managing to lead in complexity

The military is beginning to understand that some of its leadership practices need to change as its challenges increase in complexity. Future warfare will increasingly move toward the complex domain.

“Complex contexts cannot be solved; they can only be managed. In a context with variables and relationships that are constantly shifting, leaders are unable to assess the situation and apply the appropriate solution. Instead, they must begin by intentionally probing the environment and conducting small, experimental actions to generate insights they can then analyze for patterns.” —Modern War Institute at West Point 2022-06-15

Major Heloise Goodley, UK army chief of general staff’s research fellow at Chatham House, says that new skills are needed for the modern, machine-augmented battlefield.

“The proliferation of automation and artificial intelligence has not decreased the requirement for a human component in war, but it is changing the decision making and cognitive skills required of those soldiers. The army needs soldiers who have the intellectual and psychological aptitude to work in an increasingly automated operational environment, the very computer skills Generation Z have become derided for.” —The Independent 2019-01-05

According to this US Army education series, leadership skills for complex tasks are focused more on the getting teams to work together than individual strengths.

‘On the other hand, complex contexts are dynamic and unsolvable by nature. Leaders operating in complexity need traits that enable them to build strong teams that can react nimbly when situations change. Traits focused on team building, interpersonal skills, and communication are therefore better in complexity because it is teams, not individuals, who generate success. In Army doctrinal terms, these traits include “creates a positive environment,” “communicates,” “builds trust,” “develops others,” “mental agility,” “sound judgment,” “empathy,” “interpersonal tact,” and “innovation.” The former set of traits is important for solving known problems, while the latter set is necessary to determine what the problem is and empower a team to address it.’ —Modern War Institute at West Point 2022-06-15

These skills are similar to those determined to be important in the modern workplace. For example, what are often considered ‘feminine’ traits are what leaders need today, as shown in this 2013 Inc. magazine study.

“32,000 study subjects were asked to classify 125 traits as masculine, feminine, or neutral. Another 32,000 were asked to rate the importance of the traits to effective leadership. ‘Feminine’ traits were more likely to be strongly linked to leadership.”

This study concluded that seven of the nine top leadership traits — perceived as feminine by respondents — are also seen as the most important.

Feminine: Plans for Future, Communicative, Reasonable, Loyal, Flexible, Intuitive, Patient.
Masculine: Decisive, Resilient

Image: Inc. Magazine

Today, there are increasing measures in our societies and economies to get back to normal. But will our institutions — like the military — and our organizations — such as transportation companies — be ready for whatever next shock will hit them? Do they think this pandemic will disappear and we will never face another one in our lifetimes? As Dave Snowden said in a discussion session in 2020, “Covid is God’s gift to humanity, because it’s a wake-up call”.

Complexity and chaos are the new normal as climate change drives more crises our way — pandemics, refugees, environmental disasters, and the overall degradation of our environment. To prepare for chaos, we need people who can act. We will need leaders who can also deal with complexity. They will have to be constantly experimenting and probing their ecosystems. Organizations who are serious about surviving in the ‘post-covid’ normal will have to take a hard look at their leadership and management structures. The time to change is now, not when the next crisis strikes. The military seems to understand this.

While many of our professions and organizations can deal with some complexity, few are adapted to deal with chaos on a large scale. Chaos — violent political action, climate change, pandemic — require structures that promote curiosity and resolve. With frequent chaotic events to deal with, we have to organize in temporary, negotiated hierarchies that can quickly form and re-form in order to test novel practices. The ability to do this requires diverse thinking, open structures, and trust among those doing the work. Now is the time to get these in place.

The digital networks that now connect all of us globally can give us a new sense-making platform that many of us and most of our leaders ignore or use inappropriately. I have said many times here that leadership today is helping make the network smarter, stronger, and more resilient. One person cannot lead in a connected world, even in the military. If they try, they become the knowledge bottleneck.

Making our networks smarter is one aspect of leadership in our digitally connected world and so is convening the best parts of our networks in order to address complex issues and make decisions. In crises, sometimes perfection is the enemy of the good, so having a diverse, knowledgeable, and experienced group of advisors becomes critical.

Leadership today should be a temporary privilege and a permanent responsibility.

connected servant leadershop model

5 Responses to “managing to lead in complexity”

  1. Helen Blunden

    Technology in our lives is a good thing but at the expense of it affecting and impacting our human relationships. It’s making us more isolated from each other as we choose when and how we interact with others; the loss of teamwork and community. We need those people who have these skills but how are we supporting these behaviours in our lives and workplaces where they’re highly individualistic?

  2. Harold Jarche

    Technology in my life for the past 20 years has not made me more isolated. I am more connected now than I was before then. Which I think brings us back to — it’s not about the technology. We met through technology, Helen.

  3. Tynia Thomassie

    The two comments immediately above offer a juxtaposition of two truths, which produce the very complexity we’re attempting to lead within. Technology connects AND isolates alternately and sometimes at the same time. In the context of school, what I find even more challenging is that a few people can be parts of communities like this one, posing questions and reflections about innovative ways to address these dilemmas, and the vast majority of the school leaders step in after their summers and re-work the same tired horse they rode out on. Sometimes even a question or a discussion is considered an affront when limited time and smooth running of the familiar is what’s desired. A result and an output seems more valued than a revamp. But I love coming here to listen to those who are trying to forward some big ideas. So far there is not so much traction… at least in my mini-world.


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