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The Wise Leader in a Postmodern Organizational Context

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What are the responses of many leaders to this condition? The typical response is a turning to or a returning to the state of multiplicity in which we cynically conclude that since there is no one right way or moral way to do things, then any old way is acceptable as long as we don’t get caught. Such a cynical posture provides some shelter against the postmodern storm. Skepticism is another protective stance: Anyone who has grown up in a totalitarian ideological system, which has its seductive absolute truths and world-improving tenets, often spends their life in justified skepticism toward any ideology or absolute claims of truth: at least I will never be fooled or made to believe in something that is ultimately found to be inadequate or dead wrong.”

Multiplistic thinking is certainly a tempting stance for a 21st Century leader to take given the postmodern challenges this leader faces. It is based on the assumption of multiple truths and multiple realities, each of which is equally valid. Ironically, multiplicity is just another form of dualism: “if there is no one truth, then there must not be any truths!” As Foucault has so often observed, in this view truth and reality tends to be decided by less rational forces involving governments, political pressure, social-economic power, and subtle media-based coercion. We need not worry, therefore, about who is right; rather we must worry about who is in charge and what they believe or declare to be the truth and reality. A new golden rule applies for the Multiplist: “he who has the gold makes the rule [and defines reality]!”

Perry suggests another response to the problems of a relativistic world. This is the response he calls commitment in relativism. It is a response that is directly aligned with the learning-orientation of the postmodern leader. It is a response that requires the willingness to make a commitment to something, despite the fact that there are alternative truths and realities that can make viable claims on our sense of the world. At this point, Perry moves beyond the line of argument that would be found among most relativists. He writes of the need for mature men and women to make decisions and take stances in the face of postmodern relativism. As postmodern leaders we must make commitments while living in a relativistic world. In order to be able to do this, Perry suggests that we need courage and the capacity for self-reflection. Dualism and relativism without commitment enable one to avoid anxiety, but courage alone enables us to transcend it.

Dualism, with its clear rights and wrongs, enables us – as Erik Fromm noted many years ago –  to escape from freedom. Relativism without commitment enables us to float above the fray, and avoid making the tough decisions or any commitments. We can be breathtaking in our clever and often cynical social analyses. We are brilliant Monday morning quarterbacks regarding politics, corporate decision-making, and our parents’ child raising strategies. Because we ourselves never have to make choices, we can successfully criticize those who do have to make decisions.

The Multiplists and Relativists do not view themselves as similar to the Committed Relativist, but instead criticize the Committed Relativist for retreating into Dualism. Like the Dualist, they confuse commitment for uncritical acceptance. In the case of the cynical Multiplist, the retreat is either a falling back into Dualism or an expedient move to commitment (“who is paying you to come to that decision?”). For the Relativist, the retreat is viewed as either an ignoring of alternative perspectives or as a “selling out” to the forces that are forcing simplification in our society. The Multiplists project their own turn to expedience onto the Committed Relativist, while the Relativist yearn for (and try to remain in) a world that enables them to stay detached and “objective.”

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