Leading in Complexity
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

In times of complexity, many leaders wait for more information as they don’t see themselves able to make a decision when they have to consider too many entangled and unpredictably moving parts. Their inability to make decisions puts teams and whole organisations under stress. While everyone is paralysed and waiting for the leader’s decision, more information comes in, but that does not render the situation less complex. On the contrary, things keep moving and remain unpredictable in our complex world. Inevitably, when a leader is stuck in a “need more information” mind frame, every decision comes too late.

Our complex world takes a toll on leaders who don’t learn how to deal with the stress that uncertainty creates in (all of) our brains. And we need more leaders who are able to lead in uncertainty and complexity. To that end, leaders need to learn on the job how to stay open and creative, and to know when is the time to collect data, and when is the time to make a decision and stand for it.

Humans are wired for certainty and control. But we have two great nervous systems which allow us to spring into action when danger is at our door, and to relax and be creative when we are safe. And we need to use them both to thrive.

However, most people spend too much time in the sympathetic nervous system, which springs us into action as it sees threats. A constant state of alertness robs you of a night of good sleep, and the mid term effects of sleeping poorly are fatal diseases. We all know the cost of stress and overwhelm in productivity, and we all know the cost in health and well-being. Funny enough, animals have an advantage over us:

When the zebra flees the lion, it springs into action, but when the danger is over, the stress immediately leaves its system, and the zebra goes back to nibbling on grass in peace. While the stress hormone cortisol lingers in our bloodstream long after the stressful event, the zebra still knows how to skillfully dance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. We, alas, are more and more stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, always on adrenaline, not well rested, and seeing threats everywhere.

Robert Sapolsky has good-humouredly summed up our predicament with this book title: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

In order to function today and to survive tomorrow (for stress hormones and a lack of sleep will kill you before your time), you must learn how to consciously spend more time in the parasympathetic nervous system which allows you to restore through rest, which enables you to connect to others, and which allows you to be creative.

Trapped in your sympathetic nervous system you see threats where there are none, and you fail to see the possibilities right in front of you.

For complexity and adult development expert Jennifer Garvey Berger, the great leadership challenge of our times is to create work environments where people can switch between the “spring to action” and the “creativity and connection” states. This allows everyone to be their best and most productive Self, as well as to stay both emotionally and physically healthy. At their best, everyone at the office can stop wasting energy on old conflicts and misunderstandings. At their best, leaders in the executive suite can stop running around in circles and blaming each other for it.

What can you do as a leader at every level of your organisation?

There are simple, science proven ways of quickly getting out of a stress and threat state and into a collaborative and creative state, and here are just a few:

Starting meetings with everyone taking a couple of deep breaths and connecting to the purpose of the meeting. A minute is enough for people to arrive at your meeting and not staying stuck in traffic or their unpleasant last meeting.

Ending meetings with just one or two people expressing praise and gratitude for two other people gives everyone in the meeting an instant boost of oxytocin (the “connection” hormone) and dopamine (the “reward and motivation” hormone). 

On a deeper level, mindset really matters: To cultivate the mindset of growth and exploration, the leader can set group’s ground rules by being curious and allowing for learning from mistakes. If something went terribly wrong, you could ask: “Where exactly have we failed, and what can we learn from it? What’s the opportunity?” To invite everyone in the room to share their perspective: “What am I not seeing that you are seeing?”

In a complex environment, a growth and exploration mindset helps us be in our parasympathetic nervous system while tackling the unknown.

Anything you do to slow down your meetings, to create the space for arriving and ending well, to bring in laughter, helps your people to deal with uncertainty.

It is good to have your own daily practices of consciously activating your parasympathetic nervous system, and there are many more ways to do that. As a leader in a complex world, your job is to also bring these practices to those you lead.

We are here to help you tackle complexity on your own and within your organisation.

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