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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Researchers who study complex systems use the metaphor of landscape to distinguish a complex challenge from other types of simpler challenges being faced in various systems, including organizations. They point to the image of a single, dominant mountain peak when describing one type of landscape. Often volcanic in origin, these imposing mountains are clearly the highest point within sight. For those living in or visiting the Western United States, we can point to Mt. Rainer (in western Washington) or Mt. Shasta (in northern California). Mt. Fuji in Japan also exemplifies this type of landscape. You know when you have reached the highest point in the region and there is no doubt regarding the prominence of this peak. Similarly, in the case of puzzles, one knows when a satisfactory solution has been identified and one can stand triumphantly at the top of the mountain/puzzle, knowing that one has succeeded and can look back down to the path followed in reaching the solution/peak.


I have identified the second type of issue that a 21st Century leader faces as a problem. Problems can be differentiated from puzzles because there are multiple perspectives that can be applied when analyzing a problem, several possible solutions are associated with any one problem and multiple criteria can be applied to the evaluation of the potential effectiveness of any one solution. There are many more cognitive demands being placed on us when we confront problems than when we confront puzzles—given that problems do not have simple or single solutions.

Problems are multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary in nature. They are inevitably complicated in that they involve many elements. Any one problem can be viewed from many different points of view that are each creditable; thus, it is unclear when a problem has been successfully resolved and the contemporary leader is faced with the ironic challenge of acknowledging multiple realities and solutions. For example, we find a technical solution and realize that the problem has financial implications. We address the financial implications and soon find that there are a whole host of managerial concerns associated with the problem. Because the outcome of the problem-solution process itself is of significant interest to multiple stakeholders, often the most important and difficult discussions revolve around agreeing on the criteria for solving a problem or even evaluating when solutions are successful.

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