Virtuous and Vicious Circles

Not all so-called cybernetic systems are benign and not all result in leaders or organizations learning. Systems can grow “virtuously” or they can regress “viciously” and it can mean life itself to recognize the difference. In vicious circles the tensions between opposing “sides” of the circle (or horns of the dilemmas) become so severe that “the rope snaps.” In other words, the mutually constraining influence of values in tension is lost and the system “runs away.” Let us return to our nautical metaphor and consider the case of Captain Queeg on the bridge of the USS Caine at the height of the typhoon, described in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Because the storm is clearly in charge of the situation we have begun with the unruly elements (figure 16.1).

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Figure 16.1

Note what happens when the “tensions snap.” The captain no longer responds to the typhoon, and the ship's course no longer responds to the danger of capsizing. Yet the arrows feeding around the circle continue their vortex of mutual intensification. The more the storm rages, the more the captain is immobilized, and the more the ship is inundated by the waves, the more rigidly the captain repeats “Fleet course is 110 degrees!” Each opposed element is escalating the force of its opposition. The storm and the ship's increasing danger is immobilizing and rigidifying the captain, while the latter's ...

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