Leading in Chaos
by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.
with Diane Olson, Ph.D.

Anxiety engulfs many in leadership positions. To others they display a calm and confident persona. Inside they feel lost, scared, confused, and panicked in response to obscure dangers. Destined for disappointment, they impose mindless and repeated reorganizations, change programs, and superficial fixes upon the exhausted and cynical people they try to lead. They attempt to reduce their anxiety by reducing their awareness. They work futilely to avoid pain, gain control, and find security not understanding that much of leadership today is counter to their mental models. As the new economy sorts out the winners and the losers, their sense of foreboding only increases.

Much of their anxiety comes from their refusal to see the world as it is and themselves as they are. They cannot elude the chaos of life: it is the context of leadership today and as far into the future as anyone can foresee. Humans are conditioned for order, control, and predictability and this blinds many from the truth: chaos is healthy, chaos is creativity, chaos is opportunity, chaos is life reordering itself.

Instead of dampening the energy that surrounds them, wise leaders understand its dynamics, embrace its power, bring forth its potential, and develop the artistic capabilities needed to lead within unpredictable order.

Immanuel Kant, in the late 1700's, proposed as the motto for the Enlightenment: Sapere Aude -- dare to know. Dare to know could well be the motto for enlightened leadership in the 21st century. Dare to know that leadership in chaos requires capacities vastly different than the capabilities needed in calmer environments -- as different as the skills of a mechanic and an artist.

Many frustrated leaders are mechanics who try to lead living organizations as they fix machines. The leadership toolkit of the mechanic is wrong for today's leadership context. The artist's palette of choices and eye for process and pattern are needed on the organizational canvas -- not the mechanic's wrench.

Many in positions of power are the wrong people to lead in the times in which we live. Those who act without insight must be told of the impact they have on the spirits of others and on the sustainability of the enterprises they struggle to lead. It is our responsibility to tell them. If we do not, our indifference colludes with their mindlessness, and we are all responsible for our fate. Those who refuse to listen must be removed from positions of leadership.

Mature leaders do not attempt to run and hide from themselves or frantically conceal symptoms of systemic problems with cosmetic solutions. They face their anxiety with courage and honesty and transform the dangers they sense to opportunities. They confront squarely the genuine problems enterprises face today: incongruent thought processes, problems of vision and values, the management of change, issues of mediocrity and organizational capacity, questions of sustainability, the truth of leadership capability, and matters of responsibility and accountability.

Many need to face the harsh fact of their leadership shortcomings and develop, within themselves and within each enterprise, the thought processes, the core beliefs, and the leadership capabilities needed throughout organizations in times of massive and multiple transitions. D.H. Lawrence wrote that "the great virtue in life is real courage, that knows how to face facts and live beyond them."

True leaders embrace the risk, honesty, and loneliness of a leader's journey within: a creative odyssey of challenge, excitement, stimulation, and development of who they can be as people and as new leaders. This growth is a conscious evolution of aspects of the self long dormant. When leaders learn to mindfully manage their own anxiety they can then help others contain their foreboding and the emotion can be converted to energy and aliveness.

Dr. Rachel Remen wrote, "In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs we may be left without mercy and compassion. In rejecting change and risk, we often cheat ourselves of the quest. In denying suffering, we may never know our strength and our greatness."

When people face their anxiety honestly, work through it, and take courageous and responsible actions, then they will mature as leaders. Then they will be real leaders and will lead great organizations.


Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. is a consultant, writer, teacher, inspirer, former special agent in the United States Secret Service, former business leader, change agent, photographer and adventurer. Visit A More Natural Way for more of his work and life strategies services.

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