Managing Consultant Uncommon Leaders Ltd
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Complexity leadership
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Building the right leadership skills for an era of complexity

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The ever-shifting requirements of effective leadership call for a blend of skilful action, continual learning, presence and plenty of practice.

16th Sep 2021
Managing Consultant Uncommon Leaders Ltd
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Ask a group of managers to describe the ideal leader and you will get a long and contradictory list of requirements. They must be act decisively but also listen and consult. They must bring discipline and clear direction, but also be adaptable, responsive, and understanding. The list will go on and on giving a long list of idealised adjectives, with no-one any the wiser about what leadership is or how to be a leader.

The mercurial nature of leadership

Perhaps this long and contradictory list says something about the very nature of leadership. I think it does. Leadership, in my view, is less about a fixed set of qualities and more about an ability to be responsive in the moment to what the situation, context and people requires in terms of leadership. Sometimes decisiveness is what’s required and sometimes it's something else.

It might now sound like I’m advocating for a model of situational leadership reading the qualities required at different moments, off a model (preferably 2x2 as beloved by all consultants) and enacting them. I’m not.

There is no model that will account for the complexities, interrelationships and messiness of everyday life. There is no decision tree that will capture all of this. We exist in complex political environments, with various pressures (regulatory, financial, personal) acting on all of us – there are no simple models or answers which capture the range of possible actions. This might be disheartening, but it shouldn’t be. This is life.

There is no model that will account for the complexities, interrelationships and messiness of everyday life

I was speaking to a senior doctor recently about giving patients bad news. He needs to help his junior doctors learn how to do this, and he was explaining that it wasn’t something he could articulate. When in the room with a patient he had a few questions he would ask to get a feel for the person and their reality – how could he give them the information in a way in which they could hear it, is the question he asked himself.

This is like giving someone some critical feedback in the workplace (albeit less severe). There is no one right set of words for all situations. We feel our way in the moment to sense what will be too much or what will be not enough for the individual… if we are present. If we aren’t then we do it in a way which is most comfortable for us (perhaps so we can get out of the situation quickly), and we don’t really reflect on the other.

In these examples, there are no scripts, 2x2 models or decision trees to follow. We learn through practice, reflecting on that practice and continuing to practice. I use the word practice deliberately, rather than just experience, as we can have experience without intentionally practicing and reflecting on what we have done.

Today we hear a lot about the complex or VUCA world that we live within. Complexity is just learning to engage with a world which does not reduce itself to simplistic 2x2 models and decision trees. In fact, it’s all around us all the time – we’ve just spent a lot of time and effort in the world of management and leadership pretending it doesn’t exist. Now we’re waking up from that fantasy.

Understanding complexity

Learning to engage well with complexity means stepping into a mode of learning. It means letting go of the need for overly simplistic models and linear frameworks which, frankly, allow us to stay in a denial of reality. It means allowing ourselves to engage with learning how to act skilfully in the world. The good news is we already do a lot of this, and we can apply that to get better at it.

In my martial arts class, the teacher teaches a technique. I copy this with my partner and start to get pretty good at it with repetition. I then move on and work with someone else, with different strengths and weakness, with a different shape to who they are, and I realise that the technique doesn’t work – I’ve only learnt to do it with one type of person. I then continue and learn with five or six more people and start to get a bit of competence in the technique.

Then I must use it in sparring, where my willing partner from before, is no longer willing. They have their own intentions, plans and strategies and I must learn the technique all over again. The skills of how to use the technique – timing, what is required given the person in front of me, how I counter their intentions, all comes through practice.

It involves a decision tree of possible options that I will never articulate or have conscious in my mind – it would just distract me in sparring – but it develops over time as a framework internalised in my skills. A framework I use in practice, but would struggle to articulate, just like the senior doctor mentioned earlier.

Leadership is a performance art. You can know and understand strategy models, theories, concepts and have read loads of books, but if you haven’t developed that internalised decision tree (which will never be conscious), you will never be able to take all those good leadership qualities and ideas and apply the right one in the right moment. This is the essence of the long and contradictory list mentioned at the start of this article.

Leading 'in the moment'

To apply such a decision tree requires one more thing. It required an attentive presence in the moment. By that I mean the ability to be in present moment with an open attention, such that we feel into that moment and what is required to move things forward.

It requires a willingness to constantly be present in the messiness of it all, and to practice developing our capacity for wise, skilful action

This means that we can’t be caught in our worries or anxieties, it means we must move beyond our triggered responses to pressure, it means we let go of our defences and ways in which we hold others away for safety, so that we can feel and connect in the moment and choose wisely.

Complexity or VUCA are buzz words in organisational development these days, and many are looking for the models to simplify the concept and make it more palatable. To be successful in dealing with complexity does not require models or simplifications. It requires a willingness to constantly be present in the messiness of it all, and to practice developing our capacity for wise, skilful action. 

The key quality of a leader in complexity therefore is their presence. By that I mean their ability to attend to the messy complexity of the present moment and respond effectively, based upon the practice they have undertaken and the internalised decision tree, which we will never see. 

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