Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
These challenges are not arising out of today. THEY ARE DIFFERENT. In most cases they are at odds and incompatible with what is accepted and successful today. We live in a period of PROFOUND TRANSITION—and the changes are more radical perhaps than even those that ushered in the “Second Industrial Revolution” of the middle of the 19th century, or the structural changes triggered by the Great Depression and the Second World War.
– Peter Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999, p. ix)
This essay concerns a critical concept as we prepare to lead into the future: the changes we are now experiencing are not reversible. The challenges escaping from the box of postmodern society can’t be stuffed back into this box. As with Pandora’s box, that which is released must be acknowledged and addressed as an important part of our contemporary reality. Even back in 1999, Peter Drucker was telling us about the new realities we are facing. It is not just the nature of specific postmodern challenges. It is a much deeper and more profound challenge—requiring us to think and act in a different way. We are dealing not with mechanical, correctable pendulum-like puzzles, instead are faced with dynamic and ever changing (“flickering”) fire-like problems and mysteries. In this essay, I will unpack this perhaps obscure use of the pendulum/fire analogy and trace out some of the implications of this metaphor for contemporary, postmodern leadership as they face these problems and mysteries..
A Mechanistic World
Contemporary organizational theory—and, for that matter, most organizational theory during the past century—has been built upon a solid, mechanistic foundation. Many successful organizations during the Twentieth Century operated as well-oiled systems. This perspective was key to the success of corporate enterprise during what Henry Luce called The American Century. These organizations imported resources from the outside (such as raw materials, employees, capital, sales orders and customers). They then provided some sort of transformation upon these imported resources (such as converting iron to automobiles, or untrained children to properly educated citizens). Finally, these finely tuned organizations exported the transformed product to other organizations located in the external world. Unfortunately, these organizations are often ill equipped to deal with the highly turbulent, complex and unpredictable world of the Twenty First Century.