Complexity and Leadership
I have been interested in the impacts of complexity on leadership for many years. One of the CEOs interviewed in the 2010 IBM CEO study, Capitalizing on Complexity, stated:“The complexity our organization will have to master over the next five years is off the charts — a 100 on your scale from 1 to 5.” Complexity is accelerating, and it requires different leadership capabilities than the simple systems and mechanistic models of the past.
The September 2011 Harvard Business Review focused on complexity, featuring the article “Learning to Live with Complexity”. According to authors Sargut and McGrath, complexity arises from 3 factors: multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity. And complexity can lead to unintended consequences—unforeseen, unsuspected results that occur because things are interconnected, interdependent, and unpredictable. Avoiding unintended consequences is impossible, but leading knowing unintended consequences are possible and probable is very helpful.
Complexity is Stressful
Leaders struggle to manage complex systems, and the cognitive toll it takes on leaders who are trained and educated to know the right answers, understand the big picture, and have the best solutions is not to be underestimated. Leaders have to draw upon multiple voices and diverse perspectives to see and sense into complex systems. Complexity creates individual and collective stress, because we can’t see what’s coming, and we often don’t know what to do, but can’t admit it.
Brain Science Illuminates the Impacts of Stress
Here’s where my interest in brain science comes in handy. I want to help leaders evolve, and the way the brain works is very helpful for enhancing leadership capabilities. Complexity is stressful in itself, and it creates additional stress when we have both internal and external expectations to show up, look good, and act smart.
The Prefrontal Cortex: Our Thinking Cap
Stress has tremendous impacts on our brains and bodies. In addition to the impacts of stress on our bodies, stress also can shut off access to our prefrontal cortex—the most needed part of our brains when we have to analyze deeply, think strategically, or make adaptive decisions. The prefrontal cortex is our “thinking cap,” and without its analytical and meaning-making capabilities, we are stuck in stress responses that can’t assess the needs of any situation accurately.
When we experience stress, we often misinterpret what is going on. We think there is danger, and it is an unconscious reaction to the complexity of the situation. If the stress is strong enough, we choose unconscious and maladapted responses, such as flight, fight, freeze, or submit. When we respond in this way, we lose our higher-level thinking.
Be Curious, Pay Attention, and Breathe
What we need to do is to step back and analyze the current situation to understand more clearly what is going on; what is needed is to open up to other perspectives, to become curious about how others are seeing the situation. We have to practice being aware of our internal experience so we can understand our flow of thoughts and emotions so they don’t trigger us into unconsciousness. Working with our natural curiosity, activating our awareness of the present, and relaxing by breathing deeply are simple and useful vehicles for leaning into complexity and engaging the best of our brain power.