Two recent conversations I had highlighted the difference between the traditional management thinking and leadership through a Complexity Lens …

The conversations were with top leaders in their organizations. The leaders were both women, they were roughly the same age, and they were both living in the southwestern United States and both highly educated and experienced in business. I mention this to demonstrate that there were no immediate demographic differences that affected their thinking. One was the head of the largest regional division of a global company while the other was the head of technology for a mid-sized regional organization. The revenue level for both companies was also similar, around $200 million with perhaps a 15% spread between them. The key difference between the leaders, in this context, was their approach to leadership and how they harnessed the energy of their subordinates.

The conversation with the regional leader was about an analyst who showed initiative toward the company’s digital marketing strategy. The regional office had previously created and executed the digital plan but, due to resource constraints, the function was now centralized in the global HDQ. Over the first six months of the new arrangement, the results were good globally but had fallen off in the region. Showing great concern, the analyst decided to look into the trends herself. She took home the data and worked on it during her spare time. Once she believed she had found the cause of the problem, she reported it to her supervisor who informed the leader. The reaction of the leader was not about the findings but about the analyst. She wanted to know why the analyst was bothering to do this work? Clearly, it was not in her job description and there were people paid a lot of money to do this analysis at the headquarters. She ended by stating that the analyst should focus on her role. The organization had plenty of work for her to do without this distraction. The leader was proud of the fact that she had enforced this discipline.

The discussion with the technology leader was about a special program she had instituted. She tasked all the managers in her group to develop relationships across the organization. She wanted them all to get to know the people in marketing, operations, sales, etc. and understand each of their businesses as best they could. This program was about more than creating goodwill though. It was a search mission. They were tasked to discover opportunities and issues then think of ways to help through technological improvements. She did not send them out with a survey or a script but simply to establish a network, create trust, and develop solutions wherever they found opportunities. The overriding idea was that by finding the opportunities and proactively resolving them, they would eliminate larger problems over time. At the same time, she believed she was creating a stimulating environment for the team members and building their competencies.


I cannot say I understand enough about these two organizations to know which of these people is more effective as a leader. What is important is that there are clearly two distinct approaches at play here. One is about setting constraints and limits while the other is about removing obstacles and encouraging creativity. One is about exerting control and the other is about creating emergent behavior. Based on these two discussions, I know which of these leaders I would put my money on to run a complex organization and train future leaders.

I have consolidated a quick comparison guide looking at some of the key differences between leaders who hold a traditional mindset and those who utilize the Complexity Lens. This is not original but a compilation based on several sources on this topic, not the least of which is the book, Organize for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging and his x-theory/y-theory construct. Others include the VUCA command comparison and several general descriptions available in multiple books on the subject.

One should not think of these as two buckets of classification, but as points on a continuum. None of us are fully one or the other but somewhere in the middle and evolving. Even as I study this topic and try to be an evolved leader, I often find myself reverting to the traditional mindset. When things get challenging, I can’t help but think “Can’t people just do what I tell them?” or “Why do I have to deal with so many questions?” or “Why can’t people just do their jobs?” When I hire people, I find myself considering whether the person is a good “soldier” who will carry out orders. As an employee, I find that I sometimes just want to be told what to do. I wish I could just follow a leader and not have to think so much. It is a difficult transition to make.

In my experience, there are people who are more naturally capable of viewing things through a Complexity Lens. They tend to be highly inquisitive and continuously seek out new experiences. They will likely have keen interests in biology, physics, history and many other topics; they will draw lessons from these interests to use in business. They are often well traveled and culturally aware, and they are able to form real, deep relationships. Most of all, they have likely been through major changes in their life, both professionally and personally, and rose to meet these challenges.

One key trait of a good leader in a complex organization is the realization that they cannot go it alone, that distributed intelligence is exponentially greater than centralized intelligence. The people at the top must be willing to suspend ego and be brave enough to seed the organization with leaders who also exhibit these traits then give them the room to maneuver.

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