Embracing Complexity

Mehreen Faruqi, Embracing Complexity to Enable Change, Environmental Leadership: A Reference Handbook, Sage 2012

This chapter forms part of a larger handbook on environmental leadership released this year, but many of the points Faruqi makes are equally applicable to the social sector.

She starts with an idea shared by all systems thinkers (and many leaders): that the failure to systematically address big issues (or ‘wicked’ problems) is due to mismatches between problems and solutions. As she puts it, ‘attempts to solve complex problems are based on traditional simplistic notions of fixing systems rather than addressing underlying root causes’. It’s not difficult to think of numerous attempts to ‘fix’ social issues like homelessness or the ‘drug problem’ that have failed and in some cases made the situation worse.

Such problems have, among other things, multiple causes and complex interdependencies; they occur at local, regional, and global levels; contain uncertainties and risks requiring trade-offs, and embody new moral dimensions and multiple values. All of which make them features of complex adaptive systems, Faruqi argues. Yet leaders (and some consultants!) often approach such problems in a simple, mechanistic fashion.

Faruqi calls for a new approach to leadership, one that is ‘adaptive, flexible, and recognises the importance of relationships, networks and collaboration as keys to success’. This idea is shared by many systems thinkers – one that seems simple in principle, but in practice is more messy and time-consuming than many leaders would like. Traditional, hierarchical and ‘expert-led’ leadership is simply insufficient to deal with the complex systemic problems we face in the 21st century. When there are multiple scenarios and many possible, futures’, a single heroic leader working through their positional authority to define problems and come up with solutions on their own is simply insufficient.

This point is supported by many contemporary leadership scholars, where a common thread running through complexity leadership is the need to take into account multiple stakeholders, often conflicting values, and complex trade-offs. All within an environment that is constantly changing and unpredictable. If we think of leadership as a process, rather than a person, it becomes clear that leadership can, and should, exist anywhere in an Organisation. Faruqi argues that this distributed or ‘relational’ way of thinking about leadership means that more people develop a sense of responsibility and ownership, ‘creating alignment and generating commitment’. This may mean a different kind of leadership appointment – openness to change, tolerance of ambiguity and relational skills are particularly valuable.

This chapter provides a useful way forward for those interested in translating systems thinking to leadership development. If we think of leadership in terms of building leadership capacity throughout an organisation, rather than picking the right leaders, we are more likely to develop the kind of adaptive, learning cultures necessary for embracing 21st Century complexity.

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