Leading into the Future VII: Constructivism and Postmodernism
In the postmodern camp there is neither the interest in the systematic building of theory, through what Thomas Kuhn calls normal science, nor the interest in a warfare between competing paradigms, through what Kuhn calls scientific revolutions. Rather everything is pre-paradigmatic. Tom Peters acknowledges that in the early 1980s he knew something about how organizations achieved excellence. By the late 1980s, he discovered that he was mistaken. Many of the excellent organizations of the early 1980s became troubled institutions by the late 1980s. Other theorists and social observers have been similarly humbled by the extraordinary events of the 1980s and 1990s. They simply haven’t been as forthcoming (or opportunistic) as Tom Peters. “Postmodernism at its deepest level,” notes Andreas Huyssen, “represents not just another crisis within the perpetual cycle of boom and bust, exhaustion and renewal, which has characterized the trajectory of modernist culture.” Rather, the postmodern condition “represents a new type of crisis of that modernist culture itself.” Many futurists (especially those that focus on the environment) similarly speak of a crisis-of-crises.
If postmodernism is to contribute to the formulation of a new theory of organizations and provide a guide for leaders as they lean into the future, then it must move beyond the state of fad and find roots in the soil of history and precedence. The origins of postmodernism can be traced to many different sources, ranging from the Marxist-based analyses of Frederick Jameson to the more conservative observations and predictions of Peter Drucker. From Cristo’s art-as-event performances to Peter Vaill’s spiritual leadership. To trace the origins of postmodernism is to review the cultural history of Twentieth Century America and the emerging global culture of the Twenty First Century.
Since this task is impossible, given the focus of this set of essays on leadership, I will focus briefly on four different sources of postmodernism We must understand something of what is being said by the postmodernists if we are to gain an appreciation for postmodernism as a revolution in contemporary thought rather than merely a fad and if we are to more fully appreciate the challenges faced by 21st Century leaders..