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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The White-Water World of Contemporary Organizations

The condition of turbulence further compounds the challenge of complexity and unpredictability, given that we, as leaders, must live in a swirling “white-water world” (Vaill, 1989) in which rapid change intermixes with patterned change, stagnation and chaos. I’ll begin with the positive side: there is nothing more beautiful and variable than a mountain stream, with its falls, whirlpools, rivulets, and quiet pools of water.

The stream is beautiful in part because it is always changing. Like the flickering flames in a fireplace, the crash of waves on an ocean beach, or the fall of snow on a winter evening, there is always something new (emergent) evolving from the unpredictable interplay of various subsystems in the mountain stream. The whole is always something more than the sum of its parts.

If one looks more closely at this extraordinarily complex system, one finds that four different kinds of subsystems are operating in the stream. These four subsystems interact to produce increased complexity and they, in turn, produce a phase change (tipping point) which becomes the magical white-water world of the flowing stream (the positive side), as well as the ironic challenges of unpredictability and contradiction (the negative side).

First, there is the rapidly flowing subsystem of the stream. The movement in this subsystem is very rapid and highly predictable. When we watch a leaf being carried by this subsystem we can readily tell where it will be two seconds from now. The flow of water in this subsystem resembles the flow in a large river: powerful, constant and quiet. This subsystem of the stream exemplifies the orderly subsystems in an organization.

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