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Theme  |  Plenaries

Conference Theme Note: Leadership In Turbulent Times

Our world seems increasingly connected and unpredictable. Rapidly occurring events in fragile areas of the world, once believed to be 'far away,' continually impact global society and local community, everywhere. An idea spawned in a basement in Stockholm can attract 100s of millions in capital and disrupt an entire industry across the globe. A local break-out of mosquito-borne virus can frustratingly migrate across a continent, yet we can track it by the hour and prepare. A political candidate's media-savvy can give voice to many, and threaten a political party and democratic system simultaneously. Social network technology can effectively aid in dislodging a brutal regime, yet be useless in creating a government to replace it. An online social network can be larger than a nation-state, disrupt an exploitive international corporate clothing campaign one day, and the next day be no more powerful than a chat-room. The internet of things can enhance remote health care, emergency response, and streamline logistics like never before, yet make entire communication/transportation grids vulnerable to 'hackerism'. Our ways of producing and consuming are moving into what is seen to be a promising 4th industrial revolution, and are threatening our planet's social and eco-stability at the same time.

If there ever was an arena that challenges leaders, it is this constant state of turbulence and seeming fragility of the leadership of states, regions, communities and organizations. Turbulence has emerged as the new normal.

Since Peter Drucker's 1980 'Managing in Turbulent Times' much has transpired. His call then was that 'the underlying causes of turbulence can be analysed, predicted and managed.' 35 years later we must admit that perhaps he was mistaken. Turbulence is not a time to be managed-through: It just might be a new, human-made state of being. Natural systems seek equilibrium. Human systems actually may not. Perhaps constant disequilibrium is the ultimate implication of Schumpeter's Creative Destruction. Herbert Simon (and others after him) posited that our organizations might actually be understood and advanced (led) via 'sciences of the artificial' where artificial is defined as designed or 'human-made' systems not systems of nature, per se.

A critical, underlying human assumption about leading is that we are traversing or mobilising from some current state toward a new state. Often this new state will be characterized as stable or predictable. What if the mindset of leading from turbulence to stability is antiquated? What if 'stable' never comes? What does this say about theories and practices of leading, governance and change? How do we lead from behind in turbulence? How do we effectively lead and adapt across boundaries we have never crossed and that are also shifting? What collaborative demands does a perpetual state of 'emergence' place on interdependent individuals, groups, organizations, and societies? How do interdependent individuals, teams, and larger collectives build resilience and thrive when policy, routine, control and interests are consistently challenged by internal and external elements of the systems involved? What are the nature, character and influence of authenticity, trust and integrity in leading in turbulence, at individual and shared or collective levels of analysis and practice?' What if complexity is not 'map-able' because turbulence is so great that all 'the moving parts and their relationships' constantly morph at such speed and to such an extent that system complexity is never stable enough to grasp? What if the forces at play in 'wicked problems' are so mischievous that they are actually 'wicked opportunities' in camouflage and represent the drivers of human evolution itself?

We suggest that turbulence and the questions raised, challenge many notions about leading, leaders, and leadership and all of our development. We also suggest that learning to lead in turbulence, is as crucial to humanity as recognizing the risk of climate change. Life is progressing. Yet the technologies of creation and destruction (from economical 3D-printing of prosthetics to weapons, for example) are becoming increasingly accessible to many which will likely continue to fuel turbulence.

We turn to ourselves, this community of researchers, educators and practitioners of leadership, to submit to the Call for Proposals by 01 February, 2017 and to spend the next year considering what turbulence means, and what it demands for effectively leading in a humane world of resilient communities and thriving organizations. Gather with your colleagues. Frame and investigate some 'wicked opportunities' or questions that might help us all better understand how to lead them. Break frame. Innovate and refine. Challenge existing assumptions and propose new ones. Let's marshal our individual and collective intelligence and advance the world's understanding and practices of leading in turbulence.


Jorrit VOlkers
2017 ILA Global Conference Chair,
Dean of Deloitte University Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA)
  Patrick Sweet
2017 ILA Global Conference Program Chair, Co-Director, Leadership Alliance for the Geneva Centre for Security Policy – Center for Creative Leadership