Our universe is in a constant state of change. The only constant in the world in which we live is change. Given that dictum, and at least in our part of the world, we see an evolution of continuous change.

The media exhorts us that we need change; the politicians say we need change; and even in leadership, we see a need for change. No one is ever happy with the status quo (homeostasis) of the economic, political or social systems in which we are deeply integrated.

As a practitioner of systems theory, one of my favorite quotes comes from Poul Anderson, who said, “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become more complicated.”

A paradox of sorts, but systems theory rests on the interconnected set of elements that is organized coherently in a way that it achieves something. Any system, therefore, coalesces on the elements, interconnections and a function or purpose. What is the system and what is its intended purpose becomes the essential question in systems theory.

At the operational level, there is another essential element that rides in tandem with systems theory and that is chaos theory. A functioning definition of chaos theory comes from applied mathematics and is defined as, “A branch of mathematics, focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. ‘Chaos’ is an interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic, complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organization, and reliance on programming at the initial point known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state, e.g., a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas.”

Given the complexity of the definition of chaos theory, I would like to apply this phenomenon to the leadership domain and discuss how to use chaos theory to your advantage. If, indeed, some incremental changes in a system can produce geometrical results, it is necessary to understand the system you are working within and the intended purpose and function of said system.

A primer on this organizational perspective of chaos theory is an article “Chaos Theory” by P. Mulder. I would like to highlight some of his salient points and then make my comments in parentheses on how to add this to your leadership domain.

Chaos theory, a decision-making process: The Chaos Theory ensured that decision-making processes in organizations began to change in the 1980s. In self-empowered teams, it became apparent that a designated manager is not always effective. It is the emergence of an informal leader that ensures that there is a sense of loyalty and a willingness to shoulder the tasks at hand.

The needs of the group are expressed more clearly and the relationship between the (informal) leader and the team members is exceptionally good, which is to the advantage of the organization. It should be noted that the relationship between the (informal) leader and the team members also changes constantly. (Given this complex and ever-changing dynamic in the system, it becomes essential for the leader to communicate the values, mission, and purpose of the organization daily. Remember, “We value what we reward.”)

Uncertain environment: In the ’80s, Tom Peters wrote a handbook of the Chaos Theory, which was intended for managers. He indicated how organizations can deal with the uncertainties from the environment, including competitive markets and the fluctuating global economy.

His advice: To address customer responsiveness, fast-paced innovation and investment and the deployment of staff, organizations must learn how to deal with a constantly changing environment. (Leaders must continue to evolve, adapt, and apply the lessons learned in a changing environment. Reviewing metrics, internal and external forces, and keeping a pulse in your industry as it changes with technology and other efficiencies in the marketplace help monitor and address the changing and ever-evolving environment.)

Quick adjustment: Peters indicated that the changing global economy and technology are evidence of a clearly visible chaos. Businesses should respond to these changes and not idly sit by, nor should leaders just observe and accept them. It is especially the permanently-installed hierarchical structures that cause the lack of flexibility in organizations. (Making purposeful adjustment to your organization as the environment and other structures present themselves is the first step to stay ahead of the curve and make adequate adjustments to compensate for the prescient changes occurring.)

Permanent revolution: Peters believed in a permanent revolution and the power it exudes. Companies can survive in a changing environment. They will ultimately be successful because they are open to change and willing to embrace it. Therefore, organizations should go back to the core of their existence, review their vision and mission and work and adopt a more customer-responsive approach.

By being curious in doing business and dealing with problems creatively, they can survive in the chaos theory. Even the smallest adjustments and changes may generate a range of substantial benefits. (Organizational culture is: “What we do around here” and “We value what we reward.” If, indeed, we fulfill and reward the system’s purpose and function, we will be able to successfully navigate the constant flow of changes that exert itself on the organization.)

In the final analysis, the butterfly’s wings flapping does affect the environmental system. Furthermore, by understanding that small, inconsequential organizational and environmental flapping of wings can and often do affect the organization.

Therefore, be mindful of change and embrace the chaos, as Aaron Sorkin stated in the West Wing Script book, “There (is) order and even great beauty in what looks like total chaos. If we look closely enough at the randomness around us, patterns will start to emerge.”

The chaos does indeed create beautiful patterns and strange new journeys. As Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once penned, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Dr. Edward Piatt, Ed.D., is a retired manager from the state of Illinois with 32 years of frontline leadership experience. He is an adjunct professor of business in the MBA and MOL programs at Olivet Nazarene University, and a doctoral adviser and adjunct professor at Trevecca University. He is also an organizational-economic development consultant and lectures frequently on Emotional Intelligence (EI), organizational culture, and leadership. You may contact him at epiatt@olivet.edu.

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