A Call for the Reluctant Leader: How Do You Address Complex Organisational Problems?
By Miles Hayman
I am a fan of the British Army. I think it is an awesome organisation. I also think it is full of outstanding leaders practising their craft admirably, often in exceptionally difficult conditions. Confront us with crises, especially on operations and we will come together; we see through the fog of ambiguity to achieve the best possible outcomes within a pressured timeframe. Throw us a tricky, complicated problem and we will use our estimate to give structure and process to a well-oiled staff machine. We take direction, work together and come up with a coordinated and synchronised plan.
We’re good at this stuff – leading in crises and leading through the execution of well-crafted plans is what we do. And we do it really well. Until very recently our preferred definition for leadership was ‘…the projection of character and intellect to inspire others to do what is required of them through a combination of example, persuasion and compulsion.’ I would say the definition fits pretty well both with 150 years of leadership theory and with the challenging environment I have described above. So far, so good.
But here is the thing: there is a different type of leadership challenge that we are really poor at addressing. And, for some, it is the defining leadership challenge of our age. This article tries to provide a bit of food for thought about what this leadership challenge is and what we might be able to do about it.
What do we do with a really knotty, intractable problem? A problem that is not defined by an overriding time pressure to act and also not solvable with a well-crafted plan. Put simply, we almost always treat it in a way that we are both comfortable with and structured for. We might treat it as a crisis. Typically, this means kicking the problem into the long grass long enough for the problem to get really angry or it means adjusting the timeline and calling for decisive and immediate action upfront.
Alternatively, we can unleash our well-oiled planning machine and deliver a rather elegant and synchronised plan of action (with the end state sitting beautifully at the end of it, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). Both options produce lots of heat and action and ‘deliverables’ and so we feel good about getting on with it. The trouble emerges after our attention moves to the next challenge; the underlying problem is still there because it has not really been addressed.
In academic literature, these knotty, intractable problems are described variously as complex, ambiguous, wicked or adaptive. For consistency, I shall use the term complex throughout this article. Both military publications and academic literature support the notion that complex organisational problems are becoming increasingly common. Complex problemsare not defined by an over-riding time-critical imperative for immediate action. They are not reducible because they mutate and change over time. They cannot be sliced up, sequenced and solved with objective, technical planning processes. They may well also contain competing views about the nature of the problem. Also, they typically contain multiple stakeholders who are likely to diverge in their perceptions of acceptable solutions.
Climate change is a good example of a societal level complex problem. Addressing substance misuse is applicable to both civil society and the military. Substance misuse is not at all complex in terms of clarity and agreement of desired outcome – we want it to stop. The complexity and ambiguity come from the how on earth we achieve that outcome. Zero tolerance (or very close to it) within the army achieves a solution on paper, but I would suggest that in practice we are masking the problem and failing to put the true causes at the heart of our thinking. Within the military, developing the appropriate force capability to meet future threats is another good example.
Of course, organisational level problems rarely conform to neat labels. Complex problems may well contain linear elements, interspersed with crises. Complicated problems may be extremely challenging and technical, requiring deep subject matter expertise, but they are essentially reducible. They can be objectively sliced up and solved with the right planning and execution. Air traffic control is perhaps a good civilian example. A large-scale non-operational logistic move is a good military example.
Crises may contain elements of complexity and ambiguity. However, these elements are overshadowed by an over-riding time-critical requirement for near immediate, decisive action. An enemy ambush is a good example of an operational crisis. An unexpected front-page headline that generates a highly time sensitive demand for information is an example of a crisis in a staff working context. The Army’s contribution in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 are good examples of environmental contexts that contained overlapping and interconnected complex, linear and crises type problems for the British Army.
So where does good leading and leadership feature in all this?
Purposeful human endeavour, often referred to as agency in academic literature, still matters. Nearly everything we know to be true about leadership remains relevant. What we know is relevant both to what we do – leading in crises and executing plans – and also to 150 years of leadership writing. From Thomas Carlyle in the mid nineteenth century, to Bernard Bass in the later part of the twentieth century, ideas about leadership have been based on a key premise. Certain individuals – let us call them leaders – do things, bound in a relationship with other individuals – let us call them followers – to achieve things.
This relationship was described as the leadership tripod by Bennis. There are dozens of different models and theories of course and there is no universally agreed way to describe it. I like the way that Keith Grint tackles it in Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, when he refers to the ebb and flow of normative and rational schools of thought. Normative schools focus on qualities in people (i.e. trait theories, transformational, charismatic and authentic schools); and rational schools focus on scientific or objective skill sets required to practice effectively (i.e. functional, situational and contingency schools). But what they literally all have in common is they conform to the leadership tripod. They privilege some form of ‘uber’ person who sits comfortably at the top of a tripod that binds others (the led) and their coordinated actions together in a relationship.
My perception is that the army is pretty comfortable with this conception of leadership. And let us face it, for crises and for complicated problems, especially at the most adversarial end of the spectrum, this type of leadership dynamic is probably as fit for purpose as it ever was.
The problem is, this tripod leadership dynamic is not fit for purpose when confronting the complex problems.
A leader-led organisation
According to literature, complex problems are unlikely to be solved with traditional leader-led organisational practice. By organisational practice, I simply mean the traditional way people do things and the practices and procedures used to get things done. As Heifetz et al observed, “because the problem lies in the people, the solution lies in them, too.” And this premise is supported in military doctrinal thinking. Joint Concept Note 2/17, which considers future command and control states, “leaders who try to impose order on complexity are likely to fail” (JCN 2/17, p.48).
The same publication also draws attention to the Cynefin framework which distinguishes between complicated and complex problems. According to JCN 2/17, complicated problems are suited to a ‘sense – analyse – respond’ approach whereas complex problems are suited to a ‘probe – sense – respond’ approach. This is more than a nuanced and semantic argument; this is a different approach to addressing a problem. The complicated approach is based on objective, reducible evidence and the complex approach is based on agility and learning from actions. And yet, arguably a decisive, leader-led response is exactly what we continue to demand from our leaders, however complex the problem.
My research has found that existing leadership theories fall short in their explanations about how leaders should behave in the face of complexity. Traditional theories remain focused on heroic individualistic conceptions of agency – find or build an uber person to take their place at the top of the tripod. Recent, collaborative theories adopt a utopian view of collective agency – assuming we can wish away the constraining influences of hierarchy, bureaucracy and organisational practice.
My research has applied an institutional lens to organisational leadership. An institutional lens considers three forces that influence organisations and the individuals within them to behave in particular ways. Regulatory, normative and cognitive experiences all play a part in influencing organisations. Regulatory forces are the perceived external constraints and the organisational rule book that is followed. The label normative applies to ‘how things are done around here’, the implicit practices that we carry out. Cognitive forces are basically an individual movie compilation of your experiences – career-based or otherwise – that help you build your own mental models of what looks good. These forces result in behaviours becoming deeply embedded over time.
The findings from a review of literature suggest that dominant institutional forces profoundly affect the leadership dynamic within organisational settings. These forces promote ‘leader actions’ aligned to individual, decisive, time-sensitive decision-making. When combined with agentic preferences for demonstrating individual leader strength and decisiveness, problems can only really be framed in one of two ways. The problem can be framed for clarity (with linear paths to solutions), or crises (with a perceived time-critical requirement for immediate action). It is an issue because these behaviours act as a powerful constraining influence on the type of collaborative organisational leadership required to address complex problems. Grint referred to this as ‘the irony of leadership’ suggesting that when a collaborative approach is needed most it is least likely to be employed.
We are structured effectively and well trained for much of what we need to do as an organisation – to thrive in demanding and time critical conditions, in crises, and produce well planned, synchronised and executed activity for some really complicated problems. However, if we are to thrive in the 21st century, we need to find ways that we can be effective when addressing complex problems. I know there are lots of good initiatives going on out there but from where I am sitting, I sense that the forces that legitimize the leader behaviours that result in linear plan or crisis response remain overwhelmingly strong.
A call for the reluctant leader?
This brief article is not about ‘solving’ the issue, it is about calling it out. I am certain that continuing to think about and researching it is worthwhile and I would argue that the problem of developing effective leader behaviours in the face of complex problems is one of the defining challenges for our organisation. Institutional theory suggests that we reproduce behaviours that maintain the legitimacy of what we recognise as effective action. If one considers this in relation to our conceptions of what good leadership looks like it is unsurprising that we find it difficult to think about effective leading in terms of collaboration, compromise, uncertainty and failure as the necessarily winding route to clumsy solutions. It is a really tricky one though because everything we already know about leading matters. We need to behave differently as leaders in the face of complexity without losing the ability to do the stuff we are already really good at – thriving in crises and crunching through the difficult, complicated problems. It is just that the type of leading required to tackle complex problems requires additional and genuinely different leader behaviours.
Calling out complexity is not an excuse for inaction. Sitting back and passively admiring the problem is not going to cut it. You still need to be awesome, inspiring and technically skilled. It is just that your focus of effort is aligned differently. You are thinking about connections, collaborations, compromises and openness to uncertainty. You are creating safe spaces for teams to try new ideas without the promise of guaranteed benefits hardwired into the plan. You are energised and excited by what you learn from the wrong turns and dead ends because it generates unexpected new opportunities. You are still awesome…but being in the spotlight and singled out from the collaborative efforts could not be further from your mind. In the face of complex problems, you are reluctant to conform to the traditional leader stereotypes. In fact, let us call it that, in the face of complex problems, you are the reluctant leader. Good luck!
If you are interested in how you can look at complex organisational problems in a new light, check out Matt Offord’s thoughts in Start With Another Narrative: Leadership for the Information Age.