Embracing Chaos: The Reality of Modern Leadership

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” — Mahatma Gandhi, Indian leader

“Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.” — John D. Rockefeller, American industrialist.

everything changes. That’s the ironic paradox at the heart of our profession—and at some level, it’s become essential to the continued growth and development of American business. Change stirs things up, cross-fertilizing ideas and aerating the waters of creativity. We may enjoy equilibrium—and humans certainly find it more comfortable not to have to scramble—but inactivity soon sours into stagnation. You can’t rest on your laurels, because some hungry young company will always be pushing the envelope and trying to steal away part of your market share.

And so it should be: competition makes us stronger, and change is good for us.

Corporate leaders sometimes forget this. They let their attitudes and strategies harden in place, assuming what worked well before will always yield success. Well, as Harold Geneen, legendary CEO of ITT Corporation, pointed out decades ago: “We must not be hampered by yesterday’s myths in concentrating on today’s needs.”

Breaking Free

As a leader, Geneen was a visionary, shifting as the business environment shifted—if not by anticipating the change altogether, then by leading the pack when it came time to strike out into new territory. As a Senior VP at Raytheon in the late 1950s, he was famous for giving his division chiefs plenty of decision-making freedom, while requiring a high degree of accountability. Later, as CEO of ITT, his strategies grew its annual sales from $765 million in 1961 to $17 billion in 1970, expanding the company into a wide variety of new ventures. He embraced change in all things, including the evolution of the concept of leadership—from the paternalistic “do it because I say so” perspective—toward one rooted in the concept of partnership and cooperation.

This is a crucial step for every leader to take, because as I point out in my upcoming book Execution IS the Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, March 2014), we can no longer afford to maintain a sharp distinction between leadership and rank-and-file. We must cooperate closely to help our organizations succeed, encouraging and practicing active engagement on all levels. Those on the front lines must be free to exercise their experience and good judgment without unreasonable hindrance, so they can keep us aligned not just with our organizational goals, but also with the changing reality of the modern business environment. Leaders must always be flexible, open, and encouraging of new ideas from those who have their ears to the ground.

Evolution in Action

Like creatures in the natural world, businesses must adapt or die—and the adaptation must be continuous, not occasional. So in addition to evolving your leadership style to fit the current conditions, keep these factors in mind as you lead your people down the yellow brick road to the future:

1. Constantly upgrade your technology. Not so long ago, typewriters were a staple of office culture; then they were displaced in quick succession by word processors, monochrome computers, PCs and Macs, handheld devices, smartphones, and cloud computing…and all within about two decades. Every advance toward the paperless office has made work easier, so we can do more of it per unit of time. No wonder American white collar workers are more productive than ever!

Just because your team got new software upgrades last year doesn’t mean they’re still cutting edge; in fact, it might be time to buy new computer systems, smartphones, PDAs, and other gadgets to boost their engagement and productivity levels. Given how fast our technology advances, the stuff you were using last year might be given away in cereal boxes next year. I’m continually amazed in 2013, many of my large Fortune 500 clients still have employees on Outlook 2007. The productivity boost from switching to the latest version would far outweigh the “it’s so difficult to roll out an upgrade of that scale to so many” argument.

2. Retune your team regularly. Stringed instruments are surprising delicate beasts. By the time you’ve finished tuning each string, the first string may be out of tune again. So it goes with work teams, too. While you never want to step over the line into micromanaging, you do need to check in with your people regularly to make sure everyone’s in tune—not just with the team, but with the entire organization. It’s a never-ending process, but if you don’t keep up, you’ll eventually be so off-beat you may never find your way back to the orchestra.

3. Reconsider your branding. Performers like Madonna, Prince, and Johnny Depp have become legends because they never stop reinventing themselves. Just as you get used to one look and style, they move on to another. Take a page from their playbook: don’t hesitate to grow in new directions, as long as those directions are congruent with your overarching goals, and be nimble as those goals change over time.

For example: Oneida, now a maker of flatware, began as a utopian community that built bear traps to pay its bills. Later, it branched out to silversmithing; and when the community itself broke up, the company survived. Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company now sells a little bit of everything, but it no longer trades for beaver furs with Native Americans and mountain men. On the other hand, Europe’s oldest corporation, Lowenbräu, still makes beer. Whether you stick to the same core business or expand into new ventures as your company grows, it makes sense to tweak your branding and organizational structure to better fit your demographic over time.

4. Evolve with your society. No matter how much you may love what you make or provide, it can become obsolete overnight as society changes. There aren’t many buggy-whip makers anymore, for example. Like some of the companies mentioned in the previous tip, you may have to change significantly just to stay relevant, so be willing to do so.

The Chaos Factor

Modern leadership involves more than just telling people what to do (i.e., management). Because you’re responsible for helping the company stay profitable, you have to embrace chaos and change with the times. This keeps your team as functional as possible, which makes them more productive and builds the bottom line—and around and around it goes, in a constant cycle of change and growth—which is good for you and good for your business and good for America. So do it on purpose.



  1. What a nice post, thank you Laura. Embracing change and adapting is what we humans are all about. But like with deep human nature, there are always fundamental values in business that do not, can not change over time. If these core values are not present and articulated, your organization is building its proverbial house on the sand instead of rock.

    We at Relenta use Jim Collins’s frameworks from Built to Last and Good to Great. If you want a shorter overview, I suggest this article from HBR: Building Your Company’s Vision:


    Nevermind that it’s dating back to 1996. By definition this idea is infinitely persistent.

    Thank you again for the great post.

    Have a very productive day. Cheers from http://www.relenta.com!