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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Emergence and Irony within Organizations

As I have already been hinting, the observation of order and chaos in interaction within virtually all organizations leads to an important conclusion regarding the relationship between emergence and irony. Various systems and subsystems within organizations seem to contradict one another – yet they need each other and influence (emergence) one another.

These ironic conditions are produced by and in turn contribute to the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence within an organization. (Vaill, 1989; Wheatley, 2006; Stacey, 1996) I propose that each of these three challenges (complexity, unpredictability and turbulence) requires a new kind of organizational leadership, and a new level of appreciation for irony (Soft Irony)

Turning first to complexity, we know that high levels of complexity within an organization demand a level of cognitive functioning that often leaves us, as Robert Kegan (1994) suggests, “in over our heads.” We must be able to understand and grapple with complex issues that are often nested inside other complex issues or are juxtaposed with other challenging issues—this is the essence of Rorty’s ironic condition.

We are faced in complex settings with an additional challenge: we must simultaneously be able to think about our own thinking and take actions. We must be able to learn from our mistakes and successes, as well as be aware of the particular settings in which we learn and in which we don’t learn (often called meta-learning) We must adopt Rorty’s contingent mode of thought and engagement.

We are even more challenged when faced with uncertainty. Obviously, under conditions of uncertainty, we can’t predict what will happen next. However, there is an additional challenge: we are continually faced with new information that comes from many different angles. We must continually accommodate to this new information while abandoning—at least temporarily—old assimilated models, assumptions, and social constructions of organizational reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1967: Argyris and Schön, 1974; Argyris, 1982; Senge, 1990).

Using Kurt Lewin’s term, we are always “unfreezing” and never have a chance to settle in with our new learning and new accommodation. (Lippitt, Watson and Westley, 1958) Using Rorty’s analysis of irony, we are always faced with shifting contingencies in our role as organizational leaders and must always entertain multiple perspectives and explore multiple strategies when living in this world of complexity and unpredictability.

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