Hot and cold. Light and dark. Left brain, right brain. Structure and improvisation. In each of these pairs, we need both sides. Too much of a bad thing can kill us. Too much of a good thing can also kill us. Life is about balance. In Eastern and indigenous thought, it is all about balance. The West needs to heed these voices.
Polarities, Paradoxes, and Puzzles
All behaviors contain their opposites:
- Hyper-inflation leads to collapse.
- A show of strength suggests insecurity.
- What goes up must come down.
- If you want to prosper, be generous.
- The feminine outlasts the masculine.
- The feminine allows, but the masculine causes.
- The feminine surrenders, then encompasses and wins.
- Water wears away the rock.
- Spirit overcomes force.
- The weak will undo the mighty.
Learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.
I was out of my field this week while reading Caroline Ramsey’s articles; however, after persevering, I was struck by a couple of particular points. First of all, without relational understanding and sensitivity, a manager will not be a good leader. Secondly, both structure and improvisation are necessary elements of good management. Good managers need to learn that not every plan will go according to its initial expectations. Ramsey’s students, Mike and Kieran, got that. Mike, in particular, saw the importance of understanding the importance of improvisation when he attempted to use an article on improvised jazz as a metaphor for organizing. In his leadership work with several of his clients (ward sisters), Mike was sensitive enough to move his conversations in different directions – thus improvisation. In the end, his work was successful, not because of him but because of the whole group working collaboratively.
In his fascinating book, Embracing the Unforeseen, Jazz musician and professor Dennis Plies defines improvisation:
The word “improvisation” is derived from the Latin im (not), pro (before), and visus (see), something which has not been seen in advance, hence, unforeseen and unexpected. I find the word “unforeseen” as extremely accurate and helpful in grasping the feel for the word “improvisation.” Being able to foresee something implies prearrangement, agreed upon beforehand. Sort of a done deal, it’s just waiting to be realized. In contrast, what takes place as unforeseen involves the openness to go wherever it goes in the moment. It’s unpremeditated, unpredictable, and unexpected, all suitably associated terms. Out of the process of improvisation something new and unforeseen emerges.
Plies does a good job of fleshing out the roles of both structure and improvisation with jazz musicians making music, with children at play, and with people living out lives of faith. In each of these areas, there is structure before there is improvisation. Good jazz musicians know their craft and use that as a springboard into the “art” of improvisation. Children first have a sense of what the rules are, and then they joyously let their play unlock their imaginative minds. And people of faith start with an agreed upon set of premises, Scripture, before learning how to “walk in faith.” But, hopefully, they eventually learn to let go of the rules, thrusting that they truly live out their lives, not always needing a script to guide them.
So it is with good managers. They must have a plan, but be open to adapting that plan to the given situation, being sensitive to the needs of each person involved in the process and allowing each person to do his or her part in the whole project.
At the moment, I am working on a research project for my doctoral dissertation. I started this journey with a plan. But my direction has changed from its initial steps of two years ago, and it is still an unfolding process. Why? Because at least for my situation, my research is following relationships, and these relationships are being revealed as I walk forward, not before. Yes, I have a plan. But I also am open to allowing my research to evolve organically, spontaneously, improvisationally. This journey has taken me to Kiev, to Arizona and New Mexico, and to different parts of Oregon and Washington. It will also take me to Michigan, to Nebraska, and to South Dakota. I did not plan for these destinations; they opened up as I was willing to go in the direction of relational improvisation. This continues to be a fascinating journey, not only what I am learning about Native-American cultures, but also in what I am leaning about myself and about God.
I would like to close this post with one more reading from Heider’s book. It is another reminder of the importance of structure and improvisation, as well as to common-sense leadership:
All behavior consists of opposites or polarities. If I do anything more and more, over and over, its polarity will appear.
For example, striving to be beautiful makes a person ugly, and trying too hard to be kind is a form of selfishness.
Any over-determined behavior produces its opposite:
- An obsession with living suggests worry about dying.
- True simplicity is not easy.
- Is it a long time or a short time since we last met?
- The braggart probably feels small and insecure.
- Who would be first ends up last.
Knowing how polarities work, the wise leader does not push to make things happen, but allows process to unfold on its own.
The leader teaches by example rather than by lecturing others on how they ought to be.
The leader knows that constant interventions will block the group’s process. The leader does not insist that things come out in a certain way.
The wise leader does not seek a lot of money or a lot of praise. Nevertheless, there is plenty of both.
 John Heider, The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age (New York: Bantam Books, 1988) 71.
 Dennis Plies, Embracing the Unforeseen: Improvisation in Life and Faith (San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014) 61and 62.
 John Heider, The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age (New York: Bantam Books, 1988) 3.