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To Flicker or Swing: The Fire and Pendulum of Leadership

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A second remarkable characteristic of fire is its ephemeral nature. It is all process and not much substance. As Prigogine notes, the Newtonian sciences concentrated on substances and the ways in which forces operated on various substances. It became the science of being. Fire, by contrast, is a science of becoming. Science of being, notes Prigogine, focuses on the states of a system, whereas a science of becoming focused on temporal changes—such as the flickering of a flame. Fire demands a focus not on the outcomes of a production process, but on the nature of the process itself. As adults, we often focus on the outcomes of our children’s creative work. We admire their drawings of sunsets or battles among alien forces. Yet, our children tend to focus on the process of drawing. Their picture is not a static portrait. Rather it is story that is unweaving as the child places various lines on the page. In a similar manner we must often focus on the ways in which decisions are made in organizations, or the styles being used to manage employees, rather than focusing on the final decisions that are made or the relative success of the employee’s performance.

Unfortunately, organizational processes, like fires, are elusive. They are hard to measure or even document short or long term impact. Once a fire has begun, one can’t unburn what has already been consumed. One can extinguish the fire, but a certain amount of damage has already been done and a certain amount of warmth has already been generated. Once a leader has changed the way in which she compensates her employees, there is no turning back. Once a leader has begun to talk with his subordinates in a candid manner about their performance, he can’t return to a previous period of indirect feedback and performance reviews. Once the story has been told, there is no returning to the moment before the story was first told. There is no untelling a story.

The implications of organizational irreversibility are profound, for major problems often emerge when organizational fires are mistaken for organizational pendulums. The 1991 Soviet coup, for instance, appears at least from a short-term perspective to exemplify an irreversible, combustible form of change. Whereas the coup leaders thought that the Soviet Union would continue to operate as a pendulum with each new group of leaders restoring the government to its previous state, the people on the streets saw this as an opportunity to bring about a fire—a second order change. There was going to be a change in the very process of change itself. This new order of things was not one of restoration, but rather one of transformation. Even if the new Russian order fails, there will never be a return to the old order. There will never again be a Soviet Union as we knew it during the years of the Cold War. The story cannot be untold. A similar tale can be told about the Arab Spring and about the remarkable events that have occurred in many Mid-Eastern countries.

If, in fact, an organizations territory is made up of countless pendulums and fires, and people keep thinking that the reality is all pendulums, it’s no wonder that people are continually upset and keep doing the same things about it unsuccessfully.

As someone said, “It’s not chaos that drives us crazy. It’s the false expectation of order.”

Back to Home Page of Issue One

Table of Contents

High Performance Human Workplace [Dominique Guilini]

Avalon and Glastonbury: The Merlin Factor [Charles Smith]

God is in the Neurons: Can We Rewire our Brains? [Athene]

What Would Homo Systemicus Do? [Barry Oshry]

Traffic Management and Business Performance: A White Paper [Ian Prosser]


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