Chaos Isn’t a Bad Thing (and Eight Other Truths Leaders Need to Know)


Twenty-first century leaders are no strangers to chaos—and the last few years have underscored that truth. We ride nonstop waves of disruption and uncertainty in various forms: supply chain upheavals, staff shortages, changing attitudes about work, wildly shifting workplace demographics, and ever-evolving technology. And that’s not even counting the chaos that comes with the day-to-day managing of people! No wonder so many leaders (whether experienced or new) feel so overwhelmed.

But I have an encouraging message: Chaos isn’t a “bad” thing at all. Rather, the disorder and confusion we must navigate daily is a powerful catalyst for creating purpose and growth—sometimes tremendous growth—in people’s lives.

Every one of us is capable of bringing order out of chaos. We innately possess the abilities to transform the chaotic resources around us to serve our purposes. Our job as leaders is to facilitate this transformation in ourselves and in our teams.

Keep reading for several insights from my book, Built to Beat Chaos, to help you not just cope with chaos, but bring order to it, manage it, and transform it into something that changes lives.

You were created to overcome chaos. (Really!)

Not only is chaos not the enemy, it was created for us. And we are designed to beat it, not to be its victims. In fact, we inherently crave to face chaos head-on and to transform it into something positive.  

The essence of leadership is knowing how to order and arrange—or integrate—the raw materials of chaos. Inside organizations we are tasked with integrating many people, each of whom has desires of their own, into a team that works together and does the right things in the right order.

Every leader should step back and ask the profound question: If electromagnetic energy holds the atoms in my body together, what is it that holds my team (organization) together? Answering that question and acting on the answer is what it means to be a leader.

The battle against chaos starts with defining purpose

Every organization, every leader, and every employee should be in agreement on the “why” behind all that you do. This will bring focus to the problems you want to solve so you can ignore the rest. A world with too many opportunities to pursue is just another form of chaos. Just be sure that the vision or purpose you choose is not too vague. When this happens, it is difficult to guide resource allocation in a way that gets results.

One test of good visioning is that everyone understands the vision and relates their responsibilities to it. Another test is whether the vision provides the clarity for people to know how to invest their time. A clear path to increased chaos is “biting off more than you can chew.”

Chaos is no excuse. Just because you can’t control it, doesn’t mean it can’t be managed

You may not be able to plan for unexpected disruptions, but too many people believe they are helpless in the face of chaos. For example, a manager might say, “I can’t promise to get the new training program built and rolled out by the end of the first quarter, because I get so many requests for custom reports and other support issues. I can’t plan my work.”

Left unchallenged, this kind of thinking justifies living with chaos instead of managing it. We turn into victims of the surrounding randomness instead of planning for it. Of course we can’t control everything, but there is great power in making a plan, finding solutions when problems arise, and moving forward always.

YOU create some of your chaos

While much chaos comes from outside forces, it can also come from our internal battles (loathe as we are to admit it). It can feel uncomfortable probing the turmoil of our internal desires, ideas, and half-formed thoughts. However, not doing so can keep us in a vicious cycle of wanting things and then behaving in an entirely contradictory manner. Perhaps we enroll in the gym or buy fitness equipment but never find time to work out. Or we insist we want to learn a new skill but can’t seem to sign up for a course to practice it.

No one wants to do what they should all the time. But confronting our human tendency to not do the things we know we should do helps us understand what it means to lead ourselves and others. For example, we may not want to make the cold calls required to grow our sales because they are not easy or fun, but not doing so inevitably leads to chaos—we make less money, we compromise our performance record, and we put our jobs in jeopardy.

The leader’s job is to help people understand and channel their desires and align them to the tasks at hand

Desire is a double-edged sword. It fuels our capacity to bring chaos into order. It drives us to create what’s worth creating, be that an inspired organization, a work of art, or the next technology breakthrough. But left unchecked, desire can be destructive. The leader’s job is understanding the dual nature of desire. Deep down, what is it you want? What is it your employees want? Knowing the answer allows us (leaders and employees alike) to draw on this inner power source to think, feel, and act in ways that help us a) thrive and b) stay out of trouble.

We are more effective leaders when we try to get to the root of what motivates people. Often, the people involved benefit from bringing their underlying desires to the surface, because sometimes they are unaware of their effect on their actions. And when I say “they,” I also mean “me.”

Leverage chaos to get people to act…

It’s no surprise that politicians say, “Never waste a good crisis.” Disruptions and crises have a way of aligning people’s desires with their actions. An example could be the rise of a major competitive threat, or a big new product rollout that shakes up the status quo. These unifying times of focus can be fear-based, or they can be inspirational. The common element is that they help us get aligned internally and with other people.

…But know that your job isn’t done once the chaos dissipates

Order is easier to create than to keep. As the crisis passes, the aligning force dissipates, internal misalignments surface, and organizational entropy sets in and eventually leads to its own chaos.

The number-one problem I see in organizations is that people fail to understand that the alignment that occurs whenever a crisis erupts is temporary. People overestimate their desire to make the changes required to keep chaos at bay. A leader’s challenge is to help people who are not doing what they say they want to do. When people fall out of alignment, be prepared to call them on it and help them get back on track.

Overcoming chaos brings new chaos. (So, get used to it.)

Chaos always exists. Bringing order to one level of chaos creates another level that must be managed. Think, for example, of taking raw lumber and other materials and building a house. Now you have an ordered “system” that will return to a chaotic state unless you invest in taking care of it.  

Think about a start-up or a business that launches a new product or service experience. The first chaos mastery involves figuring out how to design, build, and launch something of value to a customer. But once launched, that product needs its own ecosystem for selling and supporting it. That second phase lasts much longer than the first phase and has new categories of ongoing chaos that have to be managed.

Ultimately, we should think of chaos as a force that refines us all. It’s not something to dread. In fact, when you accept that chaos is inevitable, it allows you to focus on managing and preventing it rather than fearfully wondering when it might turn up again.

Once you realize that you have everything you need to face any chaos that faces you, nothing can stop you from pursuing your desires and goals. You are truly free to be at your best and to help bring out the best in others.



Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute. Its four-part leadership development system—comprised of people skills, data-driven management skills, management platform, and just-in-time learning—helps organizations bring order out of this swirling chaos.

Having been a CEO for 40 years, Gary has experienced the challenges of every aspect of business ownership, from start-up to rapid growth to acquiring other companies to being acquired. (Solomon Software, which he cofounded, was purchased by Great Plains and ultimately sold to Microsoft.) He is a keynote speaker, writer, and teacher whose areas of focus include leadership, business, and the integration of faith at work. His passion is speaking about what effective leaders need to know, do, and be to overcome the chaos of everyday life. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thoughtleaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. In addition to Built to Beat Chaos, he has written two other books: Six Disciplines for Excellence and Execution Revolution.

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