Leadership Skills for Complex Times

Leadership through complexity requires strategies that match our situation: they are flexible, diverse, and creative.

“He had a tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was largely because of his method of “Zen” navigation, which was simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was going and follow it. The results were more often surprising than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of the few occasions when it was both.” – Douglas Adams (author, The Dark Tea-time of the Soul)

Its tempting to adopt the Zen navigation method in times of great complexity placing more importance than ever on driving cars that others will follow. Leadership in times of crisis, uncertainty, and rapid change is critical and tricky. How do we do it?

Three lessons about leadership in times of complexity can provide some guidance for those seeking to step into the drivers’ seat. Like the image about, sometimes we need to see keys and holes to unlock change.

How We Speak

Diversity is critical for active learning in complex situations. In a recent interview with James Altucher, leadership coach and author Randall K. Stutman highlights how our use of language shapes how leaders project (genuine, authentic) confidence and inspire action even when admitting uncertainty. It’s about framing ways to provide lexical diversity (PDF).

One example is the tendency to use one word to mean many things, in oversimplified ways. He uses the example of ‘problem’ and why saying we have a problem doesn’t offer much unless we explain some of the details of why something is a problem and how it affects your situation right now. It’s providing actionable details and projects confidence in what we’re talking about.

This is something we see with the term ‘complexity’; a cop-out term that is used to mean many things. It is difficult to lead when we can’t communicate effectively to those we wish to have follow us.

The key: Consider commonplace words that we use and express what they mean in context, regularly. (*consider terms like authenticity, engagement, empowerment, problem, and best practice, to name a few)

How We Think About What We Hear

Jennifer Garvey Berger has written extensively of how complex situations present us with a challenge of mindframes and traps. Some of these are tied to communication and build on Stutman’s recommendation for narrative complexity. Garvey implores leaders to create opportunities for meaning-making in our communications by not only being more clear, but by opening discussion about what others ‘hear’ in our words.

Another way to frame our words is to speak of the things that are proximally close to us. Rather than aim to tackle complex problems that are far away or highly abstract, consider what the smallest visible system is and build a shared narrative on that.

How We Co-Create

Leadership and design thinking go together well in complex times. Rather than presume to know where to go and how to get there, employing design thinking and a variety of workshop tools can create the conditions for building narrative and lexical complexity by providing a space to talk-while-making. Design thinking can bring leaders to the table with a direction and an openness that allows their teams to help shape how to travel in that direction.

Both Stutman and Garvey stress the need to convey information clearly while leaving opportunities for meaning-making and inspiration. Design thinking can help everyone — the leaders and the team — to work together in making that meaning by working practically with ideas to generate possible pathways forward and the means to see the impact once a pathway is taken.

Great communication and leadership isn’t ‘nice to have’, but critical. It’s also not just something we’re inherently good at: it’s designed. The time has never been better or more necessary.

Stuck with what to say or how to bring this about? Contact me if you need help in creating the conditions and strategy for navigating complexity and learning more. It’s what I do.

Photo by Coline Beulin on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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