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Solving complex problems requires a blend of qualities.

Leaders need the curiosity to untangle the variables, the persistence to keep trying, and the openness to change beliefs and strategies as answers emerge from the chaos.

But those qualities will only take leaders so far.

They’ll also need to be great listeners and engaging leaders, so that they gather information from stakeholders and team members. They’ll need to be systems thinkers with a global mindset.

Even if leaders usually demonstrate those important qualities, when problems seem too complex to solve they may be tempted to use ineffective approaches to gain a sense of control.

Facing increasing complexity, they may revert to negative patterns instead of adapting to change. I think we’ve probably all done this when we’re stressed – as leaders or even as parents – becoming more inflexible and demanding that things go a certain way.

“What we see in our data over and over again is that when faced with complexity, the natural proclivity of people and organizations is to respond with order—to turn to hierarchical approaches of leading and managing change top-down.”

MaryUhl-Bien and Michael Arena, in their article “Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability

What happens when leaders fail to notice that they are “taking control” instead of influencing and engaging?

They de-motivate teams of highly talented people trying to stay on the cutting edge of an industry. That de-motivation can lead to a spiraling decline in important organizational metrics.

“Being in control” is an illusion

While it may provide the illusion of control, controlling or top-down leadership doesn’t invite organic information sharing or encourage rapid adaptation.

Both are needed for survival in today’s evolving global marketplace.

Why do we sometimes react to complexity by trying to create the illusion of order? How does that impact talented workers? Share your thoughts below.


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