The Resilient Tribe: Designing Leadership For Complexity

Accept Conditions or Change Them
Accept Conditions or Change Them

Individuals, organizations and networks are living with unprecedented social complexity requiring more attention than ever on fostering resiliency at all levels to not only thrive, but survive. Not all of these levels are equal and where we choose to focus our energies makes an enormous difference for whether we design change intentionally (lead) or have the system drive what we do (follow).

In dealing with complexity we are presented with two polar positions: let the system drive us passively and adapt or seek to influence system and adapt. Either way, we need to adapt even if our intention is to maintain things as they are, invoking the quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Where we choose to focus our energy in building adaptive capacity matters a great deal. Given competing priorities and limited resources the question raised is whether we are better at increasing individual resilience or something at an organizational level?

The answer means getting taking a third option that means going tribal and focusing on leadership.

Tribal wisdom

We are still tribal beings – by blood, geography and psychology. We connect. Christine Comaford has explored the neuroscientific connections with tribal behaviour and teams and believes we are partly wired to live as tribes through a neurological priming in the brain for three things:

1. Safety

2. Belonging

3. Mattering

Safety is the most obvious for if we are not safe not much else matters. Yet we also long to belong and it matters than we matter. It’s not clear from the research what kind of connection we need to have, but there is the brain’s desire to experience connection and know that what we are doing makes some kind of impact.

Seth Godin has also written on the topic of tribes and makes a powerful case for the importance of finding, building and connecting to tribes if we are to have impact on the world.

Leaders lead when they take position, when they connect to their tribes, and when they help the tribe connect to itself

Understanding complexity is a critical skill for leaders of these new tribes. If we are intentionally engage complexity rather than dismiss it, leaders must have some sense of how it operates in order to take the positions necessary to lead.

The leadership imperative

Why leadership? Leadership bridges individual action with group-level engagement for one can’t lead if no one is following. It also allows for maximum leverage that crosses the widest surface area within a system.

Efforts to promote individual resilience are useful for individuals, however that can be a fix that fails when viewed in the context of social innovation and change. A highly resilient, adaptive person working within a stagnant or harmful system will eventually leave it and seek other options. This could mean losing key staff, partners and the knowledge and skills that come with it. By being resilient, these individuals will have the perceptual skills to see a toxic environment for what it is, recognize its limitations, and after failed attempts to change it will leave.

On the other hand, promoting organizational resilience is a far more powerful leverage point. Creating capacity within and across an organization for spotting trends, identifying weak and strong signals, doing the appropriate sensemaking, and adapting is something that benefits the whole, not just the parts. The problem with focusing exclusively on organizational resilience is that it takes considerable time and energy to do this in organizations not prepared to see complexity. Operating effectively with complexity requires new mindsets, skillsets and toolsets that can be organized through systems thinking and developmental design, but it takes some time to build.

Leadership is something that bridges the two. Appropriate leadership skills and practice builds resilience in the leader and the followers. It also is something that can be widely dispersed and serve the purpose of building resilience within the entire organization if everyone is viewed as a potential leader.

From hero to host

The traditional model of leadership (as least as experienced in Western countries) is that of the hero. Some of the qualities of this heroic leader include:

  • Having the most knowledge, experience and insight into the problems at hand
  • Telling people what to do and how to do it
  • Concentration of power and the licence to use it as needed
  • Leads through direction, not engagement
  • Control is paramount

These might have been useful in linear, command-driven organizations in the past, but they are not useful any more for anything to do with complexity. Meg Wheatley has written extensively on this and pointed to the folly of this traditional model. One of the best analogies she’s used is describing the leader as a host (.pdf) . What a host does is facilitate interaction between people and be mindful (my word) to the group’s direction, intention and process. While individuals attend to the specific needs and tasks before them, the leader in complex environments attends to the dynamics and systems in which these interactions take place. Resilience is fostered when many people — not just ‘the person in charge’ develop these skills, widening the base of influence within a system as more actors are paying attention to the dynamics taking place and fostering mindful, attentive emergence of beneficial outcomes.

Heather Gold sometimes refers to this mindful attention to group process as tummeling. Great hosts are good tummelers and good tummelers are great leaders within complexity. Tummeling is akin to the modulation that takes place at a party where a host is constantly looking to see how the guests are doing, if the music is right, the food is fresh, and drinks are filled. The CoNEKTR model, a complexity oriented design methodology, uses this same approach to lead a group through a design thinking process of innovation. In each of these examples, leading is done as a means of bridging individuals and the groups they are a part of, connecting the tribe together and building resilience in the process.

Some further reading: 

Norman, C. D., Charnaw-Burger, J., Yip, A. L., Saad, S., & Lombardo, C. (2010). Designing health innovation networks using complexity science and systems thinking: the CoNEKTR model. Journal of Evaluation in Cinical Practice, 16(5), 1016–1023.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. J. (2012). So Far From Home. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318.

Photo credit: Cameron Norman

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