We have grown up in a society which, for the past 100 years, has prized following directions, being obedient, and maintaining the status quo in our schooling and work environments. Management has been the “science” of running a business, and an MBA is both a status symbol and the ticket to success. We have looked for a few leaders at the top, expecting everyone else to be a manager or a worker.
The challenge before us is not more and better management. It is more honest and courageous leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Leadership cuts through the assumptions, the status quo, the certainty, the rigid structures of what has been. Leaders thrive in the shades of gray and the ambiguities of rapid change and the complexities change brings. Indeed, the ability to navigate the uncharted and roiling waters of today’s business environment and the complex global realities around us requires the very skills and ways of thinking and relating found in effective leaders.
What is a good model for understanding this quality of leadership? Are there any similarities to be found in science or mathematics for the kind of leadership we now need?
A mathematical model for such an approach does exist and is, in fact, finding its way into the next wave of consumer products: “fuzzy logic.” Fuzzy-logic engineering allows for smoother transitions, more accurate readings of reality, increased precision, and greater flexibility. It deals with approximations versus the hard and fast world of binary logic.
Fuzzy logic is different from the old absolutes of digital: on or off, right or wrong, yes or no, true or false, black or white. It recognizes and makes use of the vast shades of gray between the rigid poles of the binary model. Most of our world, our social and management systems, and our politics have been designed around the digital approach. However, this older model is not one that lends itself to great flexibility, or even to great intelligence. There is a hard, fairly rigid approach to problems and to life. This limits the responsiveness of individuals and systems to changing conditions and shifting paradigms. It is an approach that lacks the capacity to adapt or change quickly and smoothly. This way of thinking and managing is a critical part of how we have been failing. We have a way of thinking and living that makes it extremely difficult for grace to appear or life to flourish since it constricts us emotionally, conceptually, and creatively.
Fuzzy logic is an approach of approximations. A crude example is the difference between a regular light switch, which turns a light on or off (digital), and a dimmer switch, which allows a light to vary in degrees of brightness (fuzzy logic). This allows for a greater range of responses and therefore flexibility to the requirements of the environment and even the “mood” or ambiance desired. So too, in real life, the range of options can be extended to many more iterations between the two fixed positions of off or on, right or wrong, black or white. This means that the environment can be read with greater precision and the responses to that environment calibrated with much more flexibility and appropriateness.
This has led to a saying we have coined at Staub Leadership: “In approaching the challenges of our complex world, it is important to remember that while white matters and black matters, where it really counts is in gray matter(s).” It is really in the shades of gray that we find innovation, creativity, fresh perspectives, and the ambiguity necessary to challenge and check our paradigms. Fuzzy logic excels at, and exists in, the realm of the gray. Great leadership thrives in and utilizes the shades of gray to find new approaches, new opportunities, more options, and fruitful behaviors and actions.
The combination of binary or linear logic and fuzzy logic principles allows for greater precision, power, and learning to occur.