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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Mysteries are outside our control, so we don’t have to feel responsible for resolving them. But problems and dilemmas—these are much more difficult to address. We have to determine which aspects of the problem or dilemma are under our control and which aspects are not. This confusing mixture of internal and external control is inherent in problems and dilemmas, and so is the balancing of competing but valid interests represented by different stakeholders. That’s what makes these issues so difficult to address. They exemplify the ironic condition existing in contemporary organizations.

Sense-Making, Leadership and Irony

When dealing with complexity, unpredictability and turbulence we are constantly trying to make sense of the challenges we are facing and alternative solutions that we might enact. We try to make sense of the conceptual challenges and strategic challenges we face by comparing these challenges to something about which we are already knowledgeable. This is part of the reason why I am relying heavily on metaphor in this set of essays: the white-water environment and the differing landscapes of contemporary organizations. It is also the reason why metaphor is of great value in addressing organizational challenges associated with irony.

We can more readily address the intricacy of irony by framing each element of the ironic condition in concrete, descriptive terms (such as “financial bottom line” versus “long life” or “quality” versus “quantity”). While there is much that can be said about the role played by metaphor in framing and resolving organizational issues, I will focus on two particularly important sets of metaphors—namely those associated with the process of appreciation and those associated with differing leadership styles.

Effective leaders make sense of the Hard Irony to be found all around in the world where they work and live. Multiple-scale analysis reveals the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of the system in which members of organizations work and in which they seek to serve as leaders. This full appreciation of the multiple levels at which organizations and people operate can be frightening (we lose the container for anxiety).

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