Operationalising complexity for leading

Image attribution: #barpreplife: One Point https://www.barexambrief.com/barpreplife-one-point

In my last blog post, I noted that, if we take a complex systems view of leading, then much of what we currently offer for leadership development may be obsolete. I closed that post with some questions:

  • Are you developing your leaders for working in complex adaptive organisations or training them the same way you always have with a change in terminology and expecting different results?
  • How are you helping your leaders to get out of the way?

This post builds on the previous one by proposing answers to these questions.

The slippery nature of adopting complexity approaches for leadership was brought home powerfully to me a few weeks ago by a student in my Leading Learning class. This student kept asking me again and again “But what do we DO with all of this?”. I can’t blame him. He has spent his career working in large corporations and was frustrated at the lack of concrete answers he was getting. He wanted to know exactly which skills his leaders needed and how to deliver the training. I can appreciate his perspective and he’s not the first student to ask me to operationalise these concepts. For most of my career that’s how I’ve approached leadership development programs too. A set of skills or “leadership behaviours” that we train. We might use some innovative teaching and learning methods to be sure, but it’s still a behavioural approach to leadership development.

Adopting a complexity approach asks us to move away from behavioural approaches as a set of static leadership behaviours is insufficient to deal with the flux and change of the contemporary workplace. But what do we do if we don’t train leaders how to be leaders?

After much reflection and reading on the topic, my answer is this – leaders don’t need skills. They need a mindset shift accompanied by theoretical and analytical tools. What if complexity was not adopted merely as part of a “traditional” leadership program but was a instead taught to leaders as a set of theoretical and analytical tools which they could use to gather data about their context and make more effective decisions.

In my (as yet) imaginary program, leaders would be encouraged to read and reflect. They would be challenged with discussions about the nature of their work and how a leader is just a part of a far larger system. The leaders would be encouraged to see themselves as part of something bigger and their traditional western notions of the “leader as saviour” would be challenged. In short, they would be given tools to look at their own practice and situate it more broadly within a system. Leaders would learn as opposed to be trained. The “leader” would be decentralised from their rarified spot at the centre of the process and discussions of “leadership” as something static that can be learned would be sidelined in favour of reflection on leader’s day-to-day practices and those of the people whom they “lead”. Taking a complexity approach requires that leading is a continuous process which adapts to emergence and operates within multiple highly networked and overlapping contexts. Leaders need a mindset shift to see themselves as part of multiple systems, contexts, and relationships rather than as responsible for planning and controlling from on high. Leaders need to be shown how to get out of the way and encouraged to think of themselves as part of the action rather than overseeing it.

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