Complexity Needs Leaders from Behind
Lead Coach and Facilitator at Choose Leadership | Working with Purpose Driven Leaders and Organisations
red silhouette of man standing in rows with white slhouettes of men

The conversation got up this week in Choose Leadership HQ about complexity and leadership.

Dave Snowden defines complex systems as ones with some constraints, but where everything is connected, except we don’t know what the connections are. We can assess probability but cannot predict what will occur because cause and effect relationships are not clear.

We talked about some of the challenges leaders face when leading in complexity, and the list is long:

  • the flux and unpredictability of events
  • the lack of obvious answers to novel problems
  • a need for patience while waiting for the emergence of patterns rather than responding to each individual event
  • a need for creative and innovative approaches to meet the novel situations which arise.

The role of the leader in complex contexts, according to Snowden’s Cynefin model, is to:

  • Probe
  • Sense
  • Respond

And that is counterintuitive to the manager’s temptation  to regress to a traditional “leader-on-top”, command and control style, particularly when s/he experiences pressure or stress.

As Co-active leadership coaches, what that brings up for us is the need to step into Leading from Behind.

What does it mean to lead from behind?

This is the land of development and service; encouraging, supporting and enabling others to grow and thrive. If the focus of a Leader in Front is creating connection and direction, then Leaders from Behind focus on serving the collective through coaching and mentoring. bringing technical and emotional support. They look to discover what their teammates and those they lead need in the moment, and help them access it. Leaders from Behind enable the individuals and the collective to move forward together. 

It is from this place that the Leader from Behind coaches, acknowledges and champions, and stretches others.

The key to leading from behind is asking questions

One of the critical skills of the Leader from Behind is that of Appreciative Inquiry. Inquiry is the practice of seeking to understand (as opposed to Advocacy, which is about seeking to be understood). The appreciative element focuses on what is working in the moment by identifying positive divergences, rather than focusing on what isn’t working.

Jennifer Garvey Berger offers two powerful questions when dealing with someone who is wrestling with a complex situation and has created a simple story to explain the situation to themselves.

You could ask them:

“How is the other person the hero of the story?”

“How could this (simple) story be exactly the opposite of what is actually true?”

What are your favourite questions when you are Leading from Behind? 

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For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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