The Adventures of Leadership at the “Edge of Chaos”


In 2000, William Fulmer authored a book exploring the themes of leadership, organizations, and complex adaptive systems.  His introductory remarks, which referenced the Mark Twain quote included above, both captured my attention and directed my thinking and reflection.  Fulmer suggested that we were never really good at predicting the future, though he seemingly left this point open for some debate (and we might choose to invoke Kevin Kelly’s distinction of “surprising but inevitable”).  However, the new layers of complexities to be introduced by our collective future all but guarantee that the task of prediction will become increasingly more difficult.  This premise—and the Twain quote—seemed informative to the ongoing conversation on technology and leadership hosted here (though admittedly, I base this on a very quick skim of Fulmer’s text).

Does the promise of constant and rapid change born by advancing technologies and a networked workforce demand something other than a mechanistic view of and approach to leadership?  It seems reasonable to think so.  Fulmer’s response to an “increasingly chaotic world” posits that being near to “edge of chaos” is ideal.  It is there that one (leader and/or organization) encounters “a place that is orderly enough to ensure stability yet full of flexibility and surprise” (p. 62-63).  Weinberger (2011) reminded us that it is not only the technology itself that is evolving, but also our very concept of knowledge.  In Too Big To Know, he suggested, “Released into the wildness of connected human difference, ideas foliate endlessly.  There are no isolated ideas…only [messy] webs of ideas” (p. 118-119).  Embracing this chaos (in various forms) may be akin to the metaphor Weinberger later invoked, of a skilled jujitsu competitor moving into the punch (p. 183), exploiting a threat for both offensive and defensive gains.

While there is definite benefit to the leader who can predict advances (even with modest success), perhaps a better goal and measure of leadership that seeks the “edge of chaos” is adaptability.  Fulmer suggested, “Only those agents that can adapt to the new reality will survive and prosper.  What is needed in this kind of environment is an organization staffed by people who can respond to the uncertainty in a positive way rather than being frightened by what may lie ahead” (p. 152).  In addition to hiring the right (ideally smart) people, leaders must also create a culture that encourages and leverages individual and organizational learning.

There are various antecedents associated with this type of learning culture that a leader should consider.  Flores, Zheng, and Thomas (2012) correlated (to varying degrees) participative decision making, organizational openness (openness, sharing, exposure to and acceptance of competing ideas and conflict, intellectual honesty, consultation with others), learning orientation (commitment to learning as a necessity for survival), and transformational leadership to organizational learning.  Garvin (1993) interestingly noted this commitment to learning as a key difference-maker between failed and successful organizational learning cultures.  He advocated that leaders: use the wealth of data available to solve problems systematically; experiment; leverage knowledge gained by past experiences (I am reminded of a mentor who would always emphasize that only evaluated experience is a teacher); leverage others to gain new perspectives (insert your preferred reference to the “network”); and transfer knowledge throughout the organization.  Husband and Gartner also seem to offer a compatible message of flexibility, dialogue, cross-functionality, collective mindset, relationship building (see my post from a few weeks back).

Gino and Staats (2015) used research data to identify four groups of biases (and related challenges, respectively) that limit organizational learning, including: bias toward success, bias toward action, bias toward fitting in, and bias toward experts.  The authors noted:

It may be cheaper and easier in the short run to ignore failures schedule work so that there’s no time for reflection, require compliance with organizational norms, and turn to experts for quick solutions.  But these short-term approaches will limit the organization’s ability to learn.  If leaders institute ways to counter the four biases we have identified, they will unleash the power of learning throughout their operations.  Only then will their companies truly improve continuously.

What is clear to me as this eight weeks of exploration comes to an end, is that: (1) the art of prophecy is very difficult indeed, leaving us with more questions than answers, but there is an inherent beauty and power in that; (2) this is not really the end of this journey…but only the beginning; and (3) the journey of leadership at the “edge of chaos” is not for the weak of heart!  To return to where I began this journey many weeks ago, consider Chris Lowney’s (2003) appeal to the Jesuits’ “one foot raised” posture:

Good leaders share this restless, eternally questioning posture.  It keeps them a little ahead of the curve.  It’s what keeps them pointed toward the future, towards solutions and opportunities that others might overlook or be too timid to try or lack the energy to pursue. (p. 208)

Mark Twain put it this way: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” (Fulmer, 2000, p. 199).  Leadership—today and tomorrow—requires one’s courage to face the unknown, one’s willingness to view a rugged and ever-changing landscape as one of adaptive opportunity, and one’s commitment to leverage current and future assets to their fullest potential…

towards the greater good…

and for the greater glory of God!

Courage in the face of the unknown and courage enough to learn and to change, always…are requisite for the leader who wants to survive…and much more so for the one who desires to set the world on fire.