Monday, March 7, 2011

Creative Contradiction & Chaos Theory

Is Michael Jackson an introvert or an extrovert? Well there are countless records of his extreme shyness that would indicate he is an introvert. Yet his on stage performances showcase a completely different and opposite side of his personality. This contradiction of personality is not limited to the late King of Pop. I came across an interesting article on the Huffington Post entitled “After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer,” which takes an in depth look at the paradoxes entrenched in the personalities of creative people.

One passage particularly caught my attention:

“In the article The confusing legacy of Michael Jackson, Todd Leopold discusses the perplexing combination of seemingly contradictory traits displayed by Michael Jackson. In explaining his many sides, Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborelli essentially throws his hands up in the air in exasperation as he tries to make sense of the apparent contradictions:

‘I think that when you're talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it's like analyzing electricity, you know? It exists, but you don't have a clue as to how it works.’

Creativity researchers aren't so confused. They have long-ago accepted the fact that creative people are complex. Almost by definition, creativity is complex. Creative thinking is influenced by many traits, behaviors, and sociocultural factors that come together in one person. It would be surprising if all of these factors didn't sometimes, or even most of the time, appear to contradict one another.

As creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his 1996 article for Psychology Today entitled The Creative Personality, creative people ‘show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude.”’

To me, some of the most fascinating contrasts are those found in creative performers -- those who are constantly on stage and in the public eye.

Although I completely agree with the prognosis of the creative personalities described above, I would argue that the great majority of people exhibit these same contradictions. Certainly creativity is complex. However, I think it is more appropriate to say that people in general are complex! Maybe we are more attuned to these contradictions in creative types because the contradictions are presented on a grand stage for all to see. Are you going to notice personality paradoxes more in the guy Mark from ‘Accounting’ at work or Michael Jackson? Or perhaps the opposite ends of the personality spectrum in creative people are just a bit more exaggerated or pronounced. I am not sure. What is certain is that people are complex whether labeled “creative” or not.

The article got me thinking about how the creative contradiction relates to effective team situations. How do you effectively lead a group of people in a creative environment given the various personality idiosyncrasies of each team member that are constantly changing based on the dynamic environment?

That question took me back to college. When I was attending the Air Force Academy as Business Management major I took a Management 303 class which had the reputation of being the weird, touchy feely class. It was described as pretty abstract and ethereal with notoriously low test scores that were salvaged only by the grading curve. Although I too struggled to grasp many of the concepts we learned about, I did hang onto the concepts from our talks regarding chaos theory in management.

Chaos theory seeks to describe the unpredictability of systems. A dynamic system like any organization or team environment is innately complex, erratic, and unpredictable. Chaos theory, however, shows that even the most complex and chaotic systems fall into some natural order. The chaotic inputs are connected and create some form of order through “strange attractors.” Strange attractors essentially create natural boundaries for chaotic, dynamic systems.

Since taking that class, I have always tried to analyze any leadership or team situation with chaos theory in mind. I definitely think chaos theory is an effective way to look as systems. All the external changes that occur coupled with the complexities of human behavior make predictability of even the most simple tasks utterly impossible. Which brings us back to the question discussed above. From my experience here are a few things that may help to answer the question above.

1. Stay Flexible – I have had the opportunity to lead in some very dynamic, ambiguous, and challenging environments. Whether it has been serving as the captain of a division I hockey team, the president of a nonprofit, or as a contracting officer team lead during Operation Iraqi Freedom I have learned to expect the unexpected. You simply cannot, for reasons detailed above, predict what is going to happen in a team environment while seeking to attain a goal. The more comfortable you can become operating amidst ambiguity the more effective you will be at achieving your goals, even if the path is different than you might have hoped.

2. Create Your Own Strange Attractors – Although easier said than done, I think as a leader it is your responsibility to create strange attractors versus allowing them to develop by chance. Although you may not be able to predict how things will unfold for your team, you can help to shape how your team will respond to the ever unfolding chaos. An example could be as simple as establishing shared values amongst team members. You cannot control how each person will respond to a given situation but you may help to ensure that their response does not violate the team’s shared values.

3. Acknowledge Your Powerlessness – Embracing the chaos is acknowledging your powerlessness in a sense. Not to say that your role as a leader is not important and that you do not have influence. As a leader you want people to want to do the "right" thing. In essence you want to create an environment, or a system, where it is most desirable for all parties involved to do the right thing. Not only are you acknowledging reality by operating in this mindset of limited control, but you are also empowering team members to attain your organizations goals in the most innovative and creative manner possible.

I am by no means a guru on the subject of chaos theory in management or the personality contradictions of people. These are just a few observations I have picked up in my leadership experiences thus far. To be honest, half the time my posts serve more as reminders to myself than holier than thou advice columns. I would love to hear your viewpoint on the topics above and thanks for reading.


Cameron Schaefer said...

Excellent post! The thing I always come back to is a concept I learned while reading about emergent behavior. Basically, when faced with complex, dynamic environments all one can do to manage the chaos is to establish a few simple ground rules, or strange attractors as you noted and rather than attempt to control the situation, simply think about influencing it from the fringes.

In my opinion some of the best managers are those who can subtly influence the environment without you ever realizing it. For whatever reason the idea of "from the fringes" has resonated deeply with me ever since I read it.

Matt Bader said...


I knew this post would get a comment out of you! I totally agree with your "from the fringes" approach. I think of my time managing a contracting team in Iraq and I feel I operated in that manner. It was a very tough environment to be a leader in, but I think the approach definitely paid dividends. When you lead using the approach described above some people (even your peers) may even view you as a leader who isn't engaged enough or is too passive. I think it couldn't be further from the truth. Your team will know how you really operate as a leader and the results will speak for themselves.

Manspace said...

You may like the writer James Gleick as a resource. and his book on Chaos for a story of the new scientist who fired all of the top theorists at Los Alomos when taking over the department on attractors. Leaders lead.
thnx. Galen