Chaos and leadership

So, what is chaos?

Chaos is a scientific concept that is now used to describe the state of a system. That system, when considering leadership might be of mind, of environment, of interactions. It is a state. And, like H2O, that chaotic state is about the fact that it is in change. It is not fixed.This makes chaos a powerful state because there is the opportunity to respond to the state of chaos.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore Chaos in more detail, starting this week with the idea of chaos being an opportunity.

The idea of chaos opportunity

In a “tongue-in-cheek” comment  Peter Marsh and Stefan Stern, in their initial evaluation of WL Gore’s success, suggest that If you want to achieve 50 years of almost continuous growth, you now know what you have to do: abolish management and get rid of all the employees.

But, taking the tongue out of the cheek, they later uncover that some of the success is actually about the non-hierarchial structure of the company.

The chaos conversation…

A number of years ago, during a casual conversation with an executive of a financial institute I discovered that, for him, the thought of not having a hierarchical and rigid organisation and decision-making structure would allow for “people going off and doing their own thing”. What irony considering what has been revealed thus far from the Banking Royal Commission here in Australia.

However, this executive clearly thought I was barking mad to suggest that chaos might be a valuable area to explore as an organisation. And he thought I was even madder when I encouraged him to understand the edge of chaos and how valuable it could be to find and be in it. Anyway, a strong tea was made and we moved onto whether the Wallabies would win – not much joy there either.

The exploration…

The conversation peaked my interest in what actually is it about things not being “under control” that gets some people very jumpy and so I started reading and observing.

The learning…

I remember as a child riding my pony – she was a bugger and very strong-willed - we were a good match. She never quite did what I wanted and I loved her for it. I was regularly instructed to “get Polly under control”. But, secretly I delighted in the fact that she always didn’t quite do it the way she should have. I think I enjoyed being on the chaotic side, which is why chaos and my theory about “leadership space” have interested me for so long now. It is edgy and just a tad unconventional.

It was later on while studying for my Masters in Leadership, that I discovered the idea of the edge of chaos.

What is chaos?

Chaos is a scientific concept. It is simply a system that is characterised by unpredictability – that we can’t predict what will happen next.

An example is a raindrop running down a window panel. We can’t predict where it is going to flow. It is still a raindrop. We think we can see where it will run but we can never be certain. I remember long car trips as a child on rainy days watching the water streak horizontally across the passenger window. And I remember thinking “I wonder where this drop will go? I thought I could predict but never got it right, they seemed to track the paths of other droplets but would then do something “new”. Chaos!

Chaos is not a crisis or a natural emergency or an accident or a disaster.

Chaos is an unpredictable system.

There are parameters. There is connectivity. There is purpose. There is direction. But the system is not predictable – raindrops on a car window.

What does this mean for leadership?

Well, in my experience and the experience of Affectus, it means that the people we work with are not predictable. Their responses, reactions, behaviours, actions can’t be predicted and therefore can’t be controlled.

Scary or exciting? A bit of both I think.

Scary because we have been told “get Polly under control” - thinking that we can get “her/him/them/it” under control.

However, what we also know, innately, is that control is an illusion.

We can manage ourselves and control many things about ourselves but we are literally wasting our time thinking we can control our people. Yes, we can direct or tell or demand (if that is our style), encourage, motivate, cajole, bribe others to “do what I want”. But ultimately (as we all know) people have to make a decision.

This is why the chaotic people stuff is hard – really hard. And why it is worth spending energy thinking “well if control is off the agenda what is available to me, to all of us?”

I guarantee that the Big 4 Banks and AMP (and all the others yet to be revealed) have lots of control process to stop their financial advisers randomly behaving unethically. In fact, I am sure many of you have signed statements, I know I have, from financial advisers outlining how they will behave and what I can expect of them. However, if the Banking Royal Commission tells us anything, that control process hasn’t worked!

The exciting bit

The part of the conversation that years ago ensured me and my banking buddy started talking about the Wallabies, is:

What would happen if the myth of control was removed and we allowed people to step find their individual leadership space?
What would it be like if we said there is the edge of chaos, where the system is not rigid?
Where people are able to try things, experiment, challenge, probe, try out their ideas.
What if we go there – all of us? What would happen?
Perhaps the question is "what would happen?" What might happen? What would you need to let go of to let this happen and what might the outcomes be?

Quiet your mind, let go of your initial thinking (that anarchy would occur/it would be amazing) and think about the people – not the system. Think about their amazing capability, their knowledge, their desire for good things to happen.

Experience reveals that something different happens. Not perhaps what you expect, but does that matter.

The work Affectus does, as many of you have experienced, lets go of the structure. We give you parameters, yet we let you find your leadership space (collectively or individually). And then we say “go there" and ask what has happened? Magic, brilliance, disorder. A newness forms and in that newness, you find out. You find the edge of chaos where your mind is stretched, your knowledge enhanced, your participation is magnified and you add great value.

To finish

Ori Braffman, in the book The Starfish and the Spider says

“When you put people in an open system, some of them will get high, dance all night long, and attack street signs. But most people will create elaborate art, share snow cones, and try as hard as they can—in thier own way—to contribute to the community. And Burning Man, though outside them ainstream, holds a crucial lesson for businesses. When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity.” 

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