Home Concepts Organizational Theory Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

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Three Physical States

To better understand this world of white-water and turbulence, we will turn to another analogy. During the early years in the study of chaos and complexity, Stuart Kauffman (1991) suggested that there are three physical states. He points to the three states of water as an exemplar. On the one hand, there are systems that are highly orderly—such as ice. Ice is highly orderly and non-changing (as long as the environment in which it exists remains constant). There is also a second physical state—gas—which Kauffman suggests is chaotic. Water vapor, for instance, is unpredictable in its movement and destination; one has only to observe the steam that comes out of a teakettle.

A third physical state is represented in the condition that is intermediate between frozen and gaseous. This is the liquid state of an ingredient. This state represents the interplay between order (frozen) and chaos (gaseous) and is typified by turbulence. This turbulence is found in a whitewater stream and for that matter in any system that is moving rapidly–but is faced with obstacles and divergent forces (such as other entering streams or wind currents).

This is a very important corrective on many of the recent attempts to apply chaos theory to organizational life. Chaos does not exist, per se, in an isolated form in any biological system. Rather, chaos is always being played off against and being balanced by the orderly functions of the system. A chaotic organization, therefore, would cease to exist if there was no order. The turbulence in a stream only exists because the fourth subsystem serves as a buffer and point of transition between two orderly systems that are operating in quite different ways (stagnant versus rapidly moving; whirlpool versus stagnant; whirlpool versus rapidly moving). Similarly, turbulence in an organization only exists because some subsystem in the organization is buffering or serving as a transition point between two other systems that operate with their own patterns and underlying order.

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