Moving within the tension between simplicity and complexity

Not only do the terms “simple” and “complex” represent a polarity, with a continuum between them, there is also a crucial difference between subjective and objective complexity.[1] Thus, Dietrich Dörner (1996) claims that complexity is not an objective attribute of the system but rather a subjective assessment. With increased familiarity and understanding of any system, its complexity decreases, just as the complexity of driving an automobile decreases with practice. To an outsider, the system can seem more complex than it would to a participant within it (p. 39). For Dörner, complexity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Luhmann (1995) disagrees. He asserts that complexity is indeed an attribute of systems that reach a certain stage or level, regardless of how people react to that system. Their experience of the system is irrelevant. For Luhmann, “complexity” means that not every element in the system can connect with every other element, which in turn permits multiple different configurations (pp. 24ff). In other words, once a system becomes complex, it must order itself in some fashion in order to persist. After a certain point, a system becomes too complex to continue without the simplifying contribution of order, just as we simplify a stack of papers by sorting them into piles. Once the piles proliferate and become confusing, we might categorize the piles and put them into separate desk drawers. The process can go on and on.

For purposes of this paper, both meanings are pertinent. Complexity can be both subjective and objective. We need to include both meanings. An integrated understanding of human systems, as characterized by Ken Wilber (2000), shows how the same basic phenomenon has both an interior and an exterior, a subjective and an objective correlate.

Simplicity and complexity are not two bare alternatives, an either/or. Rather, they are two directions, between which we constantly operate in a state of tension.[2] Plato referred to this state or condition of being in-between as the Metaxy (Webb, 1981). Humans and their organizations experience a tug in each direction, so that the nearer we get to one pole the further we seem to get from the other. The two directions are in this sense incompatible. This bipolar model — the metaxy — is a static model, depicting the situation at any given moment in time.


I must add another model already implicit in an earlier reference to Luhmann, because it illustrates a process within the metaxy. In other words, we must complement the static model with a dynamic model that depicts a process from compactness through differentiation toward order, a model elaborated in the last century by the philosopher Eric Voegelin (Harter, 2006). Here is one way to explain it.

  1. The first phase, referred to as “compactness” by Voegelin, is a state or condition of fusion, complete undifferentiated mass, the confusion and pulp of immediate experience. Psychologist James Hillman characterizes it as twilight, seemingly without form and void of things or parts (1971/2005). Webb calls compactness an “experience having distinguishable features yet to be noticed as distinct.”[3]

  2. Differentiation would be “consciousness in which the distinguishable features of a previously ‘compact’ field of experience are noticed as distinct” (Webb, 1981: 279). That is, the seemingly solid and amorphous breaks apart — not so much in physical reality, like vinegar and oil, but to the mind it breaks apart. The mind sees different aspects as different. Hillman draws attention to the experience of walking into a dimly lit room and flicking on the light, so that you can make out the shapes and colors. The furniture was there all along; the table and chair did not suddenly separate. It is just that you can say now, because you notice it, that “this” is not “that” — the table is here and the chair is over there. Subjective complexity arises as the process of differentiation reaches a critical point where the various parts or aspects have proliferated so far that in the aggregate they make no sense. They begin to blur, becoming confused and resembling their previously blended state, a hodge-podge. You can’t keep them straight.

  3. At that point, in order to take advantage of the differentiation and not succumb by letting separate items slip back into twilight, you must organize that which has become differentiated. You need order, a way of configuring them in the mind, a schema, based on their relations with each other.[4] In other words, you progress from compactness, through differentiation, toward order.[5] In so doing, you initially increase complexity by adding elements, which in turn creates pressure to simplify as the opposite pole pulls you back.


One might be tempted to revert, to renounce the differentiations and pretend they do not exist, to return to compactness, like pulling the blanket over your head and hoping the rest of the world goes away. But we cannot do that indefinitely. We shall have lost our innocence. The bell cannot be unrung. What we can do is reach greater simplification by embracing the differentiation and discerning or creating a sense of order. Instead of going back, we can push ahead. Simplification also lies on the other side of complexity. This distinction is important.

What we find is that with regard to subjective complexity, simplicity is not the contrary attribute, as Ugly is to Beautiful. Rather, it is the absence of complexity, a privation, as Dark is to Light (Lloyd, 1992: 146, 161). Consider that physicians once contrasted the visible agitation of Parkinson’s disease with the absence of such agitation, in a simple either/or, only to discover that the visible agitation (the shaking and trembling we commonly associate with the disease) could be missing for one of two reasons: the person might not be suffering from the condition or the person might be experiencing such intense agitation as to be clenched, locked into immobility. Both physical states contrast visibly with the familiar tremors of Parkinson’s, but they lie at opposite ends of the spectrum.


Leadership promises simplification

This paper contends that leadership can be conceived as the promise of simplification. With this, the central question emerges: Does leadership reduce complexity by restoring compactness or by achieving a new order? In which direction does it go? As we said, there are two stereotypical ways to simplify. One is to remove the elements that make a system complex, to return to the compact relationships, by shrinkage, getting smaller (in a sense), more intimate. Organizations do this sometimes by splintering, for example, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. In a cluttered home, it might occur to someone that the time has come to throw things away. The other way to simplify is to order the system in such a manner as to make it easier to conceive and easier to use. Neither direction is inherently right or wrong. One can conceive of instances where each would be appropriate. There is no reason to take sides.


Fig. 1: Magnitudes of order

It is my contention that leadership could go in either direction, which is why it is important to know which is going on. But first, this paper had to make the distinction clear.

Pressures associated with increasing complexity

We are all inescapably held within the metaxy, between simplicity and complexity, experiencing the tug or pull in each direction. As we move toward complexity, the pressure to simplify increases, in the way that a rubber band pulls with greater elastic tension the further it is extended, or in the way that a pendulum builds gravitational potential energy as it swings toward its apex. Now, granted, human systems are not exactly the same as physical objects,[6] but we can use the analogy.

The analogy does not work, however, when we notice that the rubber band pulls directly back and the pendulum’s bob swings directly back (all other things being equal), for as noted earlier the pressure to simplify does not have to mean simple reversion to the state or condition we left before, back to compactness. Simplicity can lie on the other side of complexity, in a state or condition referred to as order. Compactness and order might resemble each other in their contrast to complexity, just as relaxation and rigidity resemble each other in their contrast to motion.

Magnitudes of order

This is not to say that once a human system achieves some kind of order it has escaped the metaxy once and for all, as though order is the destination and promised land. For the order itself — whatever it turns out to be — will go through the same process of increasing complexity such that the whole process begins again, on its way to a new order — what one might call a comprehending order. We can speak in terms of orders that are more and less complex. We see this for example in the difference between (i) an interpersonal relationship between two people and (ii) any form of relationship among three. Adding a person multiplies the confusion (e.g. Simmel, 1950: Chap. 3, § 9[a]). There is in other words a kind of progression through magnitudes of order, illustrated in Figure 1, and with each stage moving through complexity, the orders themselves become more and more complex.[7]

One of the reasons for describing these magnitudes of order is to show the same basic pattern at work, no matter at what level you conduct your analysis. There is still the tension between simplicity and complexity. For example, when a conglomerate divests itself of a subsidiary, it is moving toward simplification, even though the subsidiary is in its own right a global, multimillion-dollar corporation with layer upon layer of hierarchy. We operate forever, together and alone, in the metaxy.

Order < > disorder

Just as the terms “simplicity” and “complexity” represent polarities, so too do the terms “order” and “disorder”. The polarity between order and disorder is similar in structure to any other polarity: it is a metaxy between two poles, each pulling from a different direction. There is pressure to order what seems disordered, as for example when you look around at a dirty kitchen, just as there is pressure to disorder what seems ordered, as for example when you play a practical joke.

Probably the most famous analysis of this tension occurs in Friedrich Nietzsche’s early work known as The Birth of Tragedy, in which he contrasts the Apollonian energy toward structure, light, linear logic, rhythm, discipline, and stability, with the Dionysian energy toward uncertainty, freedom, shadow, surprise, and indulgence (1872/1995).[8] Both tendencies are real, present at any given moment reflecting our full humanity. Apollo would drive us toward bureaucracy and a depersonalized uniformity, routine. Dionysus would tempt us toward carnival, toward pleasure, spastic self-assertion, drunkenness, and humor. Apollo represents the ambition to order; Dionysus, the allure of disorder. There is never one without the other. Go too far in either direction, and you suffer. Neglect Apollo, and your life tumbles toward disarray, even squalor and regret. Neglect Dionysus, on the other hand, and your life clenches, sanitizes, losing its savor and grinding you into a soul-crushing flatness — or a sudden burst of bodily rebellion known as a heart attack. In either case, the unpropitiated gods come back to haunt you.[9]

What is the significance of this new polarity? How is it related to the earlier polarity between simplicity and complexity? They are not the same polarity. One could confuse simplicity with order, for example, but that would be a mistake. Simplicity canbe found in order, but it can also be found in compactness, a kind of pre-order, the chaos associated with the book of Genesis. Chaos as such looks simple. By the same token, order is not always simpler than what it replaces. Sometimes, the new order makes the situation even more complicated, not simpler. One cannot equate order with simplicity. These are distinct, yet related polarities.

Imagine, if you will, an organization reaching the critical moment on the path toward complexity when it must simplify or disintegrate.[10] What happens to that organization? The rubber band stretches too far. The pendulum nears its apex. It can revert, as we said earlier, or it can achieve a new magnitude of order — in either case, it aspires to resolve the tension of complexity by reaching simplicity. But that does not exhaust the alternatives. The organization can break under the stress—shudder, shatter, and fail. The elements and all of their intricate relationships can fly apart, in chunks and pieces, destroying the organization as we know it, as they search for new relationships, new orders, or as they drift unaligned in the void. In short, the organization can experience disintegration and die.[11]


Fig. 2: Two-dimensional orientation

I would urge caution, however, because the way we have described the situation, order and disorder would appear to be alternatives, one or the other, a simple choice. Either you are ordered or you are not. And to the extent that you are not ordered, you do not exist, period. But in truth order and disorder (just like simplicity and complexity) are a matter of degree. They are the boundaries of a continuum. Any entity (which for our purposes is a human system such as a business or tribe) would be more or less ordered, which is to say more or less disordered, somewhere en route across the metaxy.


At any given time, therefore, a human system struggles between simplicity and complexity and also between order and disorder, just as a seagoing vessel always finds itself at a precise longitude and latitude, between north and south and between east and west, heading somewhere perhaps, but always oriented within these compass points, as indicated in Figure 2.

Strategies to cope with the tension

The experience of complexity, as a subjective state or condition, accompanies pressure to simplify. Resistance to this pressure can be referred to as dissociation (Wilber, 2000: 115). We can sustain the tension only so long before we go in search of some kind of relief.[12] In the short term, however, sometimes the complexity can persist, especially if the participants in human systems are not yet fully aware of their plight. They might feel a vague sense of unease. They might even believe things are fine. It is not uncommon for those in positions of authority to extend this situation for as long as possible. Indeed, many managers assume this to be their job, to preserve the existing order.[13,14] What often happens is that the system experiences what Axelrod and Cohen refer to as “eternal boiling… when the level of mutation, temperature, or noise is so high that the system remains permanently disorderly” (2000: 43).

One strategy is to revert back to compactness, to simplify by pretending the differentiation never happened. We go into denial. We repress. Or we revert by dismantling the organization, returning to fewer elements, moving down in magnitudes of order, uncluttering by shrinking. Another strategy is to seek some kind of order, to put the elements together in some configuration that helps us categorize and understand the differentiations. These two strategies are not the only options, however.

We have not yet mentioned a fairly common strategy — a hybrid, really — in which a person or group of people arrive at some kind of order only by occluding some of what had been differentiated. It is not a complete retreat to compactness, but then neither is it a complete embracing of the differentiations. It might come across as a deformation, a monstrosity or freak, frequently difficult to detect. It is our purpose in the penultimate section to elaborate a bit on these dis-orders, because one of our hypotheses is that all human systems are, to one extent or another, similarly “deformed.” This is not a minor point.

That is why this paper takes the position, which some may view as controversial, that leadership’s promise of simplification will likely result in deformation. Almost by definition, it has to. And at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, we might hold that the creating of deformation consciously — choosing our deformations — is actually a more practical long-term strategy than either (a) complete reversion, sticking one’s head in the sand, or (b) some utopian fantasy that presumes to represent the highest order fully and completely. We should be fine using this hybrid strategy described in a subsequent section of this paper so long as we:

  • Remember that we do in fact live with a deformation of some sort;

  • Remember what it is we are choosing to occlude, and;

  • Realize that we may reorder ourselves later in response to changing circumstances.[15]

It must be emphasized that all orders, whether orders in the mind, on paper, or in practice, are incomplete, inexact, less than perfect. Humans will always have reason to restore or refine whatever order they find themselves in, holding it together and making it better. One reason for this need to monitor and respond to the emergence of disorder is the tendency of reality to change and otherwise resist order, in a kind of undomesticated wildness. Another reason is our own limitation: we can never completely empty the compactness of reality. There is always more to learn, notice, unearth, and otherwise consider. In every order, there lurks some disorder. When referring to deformations, however, I intend a specific kind of disorder, an order that often passes itself off as genuine, complete, and whole, but that includes mechanisms to block and otherwise suppress disturbing facets of reality. It is my paradoxical contention that deformation (ill order) can be a conscious choice — and a prudent choice, at that.

Leadership studies

Leadership scholarship supports five alternatives for how leadership involves a simplification of complexity:

  • The leader as unifying symbol;

  • Reverting to compactness;

  • Achieving a new order;

  • Shattering order and releasing its energies;

  • Pragmatic rhythms as we tolerate our deformations.

The leader as unifying symbol

Concerning the first on this list, James MacGregor Burns (1978) made an interesting observation:

“Every person, group, and society has latent tension and hostility, forming a variety of psychological and political patterns across social situations. Leadership acts as an inciting and triggering force in the conversion of conflicting demands, values, and goals into significant behavior.” (p. 38)

He added that “conflict… is necessary for leadership and, indeed, for higher levels of coherence, in a kind of dialectical and synthesis response” (p. 45). So far, this sounds much like the promise of simplification. As complexity increases, people respond in different ways, finding themselves in conflict with each other, and often within themselves, torn about what to do next. Then, Burns inserts a telling comment, citing William Whyte, that a “leader is a focal point for the organization of the group… In the absence of the leader its cohesion disintegrates and the group becomes a collection of smaller groups” (p. 80). In other words, in the complexity of the moment, a leader promises simplification partly by serving as a “focal point” — a lode star, if you will, or a symbol for the whole, embodying in his or her person the identity of the group. The leader serves as figure to the ground of complexity.

Burns goes on to characterize this leadership role as heroic and even idolatrous, in which leaders personalize movements and symbolize ideas: “The halo surrounding Number One bathes the political landscape in a glow of harmony and consent” (p. 248). Unfortunately, such leadership has no shared purpose, no direction, so that it draws attention away from the complexity, subsuming it (in a manner of speaking), presenting a surface simplicity that obscures the complexity underneath. In recent history, we might categorize Saddam Hussein as one such leader: so long as he was in power, the various conflicts between Western and Muslim values, for instance, and among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, persisted and perhaps even intensified, without breaking out completely into civil war. It was a simplicity bought with corruption and violence, to preserve the charade that probably fooled outsiders more than it did the people of Iraq.

None of which is to suggest that such leadership is always blameworthy. It is neither inherently good nor evil, neither wise nor stupid. Not only are there occasions when people enmeshed in complexity need to rally around a single person before taking meaningful action, but we hold that some of the most praiseworthy leadership is nothing more than drawing attention, modeling, serving as an example, being singled out as representative: “Look at him!” This alone might not resolve a system’s tension, but it can galvanize and inspire the participants, or even serve as catharsis, creating distance for everyone else from the press of perplexing circumstance, either to envision a new way of being (St. Francis) or to recognize in one person’s predicament that something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong (Rosa Parks).[16]

Reverting to compactness

The second way leaders can simplify is described by John Gardner (1990) in regard to the US, where a rhetoric about unity and being a melting pot has not prevented Americans from finding themselves suffering “the mischiefs of faction” (quoting James Madison). According to Gardner: “The war of the parts against the whole is the central problem of pluralism today” (p. 95). Nevertheless, we have no choice but to accept the idea of pluralism while at the same time working to achieve some level of unity, a unity within diversity.

In reaction against pluralism, some leaders promise to restore a more traditional community that is homogenous, unchanging, conformist, and relatively small. Thus, Gardner refers to the “trance of nonrenewal [in which] individuals can look straight at a flaw in the system and not see it as a flaw” (p. 126). Reverting is simply not realistic. Neither is it, in his opinion, desirable. Just as Burns had reservations about heroic leadership, so also Gardner had reservations about leadership under the trance of nonrenewal.

Webb (1981) depicts what happens when we choose to revert. In our quest to revert, we might neglect fresh, contrary evidence or stop listening to critics or in some other way cling to our beliefs beyond reason. In doing so, however, reverting condemns us to create in our imagination a distorted view of reality that conveniently omits what we don’t want to remember. At some point, to preserve our compact consciousness, we might have to destroy reality and remake it in our false image, even claiming moral superiority.[17]

People often want a leader to turn back the clock — not so much to reclaim a heritage or recover lost virtues, which is often praiseworthy, but simply to escape harsh realities, stuffing the genie back into the bottle. The primary reason we should worry about this approach to simplification is that truth — however one hopes to define it —is movement in participation with reality (Webb, 1981).

Voegelin, however, wrote of achieving a “maximum of differentiation” — in response to which receding and rebelling lead to nihilism and power doctrines, neither of which sounds very wholesome (Grimley-Kuntz, 1991: 169, citing The New Science of Politics).

Achieving a new order

Ron Heifetz (1994) draws attention to the third way of simplification, leadership as adaptive work. In particular, adaptive work responds to conflict by examining both (a) existing values and (b) the reality of the situation. By clarifying values and testing reality, a human system learns how to advance together toward a resolution that brings values and reality into alignment. Sometimes, however, values are in conflict with one another, and sometimes the implications and nuances of values are insufficiently understood. At such times, it can help to bring about some sort of clarification.

But Heifetz emphasizes another scenario. Sometimes values prevent people from adapting successfully to pressures from their environment. At such times, certain values increase the likelihood of stress and disintegration. Are people in these situations aware of this? Are they willing to hold on to their values at such a cost? Will they persist and, by persisting, perish?

The values themselves might be internally consistent after years of debate and reflection. They might be a model of coherence, elegance, and thoroughness. Nonetheless, over the course of time certain stresses appear, and the value system itself may be preventing a resolution of those stresses. Heifetz argues that in such situations, the values preventing adaptation pose a threat. The leader then may question those values because they endanger the well being of the group or community. People will have to give up values for something presumably they value more, up to and including their survival.

The first step toward doing adaptive work is to develop the capacity for it. Heifetz identifies the first step as “improving [the] ability to reflect, strengthening [the] tolerance for frustration, and understanding… blind spots and patterns of resistance to facing problems….” (p. 5). Adaptive work is a response to pressures brought about by increasing complexity. In human systems, the increase of complexity accompanies stress. Something has to be done in such a situation and that “something” is to revisit people’s values, so that they can adapt without trying to hold contradictory positions.

Heifetz admits that adaptive work can be difficult and demand much of the participants. The cost can be high. It is therefore a fair question to ask, in advance of any proposal to make extraordinary sacrifices, whether the sacrifice will have been for naught. Is the push for this particular solution (whatever it is) a “premature convergence” (Axelrod & Cohen, 2000: 44)?

Shattering order and releasing its energies

The fourth approach to simplicity by means of leadership concerns freeing oneself from the dominating order itself, thereby letting all of the elements reattach and reorder in new and better ways.To the naked eye, freedom often resembles disorder, but they are not the same thing. Just as both “relaxed” and “rigid” contrast with “motion,” so also freedom and disorder might seem to contrast with order. However, there are two relevant distinctions. First, relaxed and rigid are contrary. Freedom and disorder are not contrary — not necessarily. Second, it is my contention that at a certain level order and freedom coincide. The right order embodies freedom — a proposition we will have reason to elaborate in the next section.

For the most part leadership studies rarely contemplate dismantling the system itself or splitting off its parts, although in reality such an eventuality frequently occurs. Employees are laid off. Work teams are disbanded. Corporations are sometimes sold off piecemeal. The phenomenon has been studied formally in economics as “creative destruction” — a concept that has been traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche, but that has been associated most with economist Joseph Schumpeter (Reinert & Reinert, forthcoming; Diamond, 2004).

The root of creative destruction is the finding that existing structures sometimes impede innovation, and thus require dismantling, a process, according to Schumpeter, that is the sine qua non of capitalism (Diamond, 2004).

Luhmann (1995) contends that from a systems perspective, long-term viability depends on an interdependence of disintegration and reproduction. For one reason, as elements vanish, the system must replenish the supply, and to do that it must pass through a phase of disintegration. Vilfredo Pareto (1901/1991) detected a similar dynamic inherent in larger social systems — a dynamic that he named “the circulation of elites” — in which the status quo required some displacement of those at the top of society’s hierarchies by fresh leadership of one kind or another.

In his work on the concept of order in political organization, the philosopher Eric Voegelin recognized that any order is precarious (Grimley-Kuntz, 1991: 160). A wise ruler will confront this fact, finding the right balance for a community, knowing which destructive forces to resist and which to integrate into the dynamics of that community’s development. Certain failure lies in thinking that one’s community can escape the metaxy, resolving the tension inherent in human life and securing permanent concord by means of designing and implementing any one particular political order (see generally Franz, 1992).

Pragmatic rhythms as we tolerate our deformations

Finally, the fifth aspect of simplicity has to do with establishing pragmatic rhythms as the system tolerates deformations. The word “deformation” connotes misbegotten, a monstrosity or freak, some sad or loathsome departure from that which we regard as healthy and beautiful. The use of such a word prejudices the case to be made for leadership dedicated precisely to tending a system’s deformations.

Writing in 1940 for an Argentine newspaper, José Ortega y Gasset (1946), a renowned Spanish philosopher, published an apt study on Del Imperio Romano. In that essay, Ortega illustrated the historical work of a social system to preserve and prolong itself by means of adaptation, or what he refers to as makeshift. So long as the system shares a common purpose, without which the system will disintegrate, it will inevitably squabble over this and that. Participants are motivated to belong and to cooperate, but they also bear independent desires and different opinions. Ortega firmly believed in the inherent tensions of collective life. He wrote, in echoes of Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian image:

“Society, by its own nature, provides the place for social and antisocial doings alike, crime occurring as normally as love of one’s neighbor. Major criminal elements may at best be kept at bay temporarily. But even so they only lie concealed in the underworld of the social body ready at any moment to break loose de profundis” (1940/1946: 25).

For this reason, every order worthy of the name holds things in check, or in constraint, for the sake of something else. No order could completely release everything to its unencumbered nature. As vital preferences shift, they pose a problem that cannot be “solved” so much as it is remedied, alleviated, accommodated. The perduring system (as in this case the Roman Republic) “fits the growing complexity of society with new institutions,” rather like an engineer faced with an original, concrete predicament (p. 40). These innovations respond to the moment, ingenious and unforeseeable. They can be said to build on the deep strata of belief that the participants share, yet change as the accumulating struggles dictate, trying this and inventing that.

And why does it proceed in this way? Why cannot a system’s order be submitted to rational theories in the abstract, disconnected in the mind from circumstance and fashioned in a vacuum to be perfect? Ortega answered as a pragmatist: no system exists in isolation from a network of interlocking forces and institutions. One does not introduce a factory-made heart into the patient without watching how it integrates into the organism that is to be its environment. Thus, each system — however it turns out to be ordered — is in Ortega’s word “untransferable”; that is, uniquely adapted to its history and its context (p. 47). Every existing order is in reality a deformation of some sort, something impure with regard to concept, but ruggedly responsive to human experience at a particular moment. And that is the genius of perduring systems.

Since Ortega chose not to write about the pragmatic kind of leadership required in this context, we can turn to what another philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, had to say about this. On the way toward a celebrated academic career, Berlin spent a considerable amount of time analyzing and working alongside statesmen in Great Britain and the United States. Berlin also participated in the deliberations that led to the creation of the state of Israel, so he knew the Zionist leadership intimately. In addition, he devoted years of study to Russian intellectuals leading up to the Revolution of 1917.[18] This combination of interests and experiences gave Berlin a valuable perspective on leadership as it is actually practiced.

In 1954, while attempting to describe the Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann, Isaiah Berlin (2001) described what he called a “realist” leader. Realists can seem pessimistic, if not boring. They certainly accept far less from a situation. Nonetheless, in the long run realists get more of what they want. They piece together more information. They constantly shift in response to circumstances. They can admit mistakes quickly, without losing face. What they are doing, in the words of Berlin, is improvisation:

“[T]here is an element of improvisation, of playing by ear, of being able to size up the situation, of knowing when to leap and when to remain still, for which no formulae, no nostrums, no general recipes, no skill in identifying specific situations as instances of general laws can substitute” (Berlin, 1996: 33).

From a systems perspective, the realist knows that he cannot revert, has no desire to disintegrate tout court, yet he turns out to be wary of grand, unproven schemes promising new orders, so he makes a series of little adjustments: responding to stresses in subtle fashion, progressing by nearly imperceptible stages toward novel makeshifts. The order emerging as a result of a thousand experiments is likely to appear to the uninitiated as hopelessly (and needlessly) complex, with countless exceptions produced by the unique history of an institution within a unique environment. Yet, to participants who live through reforms, the regime seems admirably adapted to their freedom, like a physical body, so that ordinarily they hardly notice the complexity.

Conclusion: The promise of leadership

It is not the purpose of this paper to recommend one method for simplification, to the exclusion of all the rest. Each has its merits. As pressures mount to resolve complexity, a leader might be advised to adopt a “population of strategies,” each of which promises ultimately to simplify the lives of participants.[19] It is also incumbent on leaders to appreciate the limits of each method, to act with humility toward the scale of complexity for which they assume responsibility when they step forward to lead.

For Voegelin, “the whole human enterprise in history is the search for order,” yet that search never ends because we live within a variety of polarities. There are natural polarities, such as light and dark; moral polarities, such as justice and injustice; intellectual polarities, such as delusion and truth; and spiritual polarities, such as time and eternity (Grimley-Kuntz, 1991). We move about within these various polarities, and one of the central tasks we have set for ourselves is achieving right order in our lives as individuals and in our relationships with other people, although because we cannot ever finally reach that goal, what we end up with is a variety of orders, approximations that are tentative and incomplete. And that’s okay. That is the human condition. The challenge lies in how we live within it, in the choices we make day after day.


[1] Daniel Born once complained, “False dichotomies abound in leadership studies, as in many demagogic movements [becoming] facile tools for many undergraduates to oversimplify the political and social complications of their world” (1996: 64). Leadership studies do abound in dichotomies; this much is true. Kenneth Thompson argues that leadership is essentially dichotomous (1984). And to the extent one can say that leadership is a sociological form, in the terminology of the eminent sociologist Georg Simmel, then it is comprised of dichotomies. These are what give it shape (1971). G.E.R. Lloyd asserts as a matter of basic logic that one cannot classify without first describing basic contrasts (1992: 80). Dichotomies help to define limits or boundaries. They serve to orient a person. Whether a dichotomy is false or not remains a separate and legitimate inquiry. Nevertheless, this paper – like leadership studies generally – abounds in dichotomies: tensions, contrasts, polarities, opposites, contraries, and contradictions.

[2] Lloyd explains that dualism or the antithesis into two groups (in this case, simple and complex) “is an element in any classification” (1992: 80). Once made, the pair of opposites stand in a certain relation to each other. Some opposites such as Odd and Even exclude intermediate terms. They are exhaustive. It is our contention that simple and complex do admit intermediates, in the middle ground (ibid.: 95).

[3] A surprising number of adults continue to experience the sensory world as a compact reality. For instance, many experience synesthesia, “the evocation of one kind of sense impression when another sense is stimulated, e.g. the sensation of color when a sound is heard” (Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] 2005 Microsoft Corporation).

[4] Aquinas put it succinctly: ordo est relatio (Grimley-Kuntz, 1991: 158). To illustrate how this works, in perception you might find yourself organizing stimuli according to any combination of several principles, including proximity, similarity, common fate, and closure – determining the nature of the various relationships among discrete elements (Rock, 1995: Chap. 5).

[5] Wilber made the same observation using different words, when he wrote that one of the great “Kosmic patterns” is that evolution has increasing differentiation and then integration (2000: 115, 314).

[6] For one thing, the evolution of an organization is “directed… in which selection pressures are exerted by individual human beings” (Gell-Mann, 1994: 298).

[7] One could argue that we already possess a term for the highest level of complexity in human systems, namely bureaucracy.

[8] Nietzsche’s rhetorical device has indeed found its way into the literature on management. For similar applications of these and other pagan gods to organizational management, see Handy (1995) and Hillman (1995).

[9] For readers uncomfortable giving equal status to the two deities, who distrust any valorization of Dionysus as a pagan myth, we can characterize the tension differently. We can break them out as Form and Content, or Transcendence and the Apeiron, or Spirit and Matter, or God and Creation. The abstract distinction is more important here, whatever names we give it.

[10] We are presupposing at least a minimal degree of order for us to call it an organization to begin with.

[11] As we explain below, some organizations probably should shatter and die. Disintegration is not always a bad thing.

[12] The same basic experience occurs when we entertain doubt. Roughly speaking, doubt is to belief what complexity is to simplicity. The logician Charles Sanders Peirce put it this way: “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe. Doubt… stimulates us to action until it is destroyed” (1877/1992: 114). In the same manner, it is my proposition that humans become agitated by complexity.

[13] For example, Northouse cites Kotter (1990) for the following contrast between management and leadership: “The overriding function of management is to provide order and consistency to organizations, whereas the primary function of leadership is to produce change and movement. Management is about seeking order and stability; leadership is about seeking adaptive and constructive change” (2001: 8).

[14] Not surprisingly, Nietzsche regarded such tenacity as pathological, evidence of “stagnation, paralysis, and decline, [s]ick, pale, unhealthy and weak” (Reinert and Reinert, forthcoming). For him, health consists in overcoming “the vis inertiae, the forces of status quo” (ibid.).

[15] We are reminded here of Alfred North Whitehead’s aphorism, “Seek simplicity, then distrust it” (quoted by Warren Bennis, 1989: 102).

[16] Barry Schlenker refers to this as a view in psychology known as cognitive prototypes (1985: 11f, citing Kuiper, 1981).

[17] Going back to John Gardner’s concerns about pluralism, let us consider for a moment how reversion might work. A leader who promises simplification might seek to impose an ethic that he or she knows to offend certain factions. The leader might evict or isolate individuals who do not conform. The leader might dismantle groups and agencies within the organization that foster pluralism. The leader might also try to unify the people by rallying against a common foe. But beware! Any order worthy of the name will take equivalent measures in extreme cases. At some point, to preserve itself an organization has to adopt common values, confront members who work counter to its purpose, release segments that no longer fit the mission, and help everyone identify the risks of failure.

Jeffrey Hart was credited in a book review recently for confronting this realization in the American political conservative movement’s opposition to abortion. He asks, to what extent is it a distorting reversion for conservatives today to seek abolition (Nash, 2006: 48f)?

[18] For biographical information, see Ignatieff, 1998.

[19] For an explanation of the phrase “population of strategies,” see Axelrod and Cohen (2000: 5).