“The language used in the workplace is too small for the territory we must enter in order to create a successful company or a successful individual work-life.”
David Whyte, Poet and Author
Government and business scandals have had myriad ripple effects, not the least of which has been to illuminate the shadow side of organizational and individual agendas. As a result, leaders find themselves more heavily scrutinized, and in an ever more uncomfortable position of having to serve many masters, a good number of which may well be in conflict.
Few would argue that leaders are challenged to move into new levels of integrity, requiring heightened mastery where vision, intention, courage, and communication are concerned. These are all familiar terms, and yet the times require that leaders begin to see them in new ways that transcend entrenched habits and assumptions.
While the challenges are steep, and the call to greater mastery daunting, the potential rewards are also great. In a world and workplace in need of visionary leadership and meaning — trends to which no leader is immune — the opportunities of the mastery path can become a significant focal point and source of inspiration.
Taking cues from chaos theory and wisdom traditions, the more masterful leader of this new era becomes a powerful, skillful catalyst for ethical influence and positive change.
The wild world of strange attractors
In chaos theory, the ‘strange attractor’ plays an organizing role, as the order or pattern at the heart of what appears to be chaos.
In Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, physicist F. David Peat and co-author John Briggs point out that new organizations “often have a flexible, searching, chaotic quality about them and a camaraderie among the individuals who start them.” At the heart of this phenomenon is a creative, entrepreneurial, start-up intention that acts as a strange attractor around which priorities, activities, and people organize.
As the creative enterprise “falls prey to the grip of standard ‘good business’ assumptions,” say Peat and Briggs, the creative spirit becomes stagnant and, in turn, influences the nature of the organization. A different quality of leadership emerges — one that helps support the systems, hierarchies, and competitive interactions that are associated with larger, more conventional companies. The influences that unsettle such systems are marginalized or banished altogether.
Unfortunately, without factors that perturb the system, it petrifies and ultimately falls behind other, more nimble entities. The very creativity and unorthodox influences that stimulate and thrive in chaos — and thus keep the organization growing and fresh — get squelched.
What does this have to do with modern leaders facing new challenges, and called to a path of greater integrity and mastery? Stagnant and petrified ways of approaching business are dying a slow death, and the inclination to hold on to them has increasingly negative or even aberrant results. Enron, of course, offers a now-legendary example, but there are others.
Examples that demonstrate the need for change
In one case, a culture of organizational stagnation prompted a leader to distance an important team member who was a creative catalyst and system-perturber, because that person caused discomfort by revealing areas of complacency.
Instead, the leader appointed an insider who towed the traditional line but was incapable of leading the group into required new territory, defaulting instead to old but ineffective ways of managing. The initiative fell behind, going well over schedule and budget. The leader traded short-term discomfort that would have catalyzed longer-term advances for perpetual (and expensive) discomfort and status quo, which resulted in an erosion of his esteemed reputation within the organization.
In another example, recent research shows increasing epidemics of obesity and derivative health issues, as a result of unhealthy diets of fast food, processed food, and soft drinks, among other factors. On one side of this issue are adept leaders and employees meeting company goals to increase market share and profits; and on the other side is a similar group that finds traditional success in exploiting the growing unwellness as an expanding market.
The question becomes, “While you excel in meeting short-term expectations and objectives in an existing organizational and market system, for how much longer can you, in good conscience, support the negative short-term fallout and troubling longer-term ethical or spiritual implications?” For a growing number of leaders — and employees and customers — the answer is, “I can’t. Something has to change, and soon.”
As such, leaders within these very systems are now called upon to become the very agitators who perturb the stagnant system and unseat entrenched but no longer effective beliefs, cultural habits, and assumptions that block creativity, integrity, sustainability, and innovation. They must find the courage to ask themselves, “If not me, then whom? If not now, then when?”
This is not a new concept; and yet to fully commit one’s self to it remains atypical, because it requires a level of courage and mastery that transforms the “company man or woman” into the system agitator, albeit with a positive intention to have the ultimate positive effect that goes well beyond the short-term cost-minimization and profit-maximization that rule the day (and leadership agenda) in most modern corporations.
Evolving Leadership Attractors
New-era leaders are catalyzed and fueled by several inner-attractors that organize and mobilize the leaders’ priorities and activities — vision, intention, courage and mastery.
Seeing and defining these values or areas of potential mastery anew allows the masterful leader to become a positive strange attractor in the system, perturbing it where necessary to unsettle old and no longer appropriate or effective organizational systems, assumptions, beliefs, and individuals. Such leaders choose the mastery path of clear vision, integrity centered intention, conscious communication, and positive effect.
Each leader must explore for him or herself what these “inner attractors” might mean, both to him or her as an individual, and within the context of the organization. But decide he or she must, because the times will increasingly call for it. The most visionary and influential leaders will be early adopters.
This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.