Home Concepts The Wise Leader in a Postmodern Organizational Context

The Wise Leader in a Postmodern Organizational Context

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For both Dualists and Multiplists, mysteries are much easier to comprehend than are problems—for mysteries are outside their control. The Dualists are likely to see mysteries as a confirmation of whatever “truth” they have received from an external source: The “good” have been rewarded, or the ultimate plan has not been revealed by the “ultimate” source of truth. Multiplists will view mysteries as further evidence that there is no solid base for assessing the validity of any “truth” and that therefore one should abandon all critical analysis: “It doesn’t matter what we think or believe, since what really happens in the world is a mystery beyond our control or comprehension. . . So let’s do whatever we want to do.”

Mysteries are much more challenging for the Relativist and Committed Relativist who try to place a rational frame around experiences in their lives. Mysteries defy reason and leave the Relativist in a mood to become even more detached from reality, and the Committed Relativist in a mood to join the Relativist in this detachment. Having come to a difficult decision, the Committed Relativist hates the thought of some external event, over which he has no control, intervening and throwing off the carefully deliberated course of action that he has taken. We finally decide on a candidate for this new job and she must decline because of a death in her family. We have chosen the new location for our shopping mall and we find that it is located in a seismically-active region and, hence, is not suitable for development. The Committed Relativist curses the perfidious predisposition of Nature and moves back to ground zero in order to make different, thoughtful decision.

A Special Type of Problem: The Paradox

If choosing between left and right in a definitive way is dangerous, and if defining good and bad in absolute terms is no longer philosophically defensible, how do leaders in a postmodern setting make choices and decisions? In 1992, Barry Johnson gave us Polarity Management, an elegant and eminently practical solution for “identifying and managing [such] unsolvable problems.”

As I already noted, puzzles have simple solutions and lie within our control. Many problems have multiple solutions, are infinitely complex, and require multi-directional cooperation, since they are not subject to one locus of control. Another category of challenges, mysteries, can never be solved completely:”What is love?” “Why am I here?” And then there are paradoxes or dilemmas, which require action and can be moved along, but can never be resolved once and for all. Think about it:  Can there be one ultimate answer for the choice between career and family life? Can the world conclusively choose between globalization and local needs? Between freedom and security in America? Can a manager choose between driving for performance and attending to his people’s needs? In these cases, the “solution” has to be… both! Instead of choosing between these apparent alternatives, we are learning to manage, not try to “solve” these dilemmas.

Barry Johnson suggests as a first step for handling everyday dilemmas, that both the benefits and the disadvantages of the two legitimate but opposite forces be analyzed. The two opposing forces are often embodied in “camps;” For example, the comptroller’s interest in minimizing expenses is pitted against the marketing department’s need to invest in consumer research. A central government has the need to unify the nation, but the states or provinces need flexibility in running their daily affairs. Neither position is “wrong.” The postmodern leader who understands polarity management will regularly bring both parties to the table and facilitate a mutual understanding of the respective benefits and possible negative consequences of exclusively holding either position. Enormous understanding and empathy result from this first step alone.

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