A Couple of Dialogues Related to Uncertainty

Two Dialogues drawn from the Creative Systems Theory manuscript highlight the role of uncertainty. The first dialogue concerns war, terrorism, and global safety. The second takes a broad look at leadership.

Vivian (a social worker): Tom and I teamed up—which was fascinating. We chose the same basic question, but the backgrounds and political beliefs we brought to it couldn’t be more different. Tom made his life in the military. My politics haven’t changed much since I marched in the streets during the Viet Nam war.

Tom (a retired general): To put it bluntly, we wanted to know how humanity can keep from blowing itself up. The growing number of nations with nuclear weapons makes major calamity seem almost inevitable. And the growing threat of terrorism means we don’t need hostile governments for great destruction to happen. I assumed that once we’d defeated communism, the world, at least for a while, would stay calm. But it certainly hasn’t.

Vivian: I interpret the end of the Cold War quite differently. But I certainly hoped that it meant that the world peace we had fought for so long had finally arrived. I thought the planet could now be a more caring place.

Tom: Instead we’ve had Somalia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia, September eleventh, Afghanistan, and Iraq twice over.

Vivian: We don’t have huge nuclear arsenals pointed at one other like before, but the dangers feel at least as great. And I don’t see obvious solutions. In World War II the task was pretty clear. Vietnam was trickier, but Tom and I were both pretty sure we knew what was right—even if we totally disagreed. Most of today’s conflicts just seem messy and confusing. Our best-intentioned efforts often make things worse.

CJ: What has changed? Is there anything good at all?

Vivian: One thing is positive. At least in more developed countries people seem less inclined to view the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. We seem to have less need for “evil empires.”

Tom: I agree. Things have gotten more complicated of late with the growing risk of terrorism. For people in the United States it has been a long time since we’ve faced threats so close to home. But even in the U.S., while leaders have attempted to play the demon card, I think it has been less effective than in times past. In the eyes of the perpetrators of terrorism, the United States may loom as the Great Satan. But to a surprising degree, people in the West have not returned the projection. At our best we’ve realized that while terrorism is horrendous, its roots are complex.

CJ: If you are right, what you observe is very significant—something quite new in the human story. Bonds of cultural identity in the past have always been based on a mythologizing of social identity—on viewing one’s own people as in some way “chosen” and attributing humanity’s less savory parts to others. This creates an illusion of certainty, but we pay the price of distortion. If we are even just beginning to leave such protective distortions behind us, that’s pretty major stuff.

Tom: And increasingly important because of how interconnected the world has become. We are in real trouble if we can’t.

CJ: Definitely. Proximity combined with the broad availability of highly lethal weaponry makes it an increasingly dangerous world in which to be viewed as evil. War will still have a place in the future. Indeed, we must be even better prepared for conflict. But war based on polarization and vengeance will become an increasingly unacceptable proposition. That we see hints of a greater maturity—even if at times only small hints—is of major importance. Without it we don’t have much hope.

Vivian: If these changes are real, why aren’t we seeing greater peace on the planet? I guess it’s because we’re just not that far along in the changes we are talking about. And they aren’t happening everywhere, or at least everywhere at the same rate. Won’t globalization help?

CJ: Globalization cuts both ways. Dissolving cultural boundaries offers the possibility of greater understanding. But at the same time it significantly ups the ante with regard to what maintaining mature perspective requires. As Robert Frost reminded us, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Cultural overlap can stretch social systems beyond what they can handle. Polarization and lashing out is a common consequence.

Tom: Globalization could result in greater conflict.

CJ: And even if it doesn’t, even if we succeed at getting beyond our historical need for evil others, we will still confront a “messier” reality. It is important to recognize that successfully realizing this maturity of perspective isn’t an answer in the sense of replacing uncertainty with new certainty. In fact, it increases uncertainty. Dividing humanity into clear allies and enemies provided an easily understandable world. Without this polar picture, reality becomes much more multi-hued. And it becomes much more challenging both to understand and to live in.

Vivian: So even with the best of outcomes, we need to be okay with a more complicated, less easily predictable world?

CJ: Certainly none of the social realities ahead will be as readily analyzed and pinned-down as those they replace. For example,  boundaries between countries in the future should become increasingly permeable and social allegiances ever more multi-layered—some layers defined by place, but as many by shared economics, spheres of interest, or belief. All sorts of questions become more complex in this picture: What is to replace nationalistic definitions of social identity? What does it mean to govern? How do we protect diversity—both human diversity and natural diversity? And your question, that of safety, protecting against aggression—in the future we will need to understand and manage conflict in much more subtle and sophisticated ways.

Vivian: How does terrorism fit in?

CJ: It gives us no choice but to think differently. We talk of a war on terrorism, but this is not war in any familiar definition. Wars as conventionally conceived have beginnings and endings, distinguish soldiers and civilians, and are waged between states. Terrorism will at different times be more or less prevalent, but it is here to stay; the status of those perpetrating it is often ambiguous; and national boundaries as often obscure what needs to be done as as much as they clarify it.

The biggest variable with regard to terrorism will likely not be terrorism itself, but the West’s ability to tolerate the uncertainty terrorism produces—to avoid responding by regressing and losing its faint hold on that needed greater maturity. Terrorist acts have been so disturbing less because of the destruction itself than because they have ripped away the modern world’s mythic veil of invulnerability. The West must be careful not to make ultimately destructive choices—both at home and abroad—in the hope of regaining that past illusion of impenetrability.

Because the industrialized world sits closest to that ability to transcend polarization, it must provide leadership in creating a safer world. Such leadership will stretch us mightily, liberals and conservatives alike. But we can’t afford to make terrorism the new communism. We face the possibility that Cold War animosities will be replaced by an even more risky polarization between the modern West and the Islamic East, or even worse, between the world’s haves and have-nots. At the least the outcome would be great pain and destruction. With the weapons of mass destruction genie irretrievably out of the bottle, the result could be calamitous.

Vivian: What about China? It seems unlikely that the U.S. will be the lone superpower much longer.

CJ: Certainly it is essential that the U.S. not respond to China’ challenge to its dominance by making China an enemy instead of just a competitor. Even another “cold” war could have unacceptable consequences. We face so may challenges that will require global cooperative: climate change, nuclear proliferation, global poverty and the potential for famine, the likelihood of pandemic at some point, and more.

Tom: A pretty demanding picture.

CJ: It is not as idyllic as idealized images of world peace, and not as reassuring as notions of a final victory of freedom over tyranny. But I think what this sort of picture depicts is ultimately richer—and more interesting.

Vivian: I wish what you’ve described made me feel more comfortable than it does.

CJ: I think the comfort has to come not from surety, but from confidence that we are asking the right questions. Simplistically conceived images of final peace or ultimate victory lead us ultimately in directions that would undermine exactly what they promise. What I propose certainly doesn’t guarantee safety. I think it highly likely that we will see today’s increasingly cataclysmic weaponry used more than once in the future—perhaps in wars between nations, more likely in ethnic conflicts or at the hands of terrorists. But the greater maturity reflected in the emerging picture offers hope that we might respond to such potentially world-ending situations in the most constructive ways. In the end, that is all we can ask.


Gary (CEO of a small manufacturing company). The topic of uncertainty ties directly to my question. I’m interested in leadership—what it takes today. I think quite exceptional leadership will be required in times ahead. I mean not just governmental leadership as with Tom and Vivian’s example, but leadership of all sorts. I think being able to handle great uncertainty will be a huge factor in effective future leadership.

CJ: Say more.

Gary: A lot in leadership today is just less clear-cut. That makes things harder. I think it can also undermine confidence in leadership. I’ve seen pretty scary statistics about the diminished trust people today often feel in leaders … of all kinds—along with politicians, doctors, teachers, leaders in business and the media.

I can understand this lack of confidence. Twenty years ago I understood what it meant to be a good leader, even if I sometimes came up short. Today, as often as not, I feel like I am walking on quicksand. And I am not alone. Most of the best leaders I know feel the same way.

CJ: What creates new uncertainty for you?

Gary: Some of what makes what I do less predictable comes from obvious changes in world. Globalization promises new economic opportunities. And at the same time, it creates the need to do business with cultures that have different practices and assumptions than my own. The Internet makes much more possible. Yet it also increases the pace of interactions and the speed with which surprises can have their effects.

But the most significant factors, at least those that impact me the most, feel like they have less to do with external realities than leadership itself. What it means to be a leader is changing—and in some pretty basic ways. I wish I could be clearer. I guess that lack of clarity is part of the uncertainty. But leadership is definitely making new demands and at a deep and basic level. Changes are happening that make effective leadership a different sort of enterprise.

CJ: Say what you can.

Gary: A big piece has to do with how my role is seen—from both outside and inside the organization. With regard to the outside world, I’m expected to be more visible in my interactions than before, more immediately accountable. Decisions made in smoke-filled rooms with the doors closed don’t cut it the way they once did.

At the same time, internal relationships are becoming less predefined and my role less protected and elevated. That doesn’t mean that suddenly my job is to be everybody’s friend or that the final word lies any less in my hands. But people think of me differently than they did twenty years ago when I took this job. I’ve become less as a symbol, more a person with tough work to do.

I think I end up with more power as a leader. But the new picture changes what exercising power looks and feels like.

CJ: Do you like these changes?

Gary:  At times I don’t. Greater transparency and more engaged leadership each make my job more difficult. I have to understand both the organization and the larger world in which we do business more deeply. I also have to better understand myself. But, I’m sure that, in the end, these changes are for the good. They make the business environment more creative and make much more possible than in times past. There is also something in these changes that just feels right—and important.

CJ: If viewing leaders less as symbols and more simply as people is, as you suggest, something we see, it certainly would be significant. It would also be something quite new. Throughout history, exaggerating the capabilities of authority—putting leaders on pedestals—has always been part of leadership. It has been key to making leadership work.

But I agree with you that today we see changes. The false security that comes with notions of an invincible and unswerving leader can be pretty seductive. And sometimes faking it a bit is exactly what good leadership requires. But we are better recognizing how such false security can get us into trouble. I find the most innovative and capable leaders increasingly seeking out the kind of more mature leadership relationships you describe.

Gary: If nothing else, we seem more ready to put our leaders’ failings on display. I think of the growing litany of scandals within my world of business—the recent financial collapse and our blindness to the house-of-cards risk taking that produced it, the Enron debacle, insider trading on Wall Street. We seem, too, more ready to confront political wrongdoings. And there is our greater willingness to address sexual abuse in the clergy and elsewhere Shortsightedness, corruption, and  deceit are not new to any of these realms. But we seem more willing to challenge it.

CJ: I think more important than admitting mistakes is something implied in your earlier comments—simply being upfront about the uncertainties that are just a part of how things are.

I’m drawn back to my training in medical school. Much that we did—from the wearing of white coats to thirty-six hour ritual stints in the emergency room—in the end had more to do with the assumption of a ceremonial role than the learning of medicine. I was critical of this then. Now I better recognize its historic purpose.

I remember once wondering as I watched a surgeon cut into the jello-fragile tissue of a young woman’s brain, whether he could have still carried out this God-like task—there with life or death balanced on the tip of his scalpel—had he not had medicine’s mythic trappings to protect him from the full uncertainty of his craft.

Over the last few decades, physicians have made significant strides toward setting aside past deific imagery and approaching their work more as ordinary human beings with demanding roles to play. Working from a place of deeper humility ultimately translates into greater effectiveness and subtlety. But this more mortal posture also requires a willingness to hold life more complexly, and with a much fuller cognizance of how much we do not, and often cannot, know.1

Being more humble to what we don’t know and often can’t know will be increasingly important wherever we look.

Gary: Recognizing that many of the changes I’m dealing with pertain to all kinds of leadership is helpful.

CJ: I think they pertain ultimately to more than just formal leadership. We see parallel changes in how we understand authority more generally. The shifts—and the accompanying new uncertainties—are just as present with authority in private interpersonal relationships—between men and women, between parents and children. And this kind of change is just as dramatic, and arguably even more fundamentally important, in how we relate to ourselves, in what the future will require if we are to effectively direct our daily lives.

Gary: None of those changes make things easier.

CJ: Definitely not. More mature authority dynamics—of any sort—make for greater demands and greater uncertainty all the way around. But these changes also expand creative possibilities in ways we should find increasingly critical and fulfilling.

Paradoxically, the same shifts that amplify uncertainty in the end make possible greater precision and specificity in how we act and think. In the most big-picture sense, they help us be more certain. For example, they offer that we might much more accurately evaluate risk. The changes we are talking about make our world more complicated. But they also result in a more full, more deeply engaged, relationship with ourselves, with whatever we might choose to do, and with truth itself.

Gary: Do you believe we will succeed in making these changes?

CJ: I don’t think we have any choice. The need for more mature understandings of authority—and for the greater comfort with uncertainty they require—is fundamental and inescapable. It will be necessary everywhere if we are to succeed at making decisions with the sophistication the future will increasingly require.