Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

When Leaders Face Chaos

Written by: on April 12, 2013


Leaders can face chaos at unfortunate times. Let me explain. I have the opportunity to manage four Continuing Care Retirement Communities in California. Two of these communities are undergoing significant renovation and remodeling of their campuses. The first community (Community 1) has been going through renovation construction for over six years and the residents who live there have been very cooperative and understanding during that time. The second community (Community 2) has been under construction during the past year and a group of residents have struggled with the impact of renovation and have been very vocal about their dis-satisfaction. This group has demanded reductions in monthly fees for their inconvenience and disruption. Please note, the residents at Community 2 had supported the renovation and construction over a six year period of time convincing the City Planning Department these renovations were needed. Thus, chaos has entered picture whereas the expectation was that residents would be as cooperative as Community 1. This has not been the case.

How is a leader to face chaos unexpectedly? Margaret Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science give us some observations. Wheatley believes that the new sciences like quantum physics and biology have lessons to teach us about how to manage our organizations (Wheatley 2006, p 10). She says that chaos is always partnered with order. She observes that many of us have experienced this phenomenon on a personal level like a severe depression or the major loss of something; only to experience going through this personal chaos and emerging changed, usually stronger and more knowledgeable when it is over (Wheatley 2006, p 119). Her advice is chaos is a natural part of life, instead of trying to eliminate it from our lives; we can embrace it, learn from it and become better as we go through it.

Another concept she teaches us about applied nature is the dissipative structure. The dissipative structure is a newly discovered system that describes a contradictive nature. Dissipation describes loss, a process of energy gradually ebbing away, while structure creates a new and better order. Anything that disturbs the system plays a crucial role in helping itself organize into a new form of order (Wheatley 2006, p. 21). Wheatley says “dissipative structures demonstrate that disorder can be a source of new order, and that growth appears from disequilibrium, not balance. The things we fear most in organizations-disruptions, confusion, chaos-need not be interpreted as signs that we are about to be destroyed. Instead, these conditions are necessary to awaken creativity (p.21).”

Wheatley does us a favor, to remind leaders that out of chaos comes wisdom, creativity and strength. Back to the story; I am learning much from Community 2 on how to lead through chaos. Our management team has spent countless hours listening to resident concerns and ideas in order to implement those ideas that will make improvements while we go through the chaotic renovation phase together. Communication, communication, communication has been very important for residents to understand what is happening, what will happen and why it needs to happen. Keeping the end goal of new facilities and programs in front of residents is also important.

As a leader in your work environment, what chaos have you faced and gone through to become better?

Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science-Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco, California: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2006.

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