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Navigating Complexity: Rethinking Leadership Assumptions

There are few, if any, genuinely simple, rational, and predictable organisations in our world. Instead, we live and work in a world characterised by a dynamic mix of simple, complex and chaotic spaces. Leadership requires us to embrace all of these, and increasingly the complex space – at the intersections of paradox, where certainty and uncertainty coexist, agreement and conflict dance, unpredictability teases predictability - known as the edge of chaos.


An image of many road intersections, with arrows pointing in different directions
Navigating complexity and the edge of chaos

In this context, a leaders greatest challenge is to embrace the paradox - to foster environments that can hold the confusion and anxiety of complex and chaotic spaces, rather than rush to solutions. To foster relationships that are at safe enough levels, that can withstand vital exchanges and seek out quick repair when needed. Here's a great paradox - things get safer as we get better at conflict, not avoid or minimise it! And we know this is where innovation thrives.


This blog introduces Leadership complexity and the edge of chaos, exploring some of the erroneous assumptions of leadership, and the more useful approach to embrace paradox.


 

If leadership was easy, we would have nailed it by now. You might be wondering like I did, if this is the greatest challenge for leaders, then why aren't more talking about it? My sense is that complexity and paradox, by their very nature, are not easy to apply - they're unpredictable, ambiguous and sometimes counter-intuitive. They won't be solved by a simple answer, an online course, or a top 10 tips. Perhaps you intuitively know that reductionist answers and linear models will not solve the many contradictions we face individually and collectively. But we often seek out simplicity by default and move towards solutions that serve only simple spaces.


So how do we broaden our perspective?

One helpful conceptual framework for understanding organisational situations and navigating leadership complexities is Ralph D. Stacey's Agreement/Certainty Matrix.


Matrix image from Ralph D. Stacey that outlines four main zones based on the levels of agreement and certainty within an organizational situation: Simple, Complicated, Chaotic, and Complex
Infographic courtesy of CEC Global coaching.

The matrix categorises organisational situations into four zones:

  1. Simple (Rational): High agreement and certainty characterise this zone, allowing for directive management focused on clear goals and efficient processes. Traditional management theories often apply here, emphasizing cause and effect relationships.

  2. Complicated (Preference): While certainty remains high, disagreement exists regarding desirable outcomes. Politics, negotiation, and compromise drive direction and agenda setting. (Educated): While agreement remains high, certainty decreases. Leadership involves expert problem-solving, substituting strong vision for detailed plans.

  3. Chaotic: High uncertainty and low agreement define this zone, marked by crises or rapid change. Traditional methods like planning and negotiation are inadequate, and leadership is challenging. Avoidance may offer short-term protection, but residing here should be avoided.

  4. Complex - the Edge of Chaos: Emerges with uncertainty and less agreement among members, characterised by unpredictability and ambiguity. Leadership requires adaptive, flexible approaches, fostering experimentation, innovation, and learning. It's the domain of paradox, often overlooked by traditional leadership theories.


The matrix reveals that common management and leadership theories oversimplify complexities, leading to rushed solutions in inappropriate zones.


A trend towards oversimplification and polarisation


An image of a globe split in half, with one half representing unity and cooperation, and the other half representing division and polarization.
Global division and polarisation

At a meta level, we don't have to look far to see complex situations becoming oversimplified.


Consider the growing societal polarisation, which is among the top global risks according to the World Economic Forum (Risk Survey 2023-24). Inflamed by social media, this polarisation highlights the difficulty leaders face in creating environments that foster genuine curiosity and understanding. Rather than embracing differences, our global challenges are often weaponised, hindering meaningful dialogue and progress.


It's no wonder that at the individual leader / organisational level, it's becoming increasingly difficult to embrace our own contradictions. But where else would we begin? How can we embrace complexity and thrive at the edge of chaos?


We can start reviewing our basic leadership assumptions.

Assumption 1: Cause and Effect

A series of dominoes about to fall in a chain reaction
Linear cause and effect

Most approaches to leadership assume a linear cause and effect that is only suitable in stable and predictable environments. A false assumption is that there is a chain of cause and effect that is relatively stable, can be known and can be used to predict and control outcomes. The belief is that IF we can just get to the root cause, e.g. a disruptive or poor performing team member, a cultural issue in one particular team, or highlight a failed change effort, we can THEN isolate the problem and either fix it or get rid of it. This will work in simple/rational situations (see bottom left of matrix), but rarely beyond that, unless leaving it to luck / good fortune.


Assumption 2: Long-term strategy is vital to organisational survival.

And image of hiking sign-post with two different directions
Long-term Strategy less critical

Long term prediction is rarely accurate but the assumption is often that if one is well informed and competent enough, one will be able to predict and control the long term outcomes of actions and interventions. This misguided belief in predictability often leads to detrimental outcomes, such as the name, blame, and shame game. It can also foster a rigidity in planning that prioritises short-term gains over the pursuit of a broader mission and vision.


Complexity theory offers a different perspective, urging leaders to accept the paradox of uncertainty. Rather than striving for attempts at long-term prediction, leaders are encouraged to accept the inherent ambiguity of complex systems. This acceptance frees them from the constraints of blame and anxiety, allowing for a more adaptive, self-organisation approach to leadership.


Asumption 3: Leadership versus leaders

Leadership discussion has traditionally fixated on individual leaders, neglecting the dynamics of the larger system. However, a complexity leadership perspective challenges this narrow focus, emphasising the distinction between leadership and leaders. Leadership is not merely the sum of individual actions; rather, it is an emergent, interactive process that yields adaptive outcomes. In this framework, leaders are viewed as agents who influence this process and its outcomes, rather than sole drivers of change. Leadership in this context includes being a process and a style.

A visual representation of connected network
Leadership as an emergent, interactive process within a system

Navigating leadership complexities


An image of Yin Yang symbol in sand using two coloured pebbles
Embracing the paradox on the edge of chaos

Instead of rushing to seek solutions, effective leaders embrace the paradoxical nature of leadership. They provide boundaries but resist the temptation of rigid control and instead foster an environment towards self-organisation. They navigate uncertainty and hold anxiety, but not profess to have all the answers, fostering safe environments for open dialogue and exploration.


Contrary to common belief, it is within the realm of conflict that true innovation thrives. By fostering relationships built on trust and resilience, leaders create spaces where vital exchanges and repair can occur, leading to novel solutions to complex problems.


A useful insight from a Michael Bungay Stanier encapsulates this paradoxical nature of leadership. In a recent interview podcast he warns against the seductive allure of simplistic solutions, which only serve to stifle creativity and innovation.


“The ever present belief that you can rescue yourself in the security of just one side, ironing out painful contradictions, robs us of our aliveness. It robs our teams and communities of this same aliveness, of the creativity and innovation that we need to find and solve better problems.”  Michael Bungay Stanier

 

Embracing paradox and complexity can feel uncomfortable at first, as it requires us to confront contradictions and uncertainties head-on. However, we're reminded that growth often arises from discomfort. In my own experience, I'm encouraged by the transformative potential that comes with challenging our assumptions and embracing the complexities of leadership.


If you are intrigued by the idea of un-weirding the stuff of complexity, and embracing the paradoxes of leadership, I invite you to join me for an Executive Discovery session.




Stay tuned for my next blog, where I'll delve deeper into common leadership paradoxes and explore how we can navigate them at the edge of chaos.


In the meantime, thanks for tuning in and choosing to read about change and transformation with me. If you found benefit from my post and you think others might benefit from hearing about it, go ahead and share it using the buttons below.




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