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Leadership and Complexity

Posted by Mark Bennett on July 1, 2012


We live in a complex world and the complexity just keeps on increasing. Complexity wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t have an unfortunate side effect – uncertainty. While a little uncertainty can be managed, too much uncertainty can paralyze us. Paralyzed or not, our actions (or inaction) might be wrong and come with severe consequences.

One of the main jobs of a leader is to take complexity and distill it down to something more simple that is actionable by others. Note that this is the case no matter where a leader is; this is not reserved solely for world leaders or leaders of large organizations. This also is not restricted to hierarchical  organizations – networks of people still need ways to manage complexity.

There’s a  implied reduction in uncertainty with this simplification. In essence, a leader is making a bet. They are betting that their simplification is a good one. But like any bet, it can go bad.

Now one way to limit the downside it to have back-up plans, take things a step at a time instead of putting everything on the line, and hedge.

And that’s where it gets tricky for leadership. When leadership does its job in making things more simple, the signal everyone else wants to hear has that corresponding reduced uncertainty. It gives them the confidence to move forward with their actions or planning.

But communicating back-up plans, stepwise actions, and hedging all reintroduce the uncertainty factor that you were trying to get rid of in the first place. Plus, when you try to describe what the backup plans, stepwise actions, and hedging are addressing, back comes the complexity. So should leaders hide them? Maybe, but then the downside is completely on their head, plus not communicating can effectively negate the ability to limit the downside.

Instead, leaders should communicate, but they must be careful in doing so without undermining the whole point of simplification and confidence building they were originally after.

Photo by michael.heiss

2 Responses to “Leadership and Complexity”

  1. Sri Subramanian said

    Mark,

    So true. The ability to simplify communication and guide aligned decisions is key to anyone leading a skip level team, and becomes more important the farther away one is from the troops!

  2. [...] Fusion Network at Work and Profile Management, wrote a post over at Talented Apps entitled, “Leadership and Complexity.” In this piece he writes that “one of the main jobs of a leader is to take complexity [...]

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