In preparation for a workshop I recently did for Leadership Victoria titled “Leading in Uncertain Times”, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of leadership in solving complex problems. I’ve believed for a long time that leadership matters. My PhD dissertation focused on the relationship between program leadership and client outcomes. I discovered that helping clients deal with complex issues in their lives was as much about how workers related and attended to them as it was about what particular intervention model or approach they used. The characteristics of relating and attending to clients were largely mirrored in leader-worker relationships. In other words, workers valued the same kind of relationship with their leader as client’s valued with them. I discovered that trust and autonomy were at the core of those relationships.
As I closed the loop on my dissertation and looked for links between what I had learned and the existing leadership literature, I became drawn to Complexity Science. Trust and autonomy are key aspects of emerging models of leadership and organizational decision making based on Complexity Science. Several authors have contributed greatly to my understanding of this area, most notably Dave Snowden and Margaret Wheatley. The Cynefin model developed by Dave Snowden and his associates at Cognitive Edge has powerful potential as a decision making model for leaders seeking to solve highly complex problems. Their model cautions against a ‘command and control’ approach to solving these kinds of problems, focusing instead on probing and sensing before moving to action. In other words, we have to trust that those in the system or network have the answers and provide enough space (i.e., freedom and autonomy) for those answers to emerge. Margaret Wheatley’s writings, some of which are available on her website, focus heavily on the use of small and large group processes to solve complex problems. She too places a high value on trusting that solutions exist and that human’s underlying drive for freedom and creativity is key to solving complex problems.
Although I still consider myself a relative beginner in understanding how Complexity Science can be used by leaders to solve complex problems, I’m excited by the possibilities. This approach challenges us to resist the urge to rush in and take control, to rely heavily on our relationships and networks of individuals with a stake in the problem, and to trust that solutions exist and will emerge if we provide creative space for that to occur.