Think Leadership Ideas

Complexity and Leadership Style

Few would dispute that an essential element of leadership is acquiring the power to accomplish goals. What is less conventionally accepted is that collaborative, facilitative styles of leadership will be increasingly valuable as the means to gaining that power as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The reason lies with the complexity of the issues faced by contemporary organizations, and how complex issues are resolved. Issues with high levels of complexity require a different leadership response to be effective than do issues of low complexity.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane identifies three types of complexity:
  • Dynamic complexity - how close cause and effect are together in space and time;
  • Generative complexity - how much the future is or is not like the past;
  • Social complexity - how much people connected to an issue have common assumptions, values, objectives, experiences, and perceptions.

For relatively simple situations which are similar to the past, dictating a response is plenty good enough. Setting the department’s budget for travel, fixing broken widgets, setting up a new research project, or responding to a customer inquiry shouldn’t require pulling people together for long discussions about what to do.

But for highly complex situations - where cause and effect is neither singular or proximate, where conditions are unprecedented and the future is not simply an extension of the past, where people who are stakeholders have widely diverse experience, perspectives, and values - a collaborative response is required for the best chance of success.

In today’s environment, big, hairy, complex issues bedevil almost all organizations in all sectors: business mom-n-pop’s to global corporations, local non-profits to international NGO’s, small towns to major international powers. All are dealing with significant issues of financial stability and resources for basic infrastructure. All are wrestling with sustainability, the reality that current practices are likely to radically change but in the meantime business must go on as usual. All deal with an increasing diversity of employees, customers, and stakeholders.

To deal with highly complex situations, information must be gathered from many points of view in order to respond systemically. Untried ideas must be prototyped to deal with new realities. And people with widely diverse backgrounds and interests must find common ground and cooperate. This calls for leadership that brings people together, encourages collaborative problem-solving, and fosters shared commitment for action.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, differentiates between two kinds of leadership, executive and legislative. Executive leadership is positioned to command action to happen, but legislative leadership must secure the joint action of others over whom one has limited control. Engaging one’s suppliers in a LEAN initiative to cut costs for customers, bringing stakeholders from many organizations together to address a community problem, or engaging employees across departments to make significant changes in how business is conducted requires a legislative and collaborative leadership style to be successful.

Leaders are advised to focus their personal development, as well development initiatives in their organization, on efforts to boost collaborative leadership skills. Such efforts, done well, will increase the power of leadership to achieve goals.

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create exceptional futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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