Reflecting on Leading in Uncertainty

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On 11 June 2020, I had the privilege of being part of a fascinating conversation about leadership. We had a diverse panel made up of –

– Eliat Aram is the CEO of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. Some of the most profound learning experiences I have had has been in the group relations conferences they host. Leadership is seen as bound to notions of authority, individual and collective unconscious processes, and systemic psychodynamics.

– Jennifer Garvey Berger uses the internal complexity of individuals as an entry point but works with individuals as well as their systemic context. She focuses on building the capacity of leaders to shape and nurture life-giving contexts that enable others to develop their ability to deal with complexity.

– Mary Uhl-Bien has spent years understanding leadership as a process or dynamic in complex adaptive systems as well as the adaptive process and the kind of leadership that enable adaptive spaces and ultimately, adaptive organisations.

While each of the panellists brought a different perspective to the conversation, several threads emerged that I will personally be reflecting on for quite some time.

Metabolising complexity

Jennifer used the metaphor of metabolising complexity, with an interesting duality at play. Sometimes, we can perceive complexity as exciting. Think, for example of watching or playing your favourite team sport, engaging in a complex game or enjoying social interactions at a party. In these contexts, we experience uncertainty and ambiguity as exciting and even delightful. However, in other settings, we metabolise uncertainty and ambiguity as threatening. While we experience the same biochemical or somatic responses, like a burst of adrenalin, our meaning-making, the stories we tell ourselves as well as unconscious psychodynamic processes trigger entirely different reactions. It is clear that our responses are not entirely rational. This happens to all of us, and it calls on leaders to learn to become curious about their reactions and build their capacity to respond in more useful ways to complexity. In addition, they also need to focus on creating systems that scaffold the ability of others to respond differently to complexity. Leaders can do this by creating processes, tools, ways of interacting, heuristics etc. that help people metabolise complexity more as a nutrient that enables creativity and less as a poison.

One thing is clear, we need to increase our collective capacity to be in uncertainty and ambiguity without giving in to anxiety and other less helpful responses. If we don’t, those who promise certainty will always have a following. To loosely quote Jennifer: “Leaders are condition creators … I believe everybody can grow the capacity to deal with complexity. One of the core leadership moves required now is to support people to be able to handle complexity in new ways. If everyone is auto-metabolising complexity as a threat, our nervous system responds by looking for certainty. When that happens, we create reactive systems where we choose leaders who tell us things that may not be true, but the false certainty allows our nervous systems to relax. We end up placing our trust in dangerous places.”

What is described above seems to be the work of Enabling Leadership.

Enabling leadership and adaptive responses

Enabling leaders engage emergence without falling into the mind traps of simple stories, control and the need to know or be right. They also don’t deny the complexity. Instead, they are able to engage it in generative ways that enable adaptive responses.

Mary gave an excellent description of Enabling Leadership and the process needed to nurture it in organisations –

It starts with normalising complexity and helping people understand that complexity is (and always has been) all around us and that it is not going away. Once we accept that, we can learn how to discern when we are dealing with something complex vs something ordered and the new approaches we need to adopt. (This is where the Cynefin framework is useful)

Ordered responses normally stamp out ambiguity, tension and difference in an effort to create certainty and stability. In complexity, these ordered responses are detrimental as they simply defer the complexity, create unintended consequences and reduce the overall fitness or resilience of the system. Instead, we need adaptive responses, and the task of enabling leadership is to create the conditions for adaptive responses to occur. Mary calls this adaptive space, and it is created in a dynamic between two processes: conflicting and connecting.

When a system experiences pressure to change (normally triggered by the external context), this pressure creates tension in the system: opposing forces of a push for novelty and a pull towards stability. Whereas an ordered response will attempt to stamp out this tension, an adaptive response allows the system to feel the pressure, experience the tension and engage it productively. This process is called Conflicting, allowing difference and diversity of perspectives to conflict. Conflicting alone doesn’t lead to change. The second process in an adaptive response is Connecting, finding ways to connect across the differences, enabling the generative connections to occur so that something new can emerge. The third part of the process (and this is where it often fails) is to figure out how to introduce the emergent novelty into the ordered or operational system in a way that it can be accommodated and integrated as new order.

Mary used the Arab Spring, and in particular, the revolution in Egypt as an example of where the adaptive process didn’t lead to positive change. No one had thought about what comes after the revolution. The emergent potential created by the conflicting and connecting didn’t find fertile soil. Contrast that with the Black Lives Matter protests currently occurring in the US. We are seeing real change happening on multiple levels because people have been thinking about and even planning for the systemic changes they were hoping to see for a very long time. While this is still unfolding and we cannot predict the outcome, the novelty created by the conflicting and connecting processes seem to be finding ways into formal systems, especially at local level.

Authority and boundaries

Authority is a key aspect of leadership. There is formal authority, situated in roles and the hierarchy, and there is the ability of individuals and groups to self-authorise. We can see for example in the responses of various governments to the pandemic an interesting interplay between these. Formal authority is needed to implement draconian constraints like lockdowns. That strips individuals of their freedom, but at the same time, those rigid boundaries creates certainty and a degree of comfort. As lockdowns ease, governments are inviting people to exercise their own authority and judgment, to set and maintain our own boundaries. Dynamics emerge between the constraints and boundaries set by formal authority structures and how people choose to take up their own authority within those constraints. In particular, whereas the lifting of the rigid constraints should have been a happy occurrence instead it is creating anxiety for many as we leave the imposed certainty of our homes.

Boundaries are vital in human systems and they are so ubiquitous that we often don’t even notice them. Tavistock group relations processes work with a couple of key boundaries: time, place and task. I am observing in my interactions with clients, and also in my own life the impact of the pandemic on time and space boundaries. Most of us need to navigate the complexity of human interaction in purely virtual spaces now.

This falling away of physical boundaries has also led to the erosion of time boundaries. One day flows into the next. We have lost the routines and rhythms that enabled us to switch identity and role, we don’t even have the physical change of walking between meeting rooms or commuting to work. People burn out from working spending long hours in back to back Zoom calls. Those who manage to navigate this best seem to be emphasising the Task boundary. Some might call this purpose, why we do what we do. This situation is not sustainable, and systems are often not set up in ways where individuals feel safe to assert their own authority to re-establish boundaries.

Eliat emphasized that a crucial role of leadership in these COVID times is to establish firm, healthy boundaries with humility and even tenderness, and in ways that acknowledge our interdependence on others.

Complexity is messy and entangled, filled with tensions, dualities and ambiguity. There is always, simultaneously the possibility for creativity and destruction. Complexity invites us to engage with risk, and when we can do so in generative ways we can create an abundance of opportunity. But if anxiety sets in, we lose our ability to imagine, we become very concrete in our thinking, and we fall into a scarcity paradigm. Leaders can create and shape expansive environments that support experimentation, bring out the best in others and unleash a collective spirit of leadership, or they can create diminishing environments that reduce possibility, create competition and deauthorise others. A crucial part of our work is to enable leaders to navigate this ambiguity and grow in their capacity to do the former.

This was a vibrant and productive conversation, and it is impossible to do it justice in a short post. Please take the time to listen to the recording. Premium Members can view the recording in Our Haunt.

Jennifer’s closing statement perfectly summarises the spirit of the conversation, so I thought I’d quote it here verbatim:

“… in a world that is so increasingly interconnected, that interconnectivity along with the speed of information flows create what I think of as a world where our old stories that held at bay the complexity that we used to have, those old stories no longer hold at bay the complexity. In many ways, the stories are shattering as the interconnectivity is developing. And I’m really hopeful in this moment that we are going to be able to tell new stories, we are going to be able to come up with new narratives. That we are going to be able to reach across the polarising, dividing narratives that we have so far held. I think of these as simple stories.

Which is what humans have relied on, it’s what our psychobiology leans into, it’s what our bodies automatically generates for us. And with everything becoming more visible to us; with the fault lines in those stories more apparent in very tangible, indisputable ways right now, I think it is the moment for us to collectively be able to write a new story that holds and shapes what’s possible for us as a human race. That reconnects us to ourselves, our bodies, our dreams, our hopes, and to each other and the ways that we are so similar. And then to the threads of the natural world and the way we are threaded through with our context. That we are not separate from, we are OF our contexts. And I think this moment stands at a precipice, I think that we could go either way here. And so it is my hope that everybody that has come to have this conversation, you at Cognitive Edge and all the extraordinary work that you and Dave are doing, everybody who is here, Mary and her work, Eliat and her work, me and my work, that we are all sort of coaxing and nurturing the birth of not just a new story but a new capacity for telling more complex stories and for living our way into them. This is what makes me hopeful about this moment.”

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels