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Leadership and Control

Do Chaos and Control matter in leadership?

What is chaos and what is control and are they opposites? Does it have anything to do with leadership?

Today we are focusing more a list of questions with our considerations…and yes these are questions we ask ourselves continually at Affectus and they stretch us constantly.

What is control?

Control has many definitions. From

the power to influence or direct people's behaviour or the course of events


a member of an intelligence organization who personally directs the activities of a spy.

Considering those two definitions the next question may be "is control something an individual decides or an institute expects?".

Thinking from an individual perspective I observe the struggle of control happening at an individual level everywhere – parents, councils, managers. Therefore “the power to influence or direct people's behaviour or the course of events” fits most comfortably when considering control.

Why do we seek control?

This can challenge at a very fundamental level.

There is no doubt that directing the course of events has to happen constantly. The alternative paints a bizarre picture in my mind of all of my extended family sitting glummy on my verandah.

But what about the idea of directing people’s behaviour.

Firstly, what I now think about when I want to influence (not direct – I have given up on directing) is Johari’s Unknown Unknown.

If control is about influencing outcomes you have to acknowledge that you cannot possibly know what others know. And then there is a whole bucket of information you are unaware of being unaware of. You cannot control this...you have no idea.

Therefore the logic is why would you be seeking to control. The public example of this is the Australian Government trying to control the cross-benchers. From this perspective, control is about "me" rather than others.

What happens when our focus is on control?

Moving from the above thinking to our focus. What happens if our control moves from others to ourselves? What happens? Will the world stop turning? Unlikely me thinks!

At Affectus, what we witness happening is that we more fully focus on what we are bringing to a situation. We are more aware of our contributions and our responses, reactions and actions.

Having found that if we are more aware of managing ourselves, rather than trying to manage the unknowns, then we more fully contribute with all our passion and knowledge and skills.

So if you focus on you and controlling you, you are potentially giving more to the direction and outcomes than if you try to control others. We know this makes sense because day-to-day we see it in action with the teams we work with.

What is chaos?

In all of the research and thinking  done on Chao, we have a significantly clearer understanding of the chaos concept now.

It is not a disaster or a critical incident.

Chaos is the unpredicatability of all systems.

Chaos is because we can’t have control. And we can’t have control because of the unknown.

Now... we are aware that this freaks people out a bit!

But (take a deep breath let it out slowly)

Chaos is all the time…

You can’t control what another person does. You might be able to have a logical discussion with others, come to a conclusion of next steps or endgame. But you can’t control what they are going to do…even if they are in your employ.

This is the nub of leadership and chaos.

In leadership positions you have to know that you can’t control and that chaos is all the time.

So then what might be your options.

  1. To hold on tighter to all the levers in the crazy hope that the tighter you hold the more people will do what you want.
  2. To let go of the levers and let things happen fluidly

"Are you joking?" We hear the yells? Don’t scream too loudly at the screen…

We are not suggesting anarchy - we are not.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the suggestion is that holding on is madness and thinking through chaos might be valuable. And by thinking through chaos, we mean thinking through the fact that systems are unpredictable because we (you and I) are involved.

When you next step into a leadership space, think:

  • how can I more fully bring myself to this situation and control me and my inputs
  • AND how can I allow everyone else to do the same

Perhaps that is the opportunity of chaos? To constantly be inviting the unknown into the leadership space.

Read our other articles on Chaos and Leadership here

Chaos – What happens to our brains

Have you considered what happens to our brains in times of chaos?

In 2014, Havard Professor Sendhil Mullainathan spoke about the latest research on how stress can affect intelligence, a factor in successful decision-making.

Mullainathan said.

“Though multitasking has become a way of life in the modern era and may be a smart way to maximize time, it might not be the best way to maximize decision-making. Each person has only so much intellectual bandwidth.”

So what happens in your brain when you are faced with the stress of chaos?

What could be happening in your brain in the mess of chaos and how can we maximise our bandwidth?

It is important to understand a little bit about the neurology of response and the idea of chaos

What is chaos?

A chaotic system is characterized by unpredictability.

This means, simply, that one cannot predict how a system will behave in the future on the basis of a series of observations along time.

That sounds like so many times in my life…last week, yesterday, pockets of January. When I accept that unpredictability is how most day-to-days rollout out I can let go of some of my learnt behaviours. And then I can use the slower decision-making loop in my brain to respond to the chaos.

Rarely during chaotic times do I (now) respond with the Three Fs - flight, fright or flee. But this has taken awareness and feedback and lots of work.

During the work I do with amazing people all over Australia through our leadership programs and workshops, I do see the Three Fs responses. So how can we quiet this automatic response when chaos reigns and what difference will it make?

The Third Space

The Third Space has helped me and many people quiet the Three Fs.

Affectus has adopted The Third Space concept to assist individuals to unlock the idea that the brain can be trained to pause and then see the chaotic situation differently.

Our research and observations over the last 15 years suggest that people need a 3-hour session to find a new way of thinking about the opportunities available during chaotic moments.

The OPEN Process

However, to start your thinking about how to retrain your brain during chaotic times consider Mullainathan’s concept of bandwidth and employ our OPEN process to assist you with expanding your bandwidth during messy times.

  • Observe – observe yourself and be conscious of your responses. It is good to get a handle on yourself first.
  • Pause – give yourself a moment to breathe by pausing, by taking a breath, and quiet your self-talk. You can unlearn the response to chaos.
  • Engage – look around you. This can be a moment of discomfort if your brain is telling you to freeze or flee but chaos is not natural disaster or life-threatening moments. It is important to keep engaging because doing this can unlock the golden moments – the edge - of chaos.
  • Notice – know that your brain is able to take in large amounts of information and process it (and learn many new responses). So notice what others are doing and how the chaos can be optimised.