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Leadership for a complex world – what got you here won’t get you there

It is common knowledge that the pace of change has exploded and that the world is more interconnected than ever before. It’s also no secret that complexity has crept into our lives and organizations at equally impressive speeds. Amidst this, business leaders today are faced with pressure to drive change fast and deliver on creativity and innovation that will help them survive.

Ok, so if we already know that…so what?

Unfortunately, we are often so busy asking leaders to ‘adapt’, that we lack the appreciation for the implication of this complexity on leaders in general …and the support they need to help them know what to do about it. Our first instinct, whether conscious or not, is to assume leaders already know how to lead….

Something to consider… Many of today’s leaders built their leadership ‘tool belt’ in an age where expertise, predictability, analysis, strategy, and planning were the backbone of key decisions ….and capability in these areas very likely proved the cornerstone of their success. In an attempt to cope with complexity, many leaders instinctively look to traditional wisdom (“plan better” or “gather more data”) for help.  But instead, are finding that these techniques offer little relief.

An emerging field of complexity science — which studies patterns in complex environments such as economies, commercial eco-systems and social networks — offers some insight as to why this is… (Yes, it is getting a little academic but keep reading anyway – it’s worth it)….Studies of complex systems over time have identified that these systems share traits of interdependence, adaptation, and unpredictability.  Equally important, studies confirm that unlike traditional systems, there is no ‘right’ answer or assurance of success in complex systems.

Ok, so let’s digest that for a second. What this suggests is that the very toolset and mindset that leaders were groomed around, taught and yes, rewarded for, has vanished. The stability leaders once knew has turned into quicksand. And, this is happening when the pressure to perform is more intense than ever.

So now what? What should leaders be doing when faced with complexity? Leadership research for complexity points to new behaviors that distinguish leadership success for dealing with complexity. For example:


Instead of….    Consider …
Analysis – finding cause and effect Curiosity – asking meaningful questions that are centered in the human experience
Decision making – find the ‘best’ choice Connection –lean towards sense making, connecting dots, synthesis and collective interpretation, building on what works
Structuring –chain of command and priority Collaboration – get the most out of diverse groups to pull upon different views
Role defining – setting job and task descriptions Loose coupling – support communities of practice and add more degrees of freedom
Teaching – imparting skills and expertise Learning – act/learn/plan at the same time


So, back to the ‘so what’?

The ‘so what’, is that a leader’s must adapt alongside change and complexity and their ability to do so has everything to do with the success that will differentiate them. That said, leaders need help and support outside their existing networks to explore, learn and develop comfort with new approaches.

Parting thoughts…next time you are faced with complexity, try this:

  1. Set your mind to “tame” complex problems, not solve them.
  2. Cultivate curiosity that probes for connections and patterns in place of answers.
  3. Resist ‘right’ or ‘final’ decision making.
  4. Cultivate diversity – the more contrasting perspectives, the higher the likelihood of breakthrough insights and ideas
  5. Take a collaborative leadership approach that values honestly and safety to disagree.
  6. Embrace and share your vulnerability in this new frontier (it is authentic and builds trust and safety needed to engage your team!)

Need a trusted advisor and support network to help you explore and learn new methods? We are here to help…