformations with outcomes unknown and in the background the deep dangers of global climate change grow daily. People in leadership roles cannot elude the chaos of life that is the context of leadership today and as far into the future as anyone can foresee. Many in the industrial world were conditioned for order, control, and predictability and this blinds many from the truth: chaos is healthy, creative, potential filled, and life renewing.

Leadership in the chaos of a dynamic world requires capacities vastly different than the capabilities needed in a world thought of as a great machine–as different as the skills of a mechanic and an artist.

Many frustrated leaders with mechanistic worldviews try to lead living organizations as they fix machines with control, conformity, and predictability being the goals. The leadership toolkit of the mechanic is mostly wrong for today’s leadership context. The artist’s palette of choices and eye for process, pattern, and relationships feed imagination and are needed on the organizational canvas more than the mechanic’s wrench.

Instead of dampening the energy surrounding them, wise leaders understand its dynamics, embrace its power, bring forth its potential, and develop the artistic capabilities needed to lead within the deeper and unpredictable order.

Astute leaders do not attempt to run and hide from themselves or frantically conceal symptoms of systemic problems with cosmetic solutions. They face their fears with courage and honesty and transform the dangers they sense to opportunities. They confront squarely the genuine problems old-school enterprises face in perpetual chaos: incongruent thought processes, problems of vision and values, the management of change, issues of mediocrity and organizational capacity, questions of sustainability, the truth of leadership capability, and matters of responsibility and accountability.

True leaders embrace the risk, honesty, and loneliness of a leader’s journey within: a creative odyssey of challenge, excitement, stimulation, and development of new ways to think about leadership.

They are the leaders we need for the 21st century.