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

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

39 min read

We tighten up our policies regarding new product development and find that creativity is dropping off. We increase the price of a service that we deliver in order to increase revenues and find that we are losing customers, thereby losing revenues. Leaders may not always recognize a dilemma for what it is. New leaders tend to see dilemmas in a limited or simplistic way, and attempt to deal with them as if they are puzzles or problems. When that happens, leaders dig themselves deeper and deeper into the complexity, seriousness, and irony of the “mess.” (Schön, 1983)

At times we find that the issue is a set of nested dilemmas. One set of conflicting priorities exists within another set of conflicting priorities. For instance, we want to pay one employee a bonus, but are concerned that if we do so other employees who find out about it will be resentful and less likely to collaborate with their bonused colleague. This dilemma, in turn, rests inside an even bigger dilemma: we want to increase salary and benefits to all our employees, yet also are trying to keep down costs because the market in which our product is being sold is highly competitive. These are very complex dilemmas – not readily solved puzzles or even complicated problems.

As in the case of problems, dilemmas can be described as “rugged landscapes.” (Miller and Page, 2007) However, because dilemmas involve multiple elements that are intimately interlinked, they are far more than a cluster or range of mountain peaks of similar size. This type of complex landscape is filled not only with many mountains of about the same height, but also with river valleys, forested plains and many communities (think of the Appalachian Mountains), as compared with a landscape in which one mountain peak dominates or in which a series of mountains dominate. In a complex, rugged landscape, one finds not only many competing viewpoints but also an intricate and irony-filled interweaving of these differing viewpoints.

The sign of an effectively engaged leader is that they can hold opposing and ironic views. The sign of a viable organization is that it can live with and manage its dilemmas in real time, without questioning its identity at every turn in the road, whip-lashing its strategies, tearing and rebuilding it structures reactively, or scapegoating its people. To return to our landscape metaphor, we may find that we are living not in a complex rugged landscape but in what Miller and Page (2007) call a “dancing landscape.” Priorities are not only interconnected, they are constantly shifting, and new alliances between old competing polarities are being forged. Clearly, when a world of complexity collides with a world of uncertainty and a world of turbulence, the landscape begins to dance and organizational leaders must learn how to make their organizations dance (Kantor, 1990). In engaging the dance, these 21st Century leaders have entered the world of Hard Irony.

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