By Howard Stanten, CPCC
A carelessly tossed cigarette stub whirls its way into the dehydrated scrub grass on the side of the road. Hyper-alert field mice shift and scatter from at once searching for food and hiding from the low flying hawks. They shift because their world is burning.
Weeks without rain, the surrounding forest is soon crackling in pain. The billowing smoke causes the hawks to shift and soar high above tree line. They shift because their world is burning.
And so it goes, nature erupting into chaos. The seemingly random act of a human being tips the delicate balance from sustainable order into a no holds barred path of destruction that at first glance appears to leave no hope for the return of life. Of course, in one form or another, life will likely return. Natural systems organize themselves this way. Chaos is, perhaps counter-intuitively, essential to sustainability. Why?
The inevitable quake of change initially brings chaos to order. This disruption, while at first dis-integrating, also holds the possibility for creatively re-integrating in new ways. This creative power, in turn, allows the system to return to a renewed state of order, for the time being.
To be sustainable, any system needs to meet the challenges posed by change as an opportunity for growth and, when necessary, re-emergence. To be sustainable, any system must be capable of shifting the way it is organized. The shift may be as simple as a movement in physical space. The seeds from the burning trees are carried by the draft of the heat to an open field. Or, as complex as a leap that somehow lands amidst new genetic code. Some call this deeper response Evolution, some call it the will of God, and others simply approach it with awe and reverence. “Change or die” may be stark and insensitive, but its ring speaks a universal truth. Natural systems survive or break apart to the degree that they are able to adapt. The sustainability of all natural systems, is at once threatened and protected by the energy released in the inevitable ebb and flow of chaotic storms.
The same is true for human systems. Arguably at the top of the evolutionary chain, our self-consciousness allows us to “see” our role in all of this. This gift of this awareness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are able to be proactive in promoting the survival of the systems we create. On the other, we can consciously sow the seeds of our own destruction. Consider the development of life saving medicines alongside the deployment of weapons of mass destruction. Unlike mice, hawks, and trees, humans have the capacity to consciously choose how we will dance the dance between chaos and order. We are at our best when we honor the differences we all bring to this dance. We are in the most danger when we shun our differences and hide behind the armor of fear and distrust.
Effective leaders embrace differences and embrace the inevitability of change. As they do, they seek tools and methods that allow chaos to breathe creativity into their organizations. They also know that unbridled chaos is not sustainable. Chaos needs a container to provide shape, direction, scope and….order. Chaos needs a shepherd to show the way, define the path, set the vision and and hold the edges of the container together so that the flames continue to burn in such a way that the landscape is cleared of debris; allowing new ideas to emerge and the system as a whole to survive and thrive. The miracle of natural systems is that they tend to shepherd themselves. They are “self” organizing and evolve along a path that weaves between chaos and order, between creativity and sustainability.
Human beings, when they recognize this and allow it to happen, do the same thing. After all, human beings are part of nature; and human beings love to organize themselves. When human beings organize behind iron fisted control, the results are predictable. The system will eventually spiral into chaos. Lacking the discernment involved in walking the path between order and chaos, such systems inevitably become consumed by chaos and die.
Today’s leaders seek new ways to organize themselves, their people, and their systems. There is a growing sense that adapting to the rising tide of complexity fueled by globalization, lighting fast communication, instantaneous information sharing, and the diversity of cultures and belief systems brought together by all of this, requires a shift in approach.
The fire is burning. The mouse shifts and scatters, the wind shifts and carries the trees seed, the hawk shifts and soars high, and the far-sighted leader shifts and gathers the shepherd’s staff. Climbing to a high spot along the path between chaos and order, this leader embraces the possibilities the fire brings and shouts for the willing to participate in leadership together. This leader realizes that the fires of change are unleashing powerful questions and that the answers to these questions will come not from the ideas of an isolated few but from the wisdom of the group. This leader is about the collective harvest of new ideas that will sustain the mission of the organization. This leader is ready to bring the generative nature of collaborative methods into a collective deep dive that gets those involved to show up with the intention and attention necessary to adapt successfully to the complexity that defines our age.
Howard Stanten MPT,CPCC is an Executive Leadership and Professional