Unconventional Crises, Unconventional Responses: Reforming Leadership in the Age of Catastrophic Crises and Hypercomplexity

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Unconventional Crises, Unconventional Responses: Reforming Leadership in the Age of Catastrophic Crises and Hypercomplexity by Erwan Lagadec. Brookings Institution Press, 2007, 68 pp.

Grappling with the random alterations in international life has confronted scholars, policy makers, and publics with the turbulent reality of discontinuous change. Thus, while the momentous events of 1989 and the apparent failure of commentators to anticipate them have heightened the awareness of unanticipated changes, they have not yet produced a convincing engagement with the pervasive, yet difficult-to-fathom, uncertainty of post–Cold War affairs. Rather than a transitory stage, the accelerating dynamism, unpredictability, and turbulence of global politics continue to puzzle observers and commentators alike. The emergence of such hypercomplexity forms the intellectual core of the examination by Erwan Lagadec, a SAIS Foreign Policy Institute fellow. His comprehensive report emanated from  a multinational project bringing together participants from North America and Europe. This demanding endeavor seeks to find ways for conceptualizing the nascent unpredictability of global life and to provide a platform for business leaders, decision makers, and scholars to discuss the looming challenges, exchange policy-making practices, and share experience and strategies. Lagadec’s report summarizes the key points of and the main conclusions from the discussions of this international project.

Most readers would be fascinated by the perceptive interrogation of the dominant cognitive structures that underpin the prevailing culture of decision making. By focusing on the proliferation of catastrophic events, insidious events, cascading events, and hypercomplex events, Lagadec points out that “threats to foundational paradigms are especially difficult to identify in a timely fashion because leaders often would be culturally unwilling to heed warnings about them, as they find their implications too disturbing to contemplate” (p. 22). Such anxiety derives not only from the reticence and unwillingness to change exhibited by the conventionally vertical hierarchies that characterize decision-making structures in North America and Europe but also by the randomness of  current challenges. Their complexity and difficulty emanates from unpredictable interactions and interdependencies. Thus, “events which by themselves would seem mundane and indeed would have remained so in the recent past, can now trigger unforeseen snowball effects and lead to considerable systemic destabilizations” (p. 8). In such a context, the fates of different actors and their relations with others are strongly influenced by interactions at other places and at earlier periods of time, which makes it hard to treat issues separately.

According to Lagadec, the main risks emanate not from the hypercomplexity of contemporary global challenges but from the realization that the growing frequency of unconventional crises overwhelms the mainstream culture of decision making. Thus, the established command and control systems fail to meet the challenges emanating from events that occur outside of the framework of preset behaviors. It is even more concerning that policy buffs refuse to consider scenarios that might “force them out of their comfort zones,” preferring instead to address standard risks that “do not compromise the coherence of chains of command, the coordination of stove-piped sectors, or the rationality of decision-making processes” (p. 49). In this respect, unconventional crises have their destructive long-term impact because of their “liquefaction” of “foundational paradigms”—undermining, making irrelevant, and ultimately turning into liability the basic assumptions on which our systems are based (p. 22). Thus, the complexity of contemporary global life demonstrates that “crises often involve paradigm shifts which leaders do not immediately detect. The world has changed around them: and while they are fighting the last war, the next war occurs on a different planet, and they’re not there with it” (ibid.).

The unconventionality of current challenges undermines hackneyed notions of power, authority, and legitimacy. At the same time, they also demand higher levels of reflexivity and new modes of decision making, which are not only open to, but also structured around improvisation and spontaneity. Stated otherwise, “Leadership [has] to become just as unconventional as the event it is called upon to confront” (p. 30). Thus, Lagadec indicates that contingent events bring about opportunities for developing new strategic skills and norms. In this setting, policy heterogeneity—the simultaneous maintenance of diverse decision-making strategies (alongside the willingness and capacity to develop new ones) to address the contingencies of unintended changes in global life—reflects the demand for resilient modes of governance. Improvisational policy making is neither deterministic nor arbitrary; rather, it reflects an ability to develop “self-organizing mechanisms within spontaneous communities” (p. 34). These spontaneous processes allow decision making to respond creatively to the unforeseen patterns of global life. Lagadec emphasizes that “leaders, when planning for or responding to an unconventional event, do not rush towards answers first, but put themselves in a position to figure out what the good questions are. [This] will enable crisis managers to see and hear information that otherwise would not have featured on their radar screen” (p. 50; emphasis original).

Lagadec offers a brilliant and accessible introduction into the nature and challenges of unconventional crises. It is particularly refreshing that he does not limit his investigation to the complex risks that such crises pose but also identifies that a substantial part of those risks are, in fact, compounded by the current culture of decision making which is unable and unwilling to grasp the unorthodox characteristics of such threats. In this respect, it is the awareness of unpredictability that assists thinking about its management. In fact, Lagadec’s ability to provide such a detailed and provocative survey of the wide-ranging impact of unconventional crises is already a significant achievement in its own right.

This volume would be relevant to anyone interested in the impact of hypercomplexity on existing patterns of leadership and the possible ways for their adaptation and reform.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

University of Western Sydney, Australia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."