Leadership in Complex Times

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”

― Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Today’s Leaders are asked to navigate complex systems, while most of their technical skill sets enable them for technical, expert-style interactions.

The distinction between complex and complicated domains has become a crucial one in the VUCA world, with a capital C for Complexity. In complicated operating contexts, the connection between cause and effect is knowable. Decision trees of possible outcomes can be identified, risks and probabilities around these outcomes can be calculated, and contingency plans for each path can be predetermined, controlled, and de-risked.

In complex domains, the relationship between cause and effect cannot be predetermined and hindsight doesn’t lead to foresight. Both outcomes themselves and the paths to get there are emergent and cannot be controlled, project managed, and de-risked ahead of time.

What is more, there is a growing distinction between leaders – and leadership. Complexity leadership looks as much at the context, the ‘in-between’ and the relationship dynamics as well as the actions and skills of individual leaders. The key challenge for next-generation leadership is to seed change by cultivating conditions, not to steer change by plotting out a course.

Photo credits: a.caspari_photography