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Leading in Complexity

How are we leading in this time of complexity? Pope Francis and others have talked about being in a change of era. This is something challenging to grasp, and it is different from the alternative idea that we are in an era of change. Perhaps we are experiencing both. The change of era is a bigger picture change and illusive. We may sense it, see some aspects, and yet, it is on the horizon and beyond our grasp. Turning toward the idea of an era of change brings it closer to our everyday reality – and change comes quickly now-a-days. Just as we are getting used to something, it changes. Think about Zoom, a video conferencing technology that you are most likely all too familiar with. Every time I log in, it seems that there has been an update to the program, and I need to get adjusted to the improved version. How many other things do we face on a consistent basis that creates this sense of unending change?

Think about a mountain range. There are different layers as we peer out into this horizon. There are mountains that are closer and more defined in our visual field. Then there is the middle layer and the final layer of the tallest mountains in the range. This is how I envision the layering of the types of change we are experiencing.

Life is complex and we are leading in spaces that are beautifully layered, offering mystery and inviting curiosity.

Complexity Leadership Theory is helpful as we look at how to navigate the changes our organizations are experiencing today. It allows for space to peer to the horizon, for collective creativity, and focusing on the whole. Often, leadership theories and practices focus on the relationship between the leader and the follower. This seems to perpetuate a hierarchal leadership model that constricts and supports control-based leadership rather than collaborative action.

As we navigate the complexity of being a leader today, the call is to focus on the collective, or the whole, and the social interactions within the organization or network. This creates space for collective creativity and allows each person within the organization to contribute their wisdom.

A main take-away is that this type of leading is more process-oriented, contextual, and interactive. It takes more time and takes its own twists-and-turns. There is an old saying that I think of often: “God draws straight with crooked lines.” The Western mindset, which has shaped the most dominant leadership models, tends to be hierarchal and linear. Navigating complexity is not linear, there is no pre-knowledge of a goal, and it is emergent. This is a challenging space to hold. I think this is what leadership is about today – holding the space to allow the whole to inform the movement. We will eventually get to where we need to go, yet it is undefined and iterative.

What I’ve noticed about myself and witnessed with others, is that we can be intentional about wanting to create this space, flatten hierarchical behaviors and mindsets, and be process oriented. Yet, the mindset of a linear model/way is strong. As individuals and our organizational cultures are like a rubber band. We can stretch to a certain point, then we snap back. Time constraints and perhaps discomfort, wanting to accomplish a goal or have a decisive decision, begin to creep into the group or the leader. The leader becomes the source of power to move things in a direction rather than keeping the power within the group.

As I write this, I’m reflective of my own tension of being like this rubber band, of my desire to create space for process and honor the whole. Yet, there are also expectations, requirements, and needs for the organization. Creating this type of shift from the more traditional model of leadership to a collaborative model takes time, is iterative itself, and demands organizational culture change and shifts of individual mindsets.

I share the following 3 resources that have helped me as I navigate the complexity of our current time and providing foundational ideas of how I desire to be a leader in today’s world.

  • Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux (English) (Spanish)

  • Systems Inspired Leadership by Frank Uit de Weerd and Marita Fridjhon (English)

  • Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown (English)


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