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Disequilibrium is the sense of imbalance we feel as we deal with increasing complexity and change.

This post, the first in a series, starts by exploring why leaders need to embrace it.

Avoiding disequilibrium is harmful

Disequilibrium is not harmful to our leadership, unless we try to avoid it.

That can cause us to retrench when change demands that we adapt.

“In today’s business world, change is inevitable. And if you’re only striving for equilibrium — which is all but impossible — you will merely continue doing the same thing, year after year, as the world moves on.”

Today’s Leaders Must Learn To Thrive In Disequilibrium, Forbes.com

If we try to avoid disequilibrium, we focus our attention backward, on returning to some “steady state” in the past instead of adapting forward.

Equilibrium should never be our goal

We cannot return complex situations or systems to “normal” due to the rate of catastrophic change.

“Normal” has become a perpetually moving target, never pausing long enough for us to get a good look.

Understanding that equilibrium should never be our goal helps us make better leadership choices.

“Leadership is about knowing what the range is and managing others through the range of acceptable disequilibrium.”

— Talenpac.com, The Range of Acceptable Disequilibrium

It helps for us to think about disequilibrium as a necessary part of leadership.

It helps us grow and support others as they deal with change.

Accepting disequilibrium as “the way things are” (and not something to be avoided) is important for successful leadership.

Ask yourself these questions about how well you’re dealing with disequilibrium:

  1. When do I avoid complexity and try to return situations to “normal?”
  2. How well am I handling the discomfort caused by disequilibrium?
  3. Do I routinely look backward or adapt forward?

Disequilibrium drives adaptation

Accepting disequilibrium instead of trying to fight it, we can turn our attention to figuring things out as the landscape changes around us.

“Pulling us out of our insulated silos.  Requiring leaders to seek out the signals reverberating out of these shifts, continually deciphering and determining what these signals are saying and asking ‘What you are going to do about it?’”

— dculberh.wordpress.com, Transforming Tension and Disequilibrium Into Breakthrough Experiences

Deciphering the signals of a changing system, environment, organization and world keeps us on our toes.

It helps us keep up with catastrophic change and still make good leadership choices. It helps us adapt instead of retrench when we face rapid change.

It helps us navigate perpetual uncertainty

Change is not something we can prevent, or even”manage” in the traditional sense.

Embracing disequilibrium helps us move forward, adapting our approaches and strategies to better “navigate the uphill terrain of perpetual uncertainty.”

5 questions

Use these 5 questions to check how well you are responding to disequilibrium:

  1. How deeply am I embracing disequilibrium?
  2. Where could I be fighting it, causing more difficulty than is necessary for myself and others?
  3. If I admitted that my earlier definition of “normal” was no longer possible, how would I think and lead differently?
  4. How will I carry out the improvements described in my answer to #3?
  5. How will those changes improve my leadership and the performance of my teams?

While it’s tempting to try to keep things “under control,” that should never be a leader’s goal. Instead, focus on how you can better “navigate the uphill terrain of perpetual uncertainty.”


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