6 Must-Know Strategies for Embracing Complexity



Well, welcome to October and for me, welcome to fall allergies. If I sounded a little funky, that’s the reason why.

Hey, listen, I want to be able to talk about complexity. You know, we don’t give enough credence to complexity and our ability to embrace it. This week’s episode is [called] The 6 must-know strategies for embracing complexity. Complexity is something that we tend not to embrace. In fact, we shy away from it. As we grew up, we learn to simplify everything that we possibly can. We look in terms of black and white [without] having an appreciation for the shades of gray that’s in between.

This type of thinking causes us to have a very narrowed view. In fact, there’s a term for this type of thinking and it’s called Either/Or Thinking. With Either/Or Thinking we are constrained with either and or. It’s either this or it is that! It either is or it isn’t! Either black or it’s white!

This thinking has its place and it’s very functional in certain areas. But as we look at the human dynamic and the human experience and the fullness as it is to engage in this world, Either/Or Thinking has its limitations. It’s is too restrictive to deal with all the complexities that we have to hold as human beings. Especially as change agents where we are here to help embrace the transformation and evolution and the development of individuals.

So if Either/Or Thinking is too constrained then what is more embracing?

Before we even go there, let me give you an example of what I mean by Either/Or Thinking. The question becomes, “Which one is more important: inhaling or exhaling?” Now, as much as you want to be able to figure out which one is more important, I don’t care how you slice it, they are both critically important for your survival; for the function of breathing. You need both inhaling and exhaling.

So if you apply Either/Or Thinking here, the result is that you don’t have the opportunity nor the time to think about the question because you would have a limited capacity to be able to either inhale or exhale and not do one or the other. That’s exactly what I mean by either or thinking – it limits our ability to embrace polarities. Inhale and exhale is a polarity.

The options that we have available to us then is Both/And Thinking. If we’re going to look at polarities, then a polarity of Either/Or Thinking is Both/And Thinking. In order to function as openly and embracingly as we can in this human experience [we need Both/Anding Thinking]. It opens us up, it’s more inclusive, it’s more inquisitive, it gives us the ability for further options, options that are not available to us in Either/Or Thinking.

There is a term that the U.S. Army War College came up with called VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. This was a means in the late 1980s to describe the world that has emerged. Certainly, in the 2020s, we have fully embraced such an environment where we have disruptions of technology that’s doing such a number on the world. And in that, we have to be able to embrace and have an appreciation to now embrace complexity as we’ve never done before in our human history.

When, when we were growing up, we learned how to simplify things with Either/Or Thinking, but because we did that, that didn’t cause the complexity to go away. As an example, as an adult male, you have a spouse, you have children, you are a father, you are a role model. You are a husband. You are a professional. You are a change agent. You are a coach. You are an educator. We hold many roles. I can’t simplify myself to be this one thing. Yet, we were taught to simplify ourselves into be one thing…to be determined as one thing. We are able to hold more complexity than we often even realize. And in that complexity, we can now embrace the fullness of who we are. In complexity, we can embrace and have a more open and inclusive understanding of the perspectives of the world around us. See, with Both/And Thinking as well as Either/Or Thinking we have more perspectives that we can hold and in doing so it becomes more of a challenge. We’re moving from a simple view of the world to a more embracing, more complex view of the world.

When we’re in this space, we need to be able to learn how to deal with it. This requires more mature thinking, a more mature process to be able to hold polarities. There are six strategies I want to be able to share with you right now on being able to hold these complexities.

#1: The first one is Surrender the Need for Control. See in Either/Or Thinking we have a clear understanding of the options before us and therefore we have an ability to control. But when you have Both/And Thinking, when you’re able to embrace the complexity, that’s when you don’t have so much of a clear understanding of all the options because the options are infinite and therefore we have to surrender the need for control.

#2: Which brings me to what we need to come to understand is there are Temporary Truths, meaning that in the moment, this thing may be true but in the next moment it may have altered and shifted and what was true no longer is. Now, in the present, is a truth that we hold. This thought [process] embraces development and evolution. So to say that there is only one truth and forever constant means that there is no growth and development in our understanding. You see when we are able to embrace temporary truths, that means that we understand and we have an appreciation for our growth and development and evolution. Knowing that we will change over time.

#3: Next is that we have to Embrace Diversity. Now certainly when [diversity] comes up it is usually around racial diversity and that is also true – we need to embrace diversity – but what I’m also talked talking about is every level of diversity. I’m also talking about diversity of thought, diversity of being, diversity of options.

When we are embracing complexity, we therefore also have to embrace all of the perspectives, all of the options that come with it. You may have heard the common phrase, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” Now, I’m not sure of all of the ways that you can skin a cat, but certainly, this is a description of the multiple roads that you can take in order to get to the same end result.

#4: Trade Assurance for Flexibility. In multiple options, there is less assurance. But in order to embrace in a whole complexity, we need to have a counter to the lack of assurance and the counter to or the polarity of that is flexibility. Flexibility gives us the necessary amount of [room] to move around in the, in the situation, in the circumstances, in an environment to embrace all of the options that are available and figuring out which option is best in the moment that you need to make the decision.

#5: Which brings us to Embracing Systems Thinking. This is quite noticeable in technology: in the past when we were able to look within the small confines of our system/organization/being we were ok. What systems thinking says, is no longer can you look at just your small piece of the pie, but you need to look at the larger part of the entire pie and how this small piece affects the overall.

One of the better examples that I have of this is in a traditional school system in the United States. The United States has these subjects and each of those subjects are taught specific within a silo and there is no integration across the whole. What this means is that if I’m teaching mathematics or science or history, I almost always teach them within those silos. But what if we can then take this, this mathematical thing that we are teaching and we can embrace it across history and science?

When we’re able to integrate across the system we can embrace the whole in order to get a better result and a better understanding and appreciation for how this small part affects the greater whole.

#6: The most powerful strategy is Look As versus Looking At. When we Look As we are putting our feet into the shoes of the other person and we are taking on empathy and having an understanding and appreciation and a perspective from their vantage point.

When we Look At, it is as if we’re looking through a microscope and we are observing from afar. In doing so we’re providing and passing judgments. We have no appreciation for Looking As the individual, as the organization, as the entity, and being able to have an appreciation for understanding and empathy of what they are going through, what is happening.

When we’re able to Look As instead of Looking As, it opens up our ability to handle and appreciate the complexity that’s going on instead of Looking At from a judgment perspective which is only a single vantage point of our own. When we’re able to truly put our feet into the shoes of others and I have an understanding and appreciation for what they’re going through, not only does it give us empathy, but it also opens up our perspective. It gives us more inclusiveness and inclusion and it allows us to ask more questions. And in doing so, learning more.

These are the six strategies for embracing and dealing with complexity. The latter being one of the more important ones I believe that you can embrace and hold today.


Leadership: Born or the Fires of Experience

Are leaders born with the divine mantle of excellence or are they forged through the fires of experience?

I once had someone tell me that we are all leaders. And I believed that until I began to operate in and delve into the study of leadership. I believe that we all have the potential to be leaders however we are all not divinely given nor have the fortitude to develop quality leadership traits. The act of leading is hard work and it is not for everyone.

So if not by divine creation or cultivated by difficult experiences, how does one become a leader? Better yet, which of the countless leadership styles is the divine selection?

First, this is an AND issue verse an OR issue. It isn’t one or the other but both. In a world where we focus on one or the other we often do not realize that opposites are often complementary. More on this later. For now, let’s look at leadership styles prominent in organizations based on the book, Managing for Excellence by David Bradford and Allen Cohen.

Leader as Expert:

There are many people who became leaders because they were experts in their field. Some of the reasons for their rise to leadership could have been because they were there the longest, best at their craft, astute problem solver, and they understood their domain of knowledge. In traditional organizations, these experts are often “rewarded” with management responsibilities and leadership expectations. This is because traditional organizations still view the ladder as the only means of career advancement.

The largest drawback of leading as the expert is that you are not leading at all. The direct reports to this style of leader are limited in their learning and growth as the work itself is mostly centralized in the leader. In this leadership style, we see the leader’s worth tied to being the one solving the problems and answering the questions. This should be of no surprise since these were the very capabilities that enabled them to move up the ladder.

Unfortunately, this style lends itself to being great at dealing with the technical factors of an organization but suboptimal at dealing with the human factors.

Leader as Conductor:

If you could, for a moment, imagine an orchestra conductor magically waving their stick to make harmonious music from various instruments that would otherwise sound like a train wreck. This single person provides much value in orchestrating the various silos in an organization into a harmonious whole. This conductor leadership style is also prevalent in organizations and it is often the evolution from leading as an expert.

This too has drawbacks. Chiefly, this style of leadership uses systems and procedures to get things done. These systems and procedures are used as crutches for accomplishment. This style also ‘pigeon holes’ direct reports into the silos they reside in which ultimately narrow’s the scope of their development. Additionally, when the conductor is busy conducting it is difficult to see how the forest is being affected. In this style, we see the conductor is busy wrapping their arms around everything – working hard to keep everything from falling apart.

Unfortunately, this reduces the ability to realize the full potential of the leader themselves, the team as a whole, and the work.

Leader as Developer (of people):

The two previous leadership styles could be coined as ‘heroic leadership’. They are the knights in shining armor saving the less capable. The hallmark of Leader as Developer is that leaders who adopt this leadership style create a safe environment for learning (which also means failures), growth and mutual influence. Work here is viewed as the development of other’s abilities. What this does is causes the team or organization to be responsible for the success of its accomplishments, not a lone leader.

Often in organizational contexts, we see the responsibility of the work separate from those accountable for the work. Inevitably, the finger-pointing occurs because when things don’t go right. When a leader creates a safe environment, we see responsibility and accountability occurring in the same place as the work.

A great example of this is high functioning agile development teams. Part of the success of these teams is the environment the leader creates, nurtures, and matures. It is the focus on the people and their development knowing that the outcome will be better work solutions. The alternative (Leader as an Expect and Conductor) causes a leader to focus on the work to the determent of the people.

As a Developer (of people) we see two general benefits of this leadership style. Increased engagement and motivation and it expands the ability to get things done. Yet, this style has its drawbacks as well (everything does). The leader must create adaptive-harmony between the development of people and work productivity. There will be times where the mission takes precedence and the flexibility of the team/organization will have to be measured against it. These instances take true leadership and already having an environment that fosters growth will pay significant dividends.

So regardless of a divine mantle, an iron-forged experience or musically talented leadership style, it is critical that organizations take a systematic look at leadership development as a core business function comparable with Sales or Customer Service, instead of an often obscure HR function. Anything less doesn’t account for the impact and importance that talented leadership plays on the organization’s ROI.