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Dave's Ponderings on

Leadership Development in a Complex and Interconnected World: my view (and philosophy)

Our self-worth as a person is ultimately determined by our humanity, not by what we do.


Greetings Colleagues!

As I noted in December’s Pondering, developing different leadership mind-sets and capabilities are often necessary to effectively deal with complexity and inter-connectedness.  As part of this exploration, we will discuss some leadership philosophy (this Pondering), a leadership framework (February’s Pondering), and three sets of capabilities (March’s Pondering) to effectively navigate complexity.


My Leadership Philosophy

First, I believe the practice of leadership is informed by context and different contexts may require different practices or roles.  The context that I find myself most often confronted by is complexity which we discussed last month.

Complex Context


  • Flux and unpredictability

  • No right answers; emergent instructive patterns

  • Unknown unknowns

  • Many competing ideas

  • A need for creative and innovative approaches

The Leader's Role

  • Probe, sense, respond

  • Create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge

  • Increase levels of interaction and communication

  • Use methods that can help generate ideas:  Open up discussion; stimulate attractors; encourage dissent and diversity; and monitor for emergence

Danger Signals

  • Temptation to fall back into habitual, command-and-control mod

  • Temptation to look for facts rather than allowing patterns to emerge

  • Desire for accelerated resolution of problems or exploitation of opportunities

Response to Danger Signals

  • Be patient and allow time for reflection

  • Use approaches that encourage interactions so patterns can emerge


Recall that a complex system and context 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 and context 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.


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.


Servant leadership inverts the norm, which makes front-line employees the main priority. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people who are working in support of pursuing a noble or collective purpose. Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of this concept in leadership practice, said a Servant Leader should be focused on, "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they benefit as well as their employees in that their employees acquire personal growth, while the organization grows and becomes more agile due to the employees growing commitment and engagement.  A Servant Leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.  Organizational agility becomes the norm through empowered teams and networks.


Complexity requires agility.  Operating in complex environments, agile organizations (designed for both stability and dynamism) are most often networks of teams within a people-centered culture. They operate in rapid learning and fast decision cycles, and are guided by a powerful common purpose to co-create value for all stakeholders. Such organizational agility has the ability to quickly and efficiently reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities.


The philosophical and practical role of leadership in agile organizations is to serve the people in the organization, empowering and developing them. Rather than planners, directors, and controllers, leaders become visionaries, architects, and coaches that empower the people with the most relevant competencies so these can lead, collaborate, and deliver exceptional results. Such leaders are catalysts that motivate people to act in team-oriented ways, and to become involved in making the strategic and organizational decisions that will affect them and their work.

What is new is old … or is it the other way around?


"The wicked leader is he whom the people revile.

The good leader is he whom the people revere.

The great leader is he of whom the people say, “We did it ourselves.”"


Lao Tzu (6th Century BCE)

Effective senior leaders of agile organizations play an integrating role across multiple systems, bringing coherence and providing clear, actionable, strategic guidance around priorities and the organization’s North Star purpose by providing frequent feedback and coaching that enables people to work autonomously toward team outcomes.  Pushing decision making out to the edges of the organization allows people to proactively and immediately address issues without needing to wait for manager approvals.  In essence, we are shifting ourselves and others from reactive to creative and engaged mind-sets.


Changing our mind-set—or adjusting it to address a complex context—is not easy.   Reactive, or socialized, mind-sets are an outside-in way of experiencing the world based on reacting to our circumstances and other people’s expectations of us. We typically default to this mode when challenged which limits our perspective, focuses us on what can go awry, and causes feelings of fear, anxiety, frustration, and stress.


Creative, or self-authoring, mind-sets are an inside-out way of experiencing the world based on creating our reality and way forward through tapping into and expressing our authentic selves, our core passion and purpose. Being “in the creative” expands our perspective and focuses us on the positive, and we experience joy, fun, love, and flow.


Most adults spend their time “in the reactive,” and as a result, traditional organizations are designed to run on the reactive. To build and lead agile organizations, leaders must make a personal shift to run primarily in the creative. Think about your typical day. Do you (and your team) spend most of your time reacting to problems and your boss’ requests, seeking to control others, and working to deliver perfect outcomes?

Or do you spend most of your time pursuing your purpose and passion, trusting and empowering others, and exploring new, and sometimes messy, possibilities?


There are three fundamental reactive-to-creative mind-set shifts that have been found to be critical to foster the culture of innovation, collaboration, and value creation at the heart of agile organizations: from certainty to discovery, from authority to partnership, and from scarcity to abundance.


▪  From certainty to discovery: fostering innovation. A reactive mind-set of certainty is about playing not to lose, being in control, and replicating the past. Today, leaders need to shift to a creative mind-set of discovery, which is about playing to learn and get better, seeking diversity of thought, fostering creative collision, embracing risk, and experimenting.

▪  From authority to partnership: fostering collaboration. Traditional organization design tends toward siloed hierarchies based on a reactive mind-set of authority. The relationship between leaders and teams is one of superior to subordinate. Designed for collaboration, agile organizations employ networks of autonomous teams. This requires an underlying creative mind-set of partnership, of managing by agreement based on freedom, trust, and accountability.

▪  From scarcity to abundance:   fostering value creation. In stable markets, companies maximize their shares at the expense of others. This win–lose approach reflects a reactive mind-set of scarcity, based on an assumption of limited opportunities and resources. Today’s markets, however, evolve continually and rapidly. To deliver results, leaders must view markets with a creative mind-set of abundance, which recognizes the unlimited resources and potential available to their organizations and enables customer-centricity, entrepreneurship, inclusion, and cocreation.


While there is a lot of organizational development and change work that has been done exploring distributed leadership, employee empowerment, continuous learning, restructuring and the like, it generally starts with “doing”.  What is done, how it is done, how to do it better, who does it, how to find the optimal balance of resources (labor, capital, etc.).  I was trained that labor (people) was an input or factor of producing (“doing”) goods and services.  Other factors could eventually be found to substitute for labor (people), depending on the projected cost of the various factors over time.  People generally start out as being viewed as assets, but over time could come to be seen as liabilities.  And liabilities are something to be reduced.


In this view of the world, what we do and how we do it determines who we relate with, and how.  With who we relate and how, often defines how others see us and how we view ourselves.  In essence, our self-worth as a person is ultimately determined by what we do.  In complex environments, socialized behaviors that come out of this train of thinking can impede rapid learning and co-creation by implicitly empowering certain people and viewpoints over others (while also creating fractured and compartmentalized lives).


My journey of awareness and addressing the contradiction of my belief in people versus systemic practice can be visualized in my traveling the “U” of the following figure.  It incorporates the African concept of Ubuntu and wholeness with Otto Scharmer’s work to identify blind spots in perspective and to allow “emergence” of the new (or new perspective).

5.1-6.3-Traveling the U.jpg

My epiphany occurred when I was able to recognize that I was contributing to a system unable to change other than incrementally by being caught in a structure focused on doing and not on systemic re-imagining based on what was our purpose (source) for being.  I have since come to see leadership as stewardship – of people’s potential and resources.  I have since recognized the importance of wholeness and people’s needs to live lives of integration.

For me, viewing leadership as an act of stewardship, leads to the following actions:

  • Being a “Keeper of the Vision” (Aligner with the Vision)

  • Listening to, liberating, and lifting up others

  • Empowering networks of teams (Distributed leadership, resources, authority, support to fail-forward fast promoting iterative learning)

  • “Sensor” (see Role of Leader in Complex Contexts)

  • Keeper of “space” for reflection (Test assumptions and models)

  • Role modeling

    • Self-management

    • Wholeness

    • North Star purpose

  • Being a colleague (Passion with Purpose leads to Engagement)


Please ponder these leadership philosophy observations for complex contexts, and if you are so inclined, provide me with your thoughts.

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




NEXT ISSUE:  Leadership Framework for Complexity

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