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

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Big History and Tipping Points

Today, we find an ambitious project being undertaken by the proponents of “big history.” Rather than creating a separate history of our universe, our solar system, our planet, the geography of our planet, the biology of our planet and human history, David Christian (Christian and McNeill, 2004) and his big history colleagues, describe ways in which this is all one unified history, with the movement from one scale (e.g. the universe) to another scale (e.g. the solar system) providing new insights about both scales.

Much as one cannot predict water from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, so one cannot predict the properties of the system at one scale (e.g. the history of living beings on the earth as addressed in the field of biology) from properties of the system at another scale (e.g. the geographical history of the earth as addressed in the field of geology).

Big history is about major breakthroughs. These breakthroughs (whether at the level of the creation of the universe, the formation of life forms on earth, or the emergence of a new species of fish) have always involved a delicate (and infrequent) interweaving between and balancing of order with chaos. We see this same pattern emerging in the ironic dynamics of organizations.

As Ralph Stacey (1996) has noted, the interplay between order and chaos provides the opportunity for creativity and renewal in organizations. With only order, there is no incentive for or source of ideas for innovation. With only chaos, there is no structure or process by which new ideas are reviewed and ultimately implemented. Even at the level of our individual lives, we find that major learning occurs when order (support) is balanced off with chaos (challenge) and many of the most motivating experiences (“flow”) occur at the threshold between boredom (order) and anxiety (chaos). I will be addressing this interplay and threshold frequently in this essay.

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