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Bob Hodge and Vlad Dimitrov

University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury



Chaos theory considers the edge of chaos as a special region in the state space of nonlinear systems, where order and chaos meet to give birth to dramatic changes in systems' dynamics. It is a region where all established patterns dissolve their rigid boundaries and become permeable and fluid, able to coalesce and evolve, percolate and urge forward new emergent phenomena.

In social systems the edge of chaos is where 'social magic' manifests. By 'social magic' Young means "appearance of events which do not follow logically and coherently from what has gone before"; social magic relates to happening of wondrous things "which surprise, astonish and bemuse those of us who are accustomed to orderly and routine consequences in every day life" [1].

Individual experience is full of such 'wondrous things' as our living is mostly at the edge of chaos - it neither unfolds as a sequence of orderly-organized patterns nor disintegrates into an entire chaos.

At the edge of chaos, self-organizing capacity of complex life dynamics manifests its potential not only to sustain the integrity of each individual's life but also to support its unfolding. The unfolding of human life reflects the process of evolving of the whole universe. Both processes are like fractals nested within each other - they keep centered at one and the same spiritual core. The ability to experience the attracting power of this core we refer to human spirituality.

In other words, spirituality is an individual experience at the edge of chaos of fractal inseparability of human life unfolding in harmony with the evolving of the universe.

At the edge of chaos, free from the burden of any patterns of imposed order or uniform disorder, one can feel the natural 'rhythm of the universe'. Try to stay still and relax for a while on a rock at the edge of the ocean or where the river flows, and just be aware of your experience. Feel how the pulsation of your breathing body starts gently synchronizing with the rhythm of the moving waters and with the waves of the breeze and with the thrills of the birds... It is as if the entire universe seeks to pulsate through you. And this rhythm, once revealed in your awareness, will be so compelling, so inevitable that you will say to yourself: "Oh, how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?"

But of course, it could be seen otherwise, and often is. The world of management and administrative decisions often seems like a different parallel universe, obeying a different logic. Explaining or navigating across that difference is precisely the over-riding theme for this conference.

Imperatives of Linearity

To give the flavour of this alternative universe, here is an emailed directive that went out from the senior executive of a particular University to all his staff, an institution that could equally well exist in Australia or USA or Britain, in all of which the principles of economic rationalism and the associated mindset and discourse of leadership are common across geographical boundaries of the global world of tertiary education in the late 20th century:

To maintain and grow Lilliput ( a fictitious name courtesy of Swift's Gulliver's travels, for an actual university which shall remain anonymous), we must deal with four planning imperatives. We must organise our research more efficiently than we have done. We must increase our entrepreneurial income to make up for government shortfalls. We must achieve improved productivity in administrative systems and procedures. And we must reduce our teaching commitments to enable staff to spend more of their time and energy on research and entrepreneurial activities.

There are multiple steps we will need to take to meet these imperatives. The first, however, is to reduce the complexity and number of our activities in both teaching and research, so as to increase the concentration and effectiveness of both. To this end, I am announcing the following initiatives:

Our teaching profile will be reduced, both by reducing the number of separate subjects that we teach and by reducing the number of separate courses that we offer. Reduction of the number of subjects will be done in a phased manner. For the year 2000, there will be no more than four subjects actually taught, per member of the full and fractional time teaching staff, in each Faculty. This figure will reduce to 3.5 subjects per member of staff in 2001 and 3.0 in 2002. By that time our teaching levels will, for the first time, be in line with other universities that have established a policy on limiting of the amount of teaching that staff undertake. Reduction of the number of separate courses that we teach will be accomplished through the Boards of Studies and by discussions with Faculties. A specific target is not so obviously appropriate in this case, but major and genuine reductions will be expected. I have instructed the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Academic Affairs, to take carriage of this process. All Faculties and other bodies as appropriate will be required to report to him on the matter, and he will report to me.

This discourse is immediately recognisable as typical of its kind. There are four qualities in particular we draw attention to, as the four pillars of this universe.

1. Chaos and complexity are the name of the Enemy, and 'reduction' is the major strategy. Key words are 'organise', 'efficiently', 'target' (especially 'specifically'). Energy is a problem, because it is too scarce or not 'productive'.

2. Order is indistinguishable from control and emanates from the top down. The text comes from the top and is full of imperatives 'we must', 'we must', 'we must' and 'we will'. Force and effectivity are exerted through the imperatives. Cohesion comes from a unitary 'we' which combines the executive speaking on behalf of everyone about actions which 'they' not 'he' will perform.

3. Processes are or must be made linear: first steps must be first, actions must be 'phased'. The chain of command is explicit and works inexorably one way: an instruction to the next link in the chain, the PVC, who will issue commands without loss of information and receive reports from below, which he will transmit back to the top. Any deviation in the messages passing up and down this chain will be perceived as error, noise, resistance or incompetence on the part of the lower levels. However, we can also note that in this instance this Chief Executive uses the democratic medium of email to bypass the linear chain of command, operating through a complementary network system which is part of a set of such systems which in practice are indispensable to the existence and maintenance of any community for him to exercise control over.

4. Control is exercised by separating things, establishing limits and boundaries. This is the case in obvious ways - assuming the individual identities of Faculties, subjects etc. - but also less visibly, in more fundamental epistemological ways, in the split between a world of discursive events, and another world of people and bodies acting physically in the world. Here, however, disembodied instructions are the only engine of change, whether 'imperatives' coming from the Chief Executive to the members of his University, or constraining him with external imperatives. These imperatives act on lists of subjects and courses, not on people or bodies, teachers or taught. These two worlds, one (the material world) determined entirely by the other (the world of discursive action), in fact correspond to the dualistic universe familiar to practitioners of spirituality. This particular senior manager (who is not in any way foolish or incompetent but the contrary, whose rhetoric is entirely typical of an approach which is currently the dominant discourse of management, in Universities as in the world of commerce) thus has a style of leadership which at bottom and unconsciously is a species of magic. It is appropriate to ask, then, whether it is likely to be good magic, effective magic, magic that is able to make flowers bloom in a desert, milk and honey flow in the corridors of his institution, funds, students and ideas to come in abundance to save his University.

Social Magic of the Edge of Chaos

'Magic' as well as spirit come back on the agenda for management and leadership through Chaos Theory. In the words of T R Young we have already referred to:

The central feature of the natural systems illuminated by Chaos research is the non-linearity of their dynamics; while such non-linearity is well established and researched in the natural sciences, there are very few people working on non-linear dynamics in the social sciences.

In all of this, the concept of magic must be carefully understood. By magic I mean the appearance of events which do not follow logically and coherently from that which has gone before. In the kind of social magic of which I speak, the ordinary canons of cause and effect, cherished as the foundation of the modern knowledge process, are not operative. Rather one finds things happening which surprise, astonish and bemuse those of us who are accustomed to orderly and routine consequences in everyday life. The terms we use with which to refer to such nonlinear dynamics include miracle and indeed, the event is so unusual as to be worth looking at; wonder, and indeed the event is a source of constant wonderment, and mystery. However, Chaos theory removes most of the mystery. It is entirely within the logic of natural change patterns that wondrous things happen.

But Young gives with one hand and takes with the other. Chaos theory briefly produces a dazzling trick which is immediately recovered for a new certainty, simply a new kind of logic. But at the edge of Chaos, contemplating the rhythms of the ocean, the constant corruscations of ideas in any exciting university, the infinite combinations and recombinations of people and ideas in any human enterprise, the sense of wonder does not have to diminish, nor does the mystery.

As long ago as 1923 the famous evolutionary biologist J B S Haldane reflected sombrely on forms of Chaos produced by the dominant scientific rationality of his and our age [2]:

As I sit down to write these pages I can see before me two scenes from my experience of the late war. The first is a glimpse of a forgotten battle of 1915. It has a curious suggestion of a rather bad cinema film. Through a blur of dust and fumes there appear, quite suddenly, great black and yellow masses of smoke which seem to be tearing up the surface of the earth and disintegrating the works of man with an almost visible hatred. These form the chief part of the picture, but some where in the middle distance one can see a few irrelevant looking human figures, and soon there are fewer. It is hard to believe that these are the protagonists in the battle. One would rather choose those huge substantive oily black masses which are so much more conspicuous, and suppose that the men are in reality their servants, and playing an inglorious, subordinate, and fatal part in the combat. It is possible, after all, that this view is correct.

Had I been privileged to watch a battle three years later, the general aspect would have been very similar, but there would have been fewer men and more shell-bursts. There would probably, however, have been one very significant addition. Then men would have been running, with mad terror in their eyes, from gigantic steel slugs, which were deliberately, relentlessly and successfully pursuing them.

The other picture is of three Europeans in India looking at a great new star in the milky way. These were apparently all of the guests at a large dance who were interested in such matters. Amongst those who were at all competent to form views as to the origin of this cosmoclastic explosion, the most popular theory attributed it to a collision between two stars, or a star and a nebula. There seem, however, to be at least two possible alternatives to this hypothesis. Perhaps it was the last judgement of some inhabited world, perhaps a too successful experiment in induced radioactivity the part of some of the dwellers there. And perhaps also these two hypotheses are identical, and what we were watching that evening was the detonation of a world on which too many men came out to look at the stars when they should have been dancing.

Conclusion: Spirituality and Leadership

Haldane's complex parables have many lessons for a conference which seeks to interrogate dominant forms of rationality as they are enshrined in current notions of leadership. In the nightmare of war as he remembers it a decade later the triumph of human reason has produced emergent structures that no-one had intended, virtually new life forms which have turned against their creators, even the generals who are now led and controlled like puppets by the forms they thought they had created to do their will. In the case of the astronomers the lesson is less severe. An interest in astronomy by these leading intellectuals seems harmless enough. But Haldane sees a subterranean pattern whereby the circle of action and contemplation is mysteriously completed, so that the abstract contemplation of the heavens ultimately - after many iterations - produces the catastrophe that it contemplates from so great a distance. The higher, safer wisdom, according to Haldane, is the wisdom of a fractal cosmic dance, the dance by individual humans in a small spot on the globe which is at its own fractal level part of the infinite series of self-similar dances.

Haldane was a scientist, a good scientist, and this kind of thinking can be part of a leader, a good leader. The opposition between spirituality and successful leadership exists only in the floundering attempts of linear thinking to control the turbulent energies of chaos at all costs, even if the cost is always further chaos, less control, less productivity. Closer to the edge of chaos, where change and creativity are accepted and affirmed, the experience of spirituality can become a vision that guides practical actions at the same time as it fills the heart with passion and joy.


1. Young T.R. 1991 Chaos Theory and Symbolic Interaction, The Journal of Symbolic Interaction, 14(3)

2. Haldane, J.B.S. 1923  Daedalus or the Science of the Future