Dave's Ponderings on

Leadership Development in a Complex and Interconnected World: my view

For organizations to survive and thrive depends on a fundamental shift in recognizing that their context is one of complexity rather than merely complicated.

Greetings Colleagues!

With over 10,000 results for “Leadership Development” on Amazon.com, one might wonder what more could possibly be offered or said.  With the plethora of thought and research that is available, my pondering on this will be more an exercise in connecting the dots of inspiration and insights that have been gleaned over years of experience and personal research.


For most organizations, surviving and thriving in today’s environment depends on making a fundamental shift in recognizing that their context is one of complexity rather than merely complicated. Those making the shift successfully are often energized and engaged by being focused on a noble or “North Star” purpose coupled with an ability to “see” abundance as opposed to scarcity in emerging or evolving opportunities for collaboration and growth (personal and organizational). 


The dominant view of the traditional organization model evolved primarily for stability in a predictable environment – the province of experts and cause-and-effect. It is based on the idea of an organization as a machine, with a static, siloed, structural hierarchy that operates through linear planning and control to execute organizational strategies.  Many institutional organizations are still structured in this mechanistic way even though they frequently give lip-service to understand the need to be a “living system”.


Frederic Laloux (Reinventing Organizations, 2016) among others, has identified organizations embracing a living systems approach, that have evolved to thrive in an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment. These organizations are both stable and dynamic. They focus on purpose, fluidly adapt to environmental changes, and are open, inclusive, and nonhierarchical; they evolve continually and embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

More than any other factor, the key to a successful shift is for leaders to develop substantially new mind-sets and capabilities to deal with complexity and the required collaboration for connectedness. 


But first, some …


Helpful Background


Complex Contexts: The Domain of Emergence

In a complex context, right answers can't be puzzled out. It's like the difference between an airplane and a rainforest. Airplanes are complicated machines, but experts can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The plane is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux – a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source – and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of "unknown unknowns;” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary organizations have shifted.


We take complex systems thinking for granted in understanding biological, ecological, climatological, and natural systems.  We know that these systems have patterns and values that as a whole exceed what their constituent or component parts would be if merely summed up individually.  They are adaptive “wholes”.  Organizations, discretely and in relationship with other organizations, are complex systems too! 


A complex system has the following characteristics:

  • It involves large numbers of interacting elements.

  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.

  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can't be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.

  • The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.

  • Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.


Complex Adaptive Systems:  Understanding Interactions and Relationships

4.1-Complex Adaptive Organizational Syst

Human systems such as organizations add layers of complexity because of human unpredictability and intellect.  Flourishing organizations recognize that they are complex adaptive systems functioning within a larger complex adaptive eco-system. The figure above provides a simplified example.  The complex adaptive system has a number of characteristics including:  interacting or interdependent elements; non-linear interactions where minor changes to one element can create unforeseen and major consequences; a dynamism where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; solutions emerge rather than are imposed; the system has a history that is integrated with the present as evolution occurs; and it is close to impossible to predict with certainty what ultimate outcomes will occur when at initial stages.  To lead effectively in such an environment requires conceding that one is managing interactions (relationships) and not just inputs to a mechanistic, linear process.  Command and control attitudes and behaviors must give way to relational skills and servant-leader behaviors.


I have found the work of Snowden and Boone (Harvard Business Review, Nov 2007) to be very useful as reflected in the following table:


The Other Contexts: Simple, Complicated, Chaotic

Simple contexts (the domain of Best Practice) are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Often, the right answer is self-evident and undisputed. In this realm of "known knowns;' decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an understanding. Areas that are little subject to change, such as problems with order processing and fulfillment, usually belong here.


Complicated contexts (the domain of Experts), unlike simple ones, may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. This is the realm of "known unknowns:' While leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize, and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond. This approach is not easy and often requires expertise: A motorist may know that something is wrong with his car because the engine is knocking, but he has to take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem.


In a chaotic context (the domain of Rapid Response), searching for right answers would be pointless. The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist.  There is only turbulence. This is the realm of unknowable. In the chaotic domain, a leader's immediate job is not to discover patterns but to be direct and stop the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities. Communication of the most direct top-down or broadcast kind is imperative; there's simply no time to ask for input.


The following model shares my understanding of the relationships between situational presence (the outer ring), leadership context (the middle ring), and where either direct or relational leadership style is effective (the center ring).

Next Steps

The stage is set for us to explore in future Ponderings how to develop the new mind-sets and capabilities necessary to deal with complexity and the required collaboration for connectedness.  I look forward to traveling this journey of personal and organizational leadership development with you.


Until next time, I wish for you a flourishing life and organization!