In 2010 IBM published a study identifying complexity as the primary challenge for leaders. Intuitively, we can relate to this study’s premise. However, we may have different understandings of complexity ranging from mere complication to total chaos.
Complexity can be defined as a state of intricacy, complication, variety and involvement in the interconnected parts of a system. The key word in this definition is interaction. A system, any system, is made out of interconnected parts. In the case of a social system, the interconnected parts are humans like the members of an organization.
Human interaction is not predictable or linear as much as we would like it to be. Leadership, as we traditionally conceptualize it, is based on the notion of predictability. Under this notion, leaders are expected to be “regulators” of their environment and as such, not only need to point followers to an outcome but need to know precisely what the outcome needs to be.
Vision is a highly desired attribute for our leaders. It is expected that leaders have vision, and can effectively communicate it and enlist others to follow. We celebrate leaders that have taken their organizations to great accomplishments powered by their vision. What is interesting about most studies of great leaders is that they are conducted posthumously. Every great idea looks great after the fact.
Before we explore the myths of leadership in connection with complexity, let’s take a look at basic concepts of complex adaptive systems (CAS). A complex adaptive system consists of a number of interdependent agents, who in parallel, pursue individual plans based on their own knowledge and adapt to feedback from the behaviors of others in the system. This understanding is important because most (if not all) organizations and teams are complex adaptive systems.
Consider a soccer team as a CAS. The twenty-two players on the field execute plays independently based on their experience and talent (knowledge) in complete interdependence to what others are doing. Every player responds to each other’s behaviors, including the referees and the public. Given the few “set” plays in soccer, adaptability (the ability of each player to dynamically learn, adjust, and make plays), exemplifies the operation of a complex adaptive system.
According to Donde Ashmos Plowman and Dennis Duchon in their book chapter Dispelling the myths about leadership, complex adaptive systems are characterized by the following:
- Sensitivity to initial conditions – In complex systems a small fluctuation in any of its parts can result in unexpected and consequential changes. This is particularly true when a system’s equilibrium is disrupted.
- Far from equilibrium state – No system is in a state of equilibrium forever. Disorders naturally occur shifting and introducing new patterns that bring dissipating structures to produce a new order.
- Nonlinear interactions – Parts in a complex adaptive system interact with one another and communicate through a series of feedback loops that do not follow linear cause and effect relationships. These feedback loops affect the knowledge in the system and can greatly influence the impact of any change.
- Emergent self-organization – This corresponds to the tendency in systems, particularly in times of uncertainty, to shift to new states driven by the interactions of its members as they learn new things and modify their interconnections. New order emerges from the new interconnections without explicit direction from a higher level.
Following the example of a soccer team, the initial condition of eleven players per team is changed as an altercation erupts in a contact play resulting in the referee expelling one of the players. The team with one less player initially experiences a hard time in finding a new state of equilibrium. However, these players fill in the gaps and learn (adapt) to play without their teammate. Their feedback loops are instrumental in learning how to fill in the gaps. A new organization emerges. Even though the captain of the team provides some guidance, the new order results from the interaction of the players and the pressure from the opposing team. The emergent properties of the ten-person team are self-organized.
The following list corresponds to what we traditionally expect our leaders to achieve regardless of the complexity inherent in the systems they lead.
- Specify the desired future
- Direct change
- Eliminate disorder and the gap between intentions and reality
- Influence others to enact desired futures
According to Plowman and Duchon, the above expectations are for the most part myths when considered in the context of complexity, in particular as applied to complex adaptive systems, like a soccer team in the middle of a championship game. Let’s take a closer look at these myths and the new reality proposed by these authors.
Myth # 1: specify the desired future – As stated earlier, we traditionally expect our leaders to be visionaries and see how the future may shape out. We expect this because we assume our leaders are meant to look outside the system and that they can see where we need to go. However, much of the activity in a system happens on the inside, and even leaders are shaped by a system’s internal interactions. In complex systems, leaders focus less on controlling futures and more on enabling productive ones. It this sense, leadership is less about controlling and more about allowing. New reality: leaders provide linkages to emergent structures by enhancing connections among organizational members.
Myth # 2: direct change – Conventional wisdom on leadership places leaders at the heart of directing change. In this myth, leaders are internal members and can facilitate interactions. However, the interactions need to take place among all the agents for desired change to actually happen. Through the description of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems we saw that change is not controlled by any one agent. Change is emergent from the interaction of members in the CAS; from their non-linear communication and what the system as a whole is able to learn. New reality: leaders make sense of patterns in interactions and facilitate communication.
Myth # 3: eliminate disorder and the gap between intentions and reality – Traditionally, leaders are expected to influence others to complete tasks associated with a goal and to hold people accountable. Related to this expectation is the ability of a leader to minimize conflict and maintain order. These expectations often require negative feedback from the leader. The traditional view is that organizations should be in a state of equilibrium through good leadership. The reality is that organizations exist between instability and stability and that the notion of “maintaining” stability at all cost is unattainable. What is desirable in complexity is for leaders to be disruptors and to purposely create instability to seek new emergent beneficial patterns. New reality: leaders are destabilizers who encourage disequilibrium and disrupt existing patterns of behavior.
Myth #4: Influence others to enact desired futures – In conventional perspectives of leadership, leaders are expected to know the answers, understand direct cause and effect relationships, and direct the behaviors of others. On the other hand, complex systems are capable of learning through their internal interactions. The feedback loops present in complex adaptive systems can generate emergent properties that far outweigh the wisdom of any one person. In this context, leaders facilitate interactions and bring processes that enable emergent behaviors. New reality: leaders encourage processes that enable emergent order.
It may be challanging to consider a different perspective from what we traditionally expect from our leaders. After all, it is comforting to know that a person could predict the future and take us to it, including driving through any necessary changes. If we accept the notion that dealing with complexity is fundamental for our leaders and that complexity in organizations can be understood through the lens of complex adaptive systems, then it is possible to conceive a new frame of reference for the expectations we place on our leaders. The leadership myths covered here are a reasonable place to start.