Leaders Overcome Confusion by Leading Creatively

“Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood” – Henry Miller

Feeling dazed and confused by the enormity of change that has swept past your doorstep the last few years? If so, you have likely had the realization that a new style of leadership is required to cope with the rising complexity of business models and rapid change in international markets. For rapid change, look no further than the ubiquitousness of smartphones, pods, and pads. R.I.P. old-style providers of music and books?

Confusion occurs for us when something or someone – perhaps an entire organization – conflicts with our normal expectations. We’ve been expecting a certain outcome, but this new reality doesn’t fit with our familiar pattern of doing business. It is easy to hypothesize that such confusion will be the norm in a fast-changing world. Our old order and systems cannot be easily restored and this leaves us feeling both puzzled and struggling for new answers. The resulting confusion is an awareness that past skills might not work any longer and what we need for the future has not yet been proven, nor even identified yet. Let us examine how one can get beyond confusion by engaging the creative process while amidst a state of chaos and change.

Confusion can be turned to advantage

Facing change and confusion in the past we have likely reacted negatively through:

  • Act/react: We sought control of the situation by doing more of the same
  • Ignore/Downplay: We ignored the change and derided its significance
  • Resistance: We showed signs of helplessness/paralysis

However, in psychological terms, confusion or irritation can be a very productive moment for us because old patterns are being doubted, albeit without having the right answer yet! So, how is this an advantage when in the minds of most organizations and leaders there is no place for this seeming contradiction. “Not knowing” has been synonymous with being unprofessional. I am writing to point out that we needn’t fight confusion, as it can be the starting point for a very creative process.

We need to accept that what were success factors in the past, perhaps are no longer valid. New approaches to success will come from knowing how to deal with yesterday’s success factors and yet having the capacity to know when to disregard and maybe even drop them. Awareness of such paradoxes and making use of them is a creative process.

A Most Ingenious Paradox

  • Paradox#1: Understand the rules but be able to break them constantly.
    Even when our business models are breaking down or challenged by new competitors we tend to ignore them or play them down as if they will eventually go away. Already established rules for success can have a “sticky” quality that can leave us stuck and unable to respond to an on-going situation.
  • Paradox#2: To be more productive, practice doing nothing regularly.
    Productivity and efficiency are key parameters for running a business. Output can be measured , while the art of doing nothing hardly seems appropriate in daily business life. However, taking the time to re-focus by briefly shutting out multitudinous distractions and breathing deeply can provide direction and productivity. In short, a leader needs to take time out by perfecting the art of doing nothing.
  • Paradox#3: Listen to experts, but know how to disregard them.
    Experts tend to prolong the past, instead of challenging current opinions. Thus, when everything seems to be too right, we need to question it.
  • Paradox#4: Create many ideas, yet most of them are useless.
    New ideas have to be examined from all sides, nurtured and treated like a seed ready to be planted. Similarly, there is a time when an idea has to be dropped – a limit that is either specified or implied. Finally, once an idea has either been successful or dropped, there comes the time to again stimulate new ideas.
  • Paradox#5: Look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different.
    There’s often more than one “correct” answer and the second or third answer that we come up with might be better than the first. A mental block can be turned around to reveal ways to find more than one answer to any given problem. The first approach to mental blocks is to accept that we are blocked. Once we realize and appreciate it, we are able to look more broadly, see alternative solutions and overcome our cognitive fixation.

The 2010 IBM Global Study asked 1500 CEO’s from 60 countries the following question: How will leaders have to respond to a competitive and economic environment unlike anything we have as yet encountered? The common denominator in their answers was: creative leadership and described future leaders as “creative leaders“. In the midst of chaos and change, such leadership will have to consider previously unheard-of ways to drastically change the enterprise for the better. A most ingenious paradox.