The Problem with Leadership by Chaos


Leadership by Chaos
Leadership by chaos poses a serious problem in the workplace.

The chaos theory, originated by Edward Lorenz, states that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems there are underlying patterns.  Tom Peters in the book “In Search of Excellence” adapted the chaos theory to management practices.  He maintains that for organizations to thrive they need to adapt to constantly changing environments through flexibility rather than rigidly hierarchical structures.

Peters believed that companies need to be able to respond to change quickly and, rather than avoid or ignore it, embrace it.  By being creative in the way they address change, businesses can survive in a world in which unexpected change is the norm.

The Negative Effects of Leadership by Chaos
We agree that, in the big picture where change is inevitable, flexibility is a vital ingredient to success. But we don’t believe that unpredictability and a lack of a clear and compelling direction is the way to lead a team or a company.  Here are the negative effects of leading by chaos.  Chaotic leaders:

  • Don’t necessarily mean what they say and don’t follow through on what they say
  • Have little regard for consistency, clarity or focus
  • Enjoy behaving in a spontaneous and self-centered way that defies expectations
  • Acknowledge no authority but their own

The Impact of Leadership by Chaos on the Workforce
How does leading by chaos affect the workforce?  Employees who have chaotic leaders report being unclear on what they are supposed to do, what constitutes success, and how they are expected to behave.  Employees who have chaotic leaders cannot rely on structures or systems to get work done or make decisions.  The result?  Ambiguity and under-performance.  Employees are confused, fearful of censure and morale takes a dive.  Productivity decreases as politics and employee turnover rises.

The Better Way
The best leaders have clear and compelling strategies, set consistent and fair performance expectations for their team, and actively involve their stakeholders in creating specific action plans.  High performing leaders model the way, engender trust, and do not get distracted by “shiny objects.”  They do not change direction too frequently or too unpredictably.

Clarity Creates Focus
When teams know where they are going and what they need to do to get there, they can focus on what matters most.  Their actions have purpose and direction.  Over time, leadership consistency creates employee loyalty and higher levels of productivity.

The Bottom Line
While chaos theory may suggest a legitimate approach to mathematics and even advise how an organization needs to respond flexibly to change, leadership by chaos is not an effective leadership strategy.  Clearly articulated expectations, a transparent flow of information, and consistent accountability are critical factors in creating a high performance culture.

To learn more about being a better leader, download The Top Skills for High Performing Leaders



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