Leading in Chaos

Leading in Chaos

Running a real estate firm means being flexible and steady in the face of chaos.

Wouldn’t it be great if everything was orderly and predictable in leading a sales organization? It is precisely the opposite. Real estate transactions are complex, markets are uncertain, and the emotions of clients and sales associates make ours an unpredictable, even chaotic, industry. How do we bring productive order to our business?

Here’s a simple template to bring results out of the chaos. As a leader:

1. Control the initial conditions—vision, values, systems, training, and culture.

2. Help your people self-organize for results.

Let’s start by understanding chaos theory and self-organization.

Chaos Theory states that within the apparent randomness of chaotic, complex systems, there are underlying patterns and self-organization that occur based on the initial programming known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In other words, as leaders, we need to control the initial conditions. Secondly, we need to help our people self-organize for results.

Example of Choas Theory

New York City does not produce any food, yet everyone gets fed, and they have some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world. There is no Minister of Food directing everyone on how to feed one of the world’s largest cities. New Yorkers self-organize to do it. Not all systems lend themselves to self-organization, however. While New Yorkers can self-organize their food, it is doubtful that they can do it with transportation. Some systems require central control. As a leader, one of your success keys is knowing whether your industry and company are designed for self-organization or central control.


Self-organization, also called spontaneous order, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. Given the decentralized nature of real estate sales, we are in a chaotic industry that lends itself to self-organization.

Let’s look at sports as an example. The slower, more deliberate sports, such as baseball and football, work better with command and control systems from the coaches. Football is almost a military-style operation with offense and defense. The teams “take ground” as the coaches call plays. In contrast, the speed and fluidity of hockey and basketball are more chaotic and are most suited for self-organization. The complexity and decentralized nature of real estate sales suggest our industry is more like hockey or basketball than baseball and football.

One of the very best at leading in chaos theory was John Wooden, head basketball coach of UCLA and winner of a record 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. His teams won seven in a row! Coach Wooden’s focus on preparation (down to how to tie your shoes) is legendary. He knew he could control the initial conditions but once the game started and the chaos begins, his players would need to take control and self-organize to win. As part of his initial conditions, Coach Wooden focused on three success keys.

1. Mindset. How do I motivate our players to practice, play hard, and want to win?

2. Skillset. What skills do they need to learn for them to be successful?

3. Action. How do I get them in shape to play 100 percent full on and put their skills into action?

Players who were not willing to follow these initial conditions were invited off the team.

With this preparation (initial conditions), Coach Wooden knew his players would handle the chaos and self-organize to win. If you watched Coach Wooden on the bench, he was very calm—seldom standing and very rarely talking to the referees. He had done his work before the game started. Now it was up to his players on the court. He knew his players would have to adjust and respond to the chaos theory of the game. He seldom substituted or called time-out as he didn’t want to break their focus.

What are the lessons from Coach Wooden for us as leaders of sales organizations?

1. Focus on preparation versus trying to manage the chaos. Specifically, train your sales associates to develop their mindset, skillset, and actions.

2. Encourage your associates to self-organize and figure out how to be successful. When the game starts, you will not be with them. They will have to respond to the uncertainties of the situation creatively. Again, proper preparation will help them.

3. Keep them focused on the mission. Avoid distracting them with the latest shiny object—especially technology.

Focus on preparation of your associates’ mindset, skillset, and actions, and then let them play. You will build a championship team.