How to help leaders thrive in complexity

Leaders need to explore new ways of working and new, creative ways to develop and build our future leaders so they are prepared for change, writes The Centre for Workplace Leadership’s Susannah Woodward, who says there is increasing opportunity for those who are willing to take a step back and reassess exactly what being a leader means

Back in 2010, IBM’s Institute for Business Value interviewed over 1500 CEOs worldwide as part of their global CEO study. The study found that the world of work was becoming more volatile and uncertain, and a new challenge was appearing – complexity. Nearly 80 percent of CEOs surveyed expected the level of complexity in the business environment to grow, however only 49 percent felt they had the ability to thrive in these new conditions.

The ‘complexity gap’ is a phenomenon in which the complexity of leaders’ roles significantly exceeds their current capability. This often results in senior leaders who feel like they are ‘in over their heads’ relative to the wicked challenges they are confronted with on a daily basis.

This ‘complexity gap’ faced by executives is the subject of scholar-practitioner and PhD candidate Aiden Thornton’s research, titled Facing the complexity crisis: Fostering the development of executives to lead effectively in the face of increasing organisational, social and global complexity. His research involves several hundred Australian executives across a number of large organisations and is tackling some of the most pivotal questions in leadership development:

  1. Is the complexity gap apparent in Australian leaders?
  2. How can the complexity gap be closed by developing leaders to make wiser decisions about complex issues?
  3. What factors influence how quickly executives develop? (e.g. culture, developmental readiness, openness to experience etc.).

What is this notion of complexity?
Globalisation and the digital economy mean that entire industries, companies and business models are being rapidly transformed and reinvented. This adage of ‘creative destruction’ now requires the need for CEOs and leaders to continually identify, be prepared for, and drive future growth, diversification and disruption within their organisations to stay ahead.

In the 1980s, CEOs could be effective by simply focusing on their financial results. When the balanced scorecard was introduced, CEOs needed to focus on four outcomes: financial, people, process and customer. But now the number of outcomes they must focus on (and the interdependency between them) is even more challenging in light of organisations which are required to drive social, environmental, industry-wide and even global outcomes for the future.

Thornton highlights the work of Professor Robert Kegan, author of In Over Our Heads, who says that the constantly changing demands of modern life mean that “at any given moment, around one-half to two-thirds of the adult population appear not to have fully reached [the necessary level] of consciousness”. Thornton is quick to point out that we should not frame this in a negative light, but rather look at this as an opportunity to create the conditions for growth to ensure a sustainable future for organisations, and for human civilisation more broadly.

Thornton says his research was inspired by his 17-year career in management consulting and industry in senior people and change leadership roles. He says: “I spent years with senior leaders, and it was clear they were dealing with incredibly complex issues on a daily basis such as changing market dynamics, rapidly evolving business strategies, new operating models, culture transformation and structural changes. However, these leaders were often struggling to find ways to develop themselves so they would be better equipped to navigate this complexity. While there are plenty of executive development programs out there, very few tackle complexity in a way that fundamentally transforms their ways of thinking, feeling and being. We need a whole new paradigm of leadership development to enable leaders to achieve this.”

Old habits die hard
So how can organisations help those in leadership positions feel more competent quickly and affordably?

Thornton believes that the current developmental opportunities for leaders are highly limited for a number of reasons:

  • Leadership development is often perceived to be an event rather than a daily practice
  • It often focuses on leadership entertainment at the expense of leadership development
  • It usually focuses on changing leaders’ behavioural styles which is insufficient to impact development
  • It does not tackle the dynamics in the organisational systems which are often responsible for locking old patterns into place.

“Organisations invest millions in leadership development, however there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests it is not consistently effective,” he says. “One reason for this is that the system wins. No matter how energised a leader is after going to the Blue Mountains and doing rock climbing – when they come back – the system reinforces old patterns and gets in the way of building new ones.”

Thornton believes that the main ways to bring out the best in leaders are to:

  1. Develop leaders to be able to make wiser decisions based on subtle organisational dynamics
  2. Work those leaders to fundamentally transform the actual organisational dynamics so that leadership becomes a characteristic of the organisational system, not only of individual leaders. This institutionalises leadership within the organisation and moves away from the need for charismatic and/or transformational individuals.

How can leaders bridge the complexity gap?
In the past, researchers believed that development stopped at the end of adolescence. We now know that development continues throughout the entire lifespan. In general terms, adults move from advanced linear thinking, to early systems thinking, to advanced systems thinking, and finally to principled thinking. At each developmental level, adults can quite literally perceive more of the world, make sense of the subtleties around them, integrate different information more effectively and therefore make wiser decisions. It is no wonder that “there appears to be a relatively strong relationship between adult development and leadership effectiveness,” Thornton says.

Thornton outlines that many current leadership programs emphasise adoption of new behavioural styles. Whilst this in itself is important, changing behaviour is not enough to make leaders more effective in the face of complexity. Thornton’s research aims to introduce executives to a series of practices they can apply to foster their own growth and start to get a glimpse into a whole new reality.

“Many leadership development programs focus on entertaining their participants through events in which leaders are taken out of the workplace for a week to do a training program,” Thornton says. “Whereas I see leadership as being a daily practice – something you need to repeat in every conversation, every team meeting, every decision, every coaching conversation, in each and every moment.

On one hand, you can take someone to the symphony orchestra, give them a beautiful memory for life, but leave them fundamentally unchanged as a person. On the other hand, you can give someone piano lessons for ten years and help them to build a whole new capacity which they can access every day.

Most leadership programs are like the symphony orchestra (great memories but little development), what I attempt to do is give people piano lessons (new capacities and lots of development). The trick is knowing how to build a developmental practice and how to adapt your practice over time, and this requires guidance from an expert in human development”.

Thornton has designed over 90 tailored practices which can be used for this purpose and include various reflective practices, self-regulation practices, and integrative thinking practices to mention just a few.

What’s in it for organisations?
For organisations to begin to change the way they view and deliver leadership development, they need to know how to achieve the greatest commercial return from the least investment in development. That is, they need to identify how much development they buy for each dollar spent. This is a major focus of Thornton’s research.

Thornton reveals that we can examine the complexity of leaders’ roles and then compare this to their current performance. “By quantifying the gap between the role and the leader,” Thornton says, “we can predict the number of years of growth required for leaders to be capable in their roles and better equipped to deal with complexity.”

This is important for a number of reasons including talent management and succession planning. Thornton says that talent management has always been a slippery subject for large organisations as getting a clear measure of a leaders’ potential has always been very subjective.

He claims that one way to approach this more objectively is to draw on insights from the complexity gap. That is, leaders with little or no complexity gap may have high potential for their next role relatively quickly, whereas leaders who do demonstrate a significant gap may not yet be ready to move before accessing further development opportunities. He states this could become a far more measurable and meaningful way to evaluate potential and determine how long leaders may need in order to grow into their roles.

Leadership made simple
Einstein once said “you can’t solve a problem with the level of thinking which created it” and in this increasingly complicated, evolving, volatile corporate world, understanding that some problems will never be solved is vital. What our leaders can do is explore new ways of working and new, creative ways to develop and build our future leaders so they are prepared for change. Even within such complexity, there is also increasing opportunity for those who are willing to take a step back and reassess exactly what being a leader means.

Thornton says, “Our current leadership challenges go well beyond just organisational life. Many experts and commentators would agree that current global risks put our world in a very precarious balance. Being able to cast our gaze towards potential futures and then identify what leadership capacities we need in the present is an essential exercise for all leadership scholars and practitioners.

If complexity is so prevalent in the 21st century, then we need to rise to this challenge by constructing approaches which will foster a whole new cadre of leaders. I believe these approaches will be rooted in complexity science and human development.”