Secrets hidden in Great Wave offer leadership clues for thriving in chaos

Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"

Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" is an archetypal image that Westerners associate with Japan. But, more than a picture of waves threatening to devour fishermen as Mt. Fuji looks on, a closer look illuminates key concepts in chaos theory that Western science did not “discover” until the advent of chaos theory, while offering lessons for fostering adaptability and growth in turbulence.

Fractal image. Jonathan J. Dickau. Wikimedia Commons.Hokusai’s use of fractals in art illustrates how order can emerge through chaos, demonstrating the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate parts of nature, wave, mountain, sky, and man. The waves are turbulent, but have order and self-similarity in their form and with their environment. The closer the zoom, the more similarity emerges. Almost like an analog Mandelbrot set, smaller waves emerge within progressively larger waves, while forming patterns similar to other elements in the environment.

While the clouds are not a main feature of the image, they appear to have shapes like both mountain and cloud. The wave in the foreground has a shape that closely matches that of Mt. Fuji in the background. This reflects interconnectedness of the ocean, mountain, and sky.

Where does man fit? From the viewer's perspective, the curved shape of the boats aligns with the curve of the waves; men kneel in unison toward both the approaching wave and the sacred Mt. Fuji, framed by both wave and boat. The perspective from the boat likely is nothing but turbulance without form; looking up to recognize patterns a key to working through the turbulance. In this case, Hokusai seems to suggest that humanity not only should conform to nature but also must kneel before it to harness chaos for survival. Or, maybe he’s simply commenting on how humans tend to pray when doom approaches; no atheists in a fox hole.

Another interesting point about Hokusai’s Great Wave image is considering if the use of fractal geometry is responsible for its timeless and universal appeal. The print could be so pleasant to the mind because it uses imagery that is like the fractal geometry in our own brains, making our minds self-similar with the images in the picture.

Recognizing fractals in social context to enhance leadership effectiveness

Applying to leadership the concept of fractals illustrates how similarities emerge from turbulence. From this perspective, leadership is not about isolating elements, behaviors, traits, and situations to fix symptoms; leadership becomes recognizing connections and patterns among seemingly disparate elements interacting within turbulence to solve complex problems. Rather than imposing the same practices on dynamic context, the leader develops the capacity to let context illuminate the solution.

The patterns of behavior that emerge from interacting elements within turbulence show how dynamically interacting people, processes, and context adapt. Survival, adaptability, and resilience become of a function of the relationships and connections that emerge within turbulence. Everything is connected; nothing exists separately. Recognizing these patterns illuminates how social realities interact with material reality to fit within the context, allowing leaders to see and influence adaptive interactions from associations.

In comparison, those who insist on imposing static methods on dynamic and chaotic processes can stifle change, adaptability, and readiness--while diminishing capacity to adapt and survive. This is because traditional mechanical leadership practices can shut down adaptability behaviors by imposing static control processes on dynamic situations. Creativity, adaptability, and survival are limited by the control a leadership imposes on people and process.

Fit to thrive

The challenge for leaders in turbulence is to build and strengthen relationships and networks and facilitate fit among individual, group, organization, and process within context. As suggested by Hokusai, survival of the fisherman becomes a function of adapting to and becoming similar with the great wave. In other words, learn how to ride with the wave rather than fight it; leverage the turbulence for survival, adaptability, and growth.

Successful leadership becomes a function of developing a system perspective that can recognize the nonlinear relationship between cause and effect; developing and strengthening networks among people, process, and technology; cultivating interdependences within and around the organization; and serving as a catalyst for change and adaptability.

BONUS: Tips for leveraging chaos to enhance organizational resilience and adaptability

  • Make the invisible tangible by developing awareness of the interconnectedness among people, process, and context
  • Accept the impossibility of identifying all initial conditions
  • Expect chaos
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty
  • Establish clear values and vision
  • Plan for a variety of scenarios not just specific objectives
  • Understand that surving turbulence requires adapting to dynamic reality more than planning for static environments; the environment has already changed by the time the plan is finished
  • Develop redundancy
  • Embrace participative management
  • Support individual autonomy
  • Build self-perpetuating and dynamic feedback loops that allow continuous communication
  • Create shared ownership and commitment
  • Foster resilience in self and others
  • Facilitate self-organization
  • Create a climate of risk-taking and empowerment
  • Continuously seek new information
  • Build strong relationships



Galaxy of Galaxies, by Jonathan J. Dickau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Extracted from

Great Wave off Kanagawa. Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Extracted from