Thriving at the Edge of Chaos: Leadership Lessons from Dinosaurs, Hurricanes & Black Swans

Posted by: Alicia Engel, EMGM '16, Contributor on Thursday, October 26, 2017


Thriving at the Edge of Chaos:

Leadership Lessons from Dinosaurs, Hurricanes & Black Swans


It’s always something.



You may recall this plot: Strange incidents on the fictional Isla Nublar spook the investors of a “biological preserve” named Jurassic Park. Ian Malcolm, a consultant and chaos theorist, emphatically foreshadows the park’s collapse. Why? “…It is an unsustainable simple structure bluntly forced upon a complex system.” (Crichton).  Cue the corporate espionage, tropical storm, and dinosaurs that “have somehow been breeding against the park geneticists' design!” (Wikipedia) Mayhem, murder, and Hollywood millions ensue. Those crazy T-Rex clones. You can’t turn your back for a second.


Or can you? That’s the question David Lee, MIM ‘97 (pictured below), confronted when reading the Crichton novel. “The lesson from the book [was] that they… tried to control everything.” Spoiler alert: they failed. It turns out that such a “complex adaptive system” had no plan to yield to human regulation. Instead, after a razor-thin escape, survivors returned to find the park completely transformed: the system and its players had now “learned” from their experience in their controlled system. The members of the food chain had re-organized themselves. It was now more efficient and “…worked much better.” Well, in their culture, anyway. 


Let’s apply a business lens. If we want our global economy to work well, the world needs leaders who don’t force simple structures onto complex systems. As David blogs, “The tendency of management is to do just that, manage….[But] the process of trying to maintain full control proves insurmountable. [It’s] expensive, and potentially fatal because it can prevent necessary disruption.” Instead, leaders of complex organizations should unshackle their personnel from centralized control, and allow them to self-organize and connect in ways that make “glocal” sense. Organizations (and teams within them) that enjoy this freedom will find ways to serve the interests of ALL major stakeholders: customers, employees, communities, suppliers, the environment –as well as investors– with greater engagement, agility and efficiency. Cacophony becomes symphony.


Though “change management” is important, the typical approach to implementing and enforcing it in the middle layer won’t accomplish this harmony and growth. Instead, David says the C-Suite must lead the way by leveraging complexity to achieve business transformation. “Change” addresses individual behaviors while “transformation” refers to “anything that alters the organization…forever.”


Leaders who strive to simplify or summarize the complexity of their system only blind themselves to the unexpected or unanticipated scenarios, causing them to be more reactive. Keeping to what they know and expect, they lull skepticism into submission. They become unable to weather the extreme impacts of Black Swan events – the disruptions, which according to Nassim Taleb, actually define history, finance, and economics.  When you ignore the complexity, “you’re either in the state of disorder and chaos…or you’re relaxed and complacent.” Organizations in the former state suffer change fatigue. In the latter they suffer inertia – neither one is good. The best place to be, David says, “is in the middle,” or as some refer to it, at the edge of chaos.


“We have to [help leaders] think of a new way for teaching and approaching business…” -Slide image from


For David, a self-proclaimed “military brat,” the edge of chaos is familial terrain. “My dad was a storm chaser. He chased hurricanes.”  David’s father, Col Norman (Skip) Lee served with the 53rd WRS (Weather Reconnaissance Squadron) known as the Hurricane Hunters in both Puerto Rico and Biloxi, and later commanded the 54 WRS Typhoon Chasers in Guam. “[The pilots] would fly into the hurricane, drop a buoy into the storm, and send the ratings back to the airplane.” The data these daring flyers collected helped forecasters gauge the strength of a storm and predict its direction. Satellites can’t capture that data. And ships, vulnerable to strong waves, can’t adjust without it. Only pilots willing to fly directly into the storm can meet this need.


Thunderbirds get it. We know this is a VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  After all, David says, we are specifically taught to lead complex adaptive systems “not…by removing [the] complexity, but [by] embracing it, managing for it, and building systems to accommodate and adapt to it.” We have learned to gauge the strength of the economic head- or tailwinds and then predict the direction. And we love it. We instinctively know it’s the hurricane pressure that motivates organizations to evolve, adapt, and innovate. We naturally run towards change; not from it. 


WC-130 Hercules, the aircraft used by the 54 WRS Hurricane Hunters and Typhoon Chasers.  “Getting over the hump and embracing this new reality will allow leaders to begin to see the solutions differently.”- David Lee.


According to David, millennials in particular are skilled at managing complexity “intuitively.” They’ve sifted, sorted and prioritized daily reams of information “since elementary school.” Though “we’re trying to teach the leaders of today how to do this, the Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers were taught to simplify and control everything.”


Even the U.S. democracy enables agility, David explains. “We have a sense of purpose…We believe that…the system can be changed…and that no one person or organization can have control.” Yet the edge can become a cliff. The unprecedented rate of world transformation has, at least in part, triggered the rise in nationalism in the world. David underscores this: “People feel left out of [globalization], and they feel victimized by it.”


Thunderbirds of all generations know that a VUCA world requires transformational leadership; but we must remember that others don’t naturally agree. David both compliments and cautions Thunderbirds when he says, “we want to walk in and create change. [Thunderbirds] tend to be people who want to do big things. [But] it can be an Achilles heel” when we expect others to move at our pace.


Left, the military patch for the Typhoon Chasers features a black swan in the midst of a hurricane. That patch later inspired David’s own consulting logo, right (not related to MSS BTI).   


At the MSS Business Transformation Institute (BTI), David challenges his clients: “What are the transformational drivers, [the] macro events impacting your company?” And, “are you prepared for the level of transformation required to survive?” In essence, he helps his clients face the hurricanes so they don’t have to fear the black swans.


Change or die, right?  As Ian Malcolm famously said, “Life breaks free. It expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously; but uh…well, there it is.”


Indeed. It’s always something.



Join us for the next monthly TIAA Professional Development webinar on July 20, 2017when David will share 6 key competencies for becoming a transformational leader.  Questions for David Lee? Contact him here. Alicia Engel can be reached here.


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