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

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The Nature of Emergence

While the specifics of this new ironic condition are yet to be fully worked out by me (or other writers about irony), it seems that such a perspective relates directly to the concept of emergence (a philosophical perspective that can be traced back many centuries). During the 20th Century, we saw the ironic emergence of the concept of emergence: we can’t predict the nature of a higher order system from the characteristics of the subsystems that constitute this higher order system.

Rather, a new phenomenon emerges from the old phenomenon that could never have been predicted. Even more generally, Whitehead and his colleagues sought to create a unified concept of the world, with the complex organization of components at one level (e.g. the physical level) yielding novel and irreducible properties at a higher level (e.g. the chemical level). Furthermore, the subsystems from which the new system emerges may themselves seem incompatible or even contradictory—hence the relationship between emergence and irony.

For example, we could never imagine that water would emerge from the combination of two units of hydrogen and one unit of oxygen. Neither hydrogen nor oxygen manifest either the physical properties of water nor interact with other chemical entities in the way that water does. How can a combination of lifeless chemicals along with some unique environmental conditions create something that is alive and that evolves into extraordinary plants and animals? Could this evolution have ever been predicted?

At a very different level, we might comment on the incompatibility of various characteristics of leaders in history: how could a warrior king (such as Alexander or Charlemagne) have also been a champion of culture, the arts and intellectual discourse. Where did these men find the motivation to fight not only for land, but also for artistic expression? Today, we can identify many events (what Taleb calls the “black swans”) (Taleb, 2010) that defy all analyses and predictions—ranging from global terrorism and collapse of economic systems (Smick’s curved world) (Smick,2008) to global explosion in the use of the Internet (Friedman’s flat world) (Friedman, 2007).

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