4/1 – Leadership and Complexity

Mike Kitson

Mike Kitson


Mike Kitson

Mike Kitson

“IT is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife;” so writes Jane Austin at the start of Pride and Prejudice.  In 1813 when this was first published there were many “truths” that would have been “universally acknowledged” as the philosophy of the age was generally centred on the premise that the world was pretty well ordered – as Robert Browning summarised in 1841 in “Pippa Passes”: “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”

However fast forward to the year 2014 and we find that the post-modern, post-structuralist, post-most-things, world in which we live is described far better through the apocryphal “ancient” Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times,” this, whilst probably coming from the 1930s rather than Confucius, probably does still sum up today’s world for many people, most of whom would probably agree with the curse part rather than the word “interesting”.

If there are any universal truths these days then one of them is sure to be that the world we are all living and working in  is constantly changing, growing, evolving; and often far faster than many of us are able to keep track of.  We start to get a grip of social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. only to find that younger generations are starting to abandon these for yet newer forms of connectivity.  The world of organisations, business strategies, market segmentations and the like are no different; except that as senior leaders within business, or, like myself, people who are involved in helping develop both current and future generations of senior business leaders, we need to try and understand what is happening – at least the concept if not the fine detail – in order for us all to do what we are employed to do.

This article makes a brave attempt to try and provide some thoughts, ideas and possible solutions about this new world and how current and future leaders need to be in order to have others follow them. The article first tries to briefly explain the difference between Complexity, Chaos and Complication and then attempts to place the concept of Leadership within such an environment, firstly by describing what sort of leadership is necessary within a complex system.  Then the paper proposes some ideas as to how such leadership can be developed and the changes that may be necessary to “traditional” leadership development practice.

In order to try and illustrate some of the points made in this paper I will, at times, use examples from organisations I have worked for and with over the past years; in particular I will use the Water Industry as a prime example, I have worked a lot with managers and leaders within three of the leading UK Water companies over the past four years and this industry provides an excellent case study of a “traditional” business being faced with increased complexity, such that it will fundamentally change how the senior managers within the business lead and manage.  The potential reform of the Water Industry, especially around markets will completely transform the environment within which this industry operates; managers and leaders recruited, trained, developed and experienced in running such businesses within a complicated but closed system will suddenly find themselves thrown into a maelstrom of differing forces, stakeholders, barriers, opportunities and drivers.  Making sense of all of these, whilst moving the business forward, and, delivering excellent service and value for money will place increasing pressure on senior managers, pressures they have not been trained or recruited for.

Complex, Chaotic and Complicated Systems

I will long remember starting a one-day module on “Working in Complexity” by asking the participants, all senior sales managers, to describe how complex their roles were, and being faced with the answer that there was no complexity, they sold the products their company made to retailers who wanted to sell the goods to end users and customers.  I am afraid that the day went downhill fast from there onwards.

What was happening here was the confusion, often made, between complication and complexity, they were right (to a point) their roles, lives and jobs were not complicated, they were senior players in the sales world, had lots of experience and totally knew what they were doing.  We have lived within a complicated world for many many years, we are surrounded by complicated things, most of which we take for granted and hope that there are experts around who understand them when they need mending; however we tend to refer to such people as mechanics rather than leaders; it is this mechanistic outlook that helps to provide a distinction between the three words that get so often confused: Complexity, Chaos and Complication.

The first thing to note here is that we are talking about “systems” – these are a sets of interacting or interdependent components that constitute some form of integrated whole; a whole that we recognise, an organisation for example.

Let us deal with the (ironically) simplest of these terms first – Complication.  We are surrounded by many things that are complicated, I am typing this on a laptop that contains many components, all of which are interlinked, take the case off and I am faced with something that looks complicated, but not Complex.  A complicated system is mechanistic, it has structure, is designed, is predictable (at least to experts – my laptop does appear to have a life of its own sometimes) and controllable.  It may look complicated by such a system is understandable and (when working) does what it says on the tin; if you look at the water or sewage networks in a large town or city, these are complicated to all but the uninitiated; they do not have a life of their own.

Chaotic and Complex systems however, do have lives of their own; by their very nature they are dynamic, however this dynamism is non-linear and so unpredictable when compared with Complicated Systems.  A Chaotic System is one, such as a flock of Starlings in the autumn sky or a shoal of fish, where the long-term behaviour is unpredictable and just examining one part of the system will certainly not indicate the end outcome, or indeed exactly what might happen on the way.  A Chaotic System may have fairly simple rules but are such that these generate complex behaviours – for example in the flock of Starlings all that is happening is that each bird needs to maintain the distance between itself and its neighbours and fly in the average direction that they are flying.  Chaos theory has given us many metaphors that illustrate the principle; chief among these is probably Edwards Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect” – the fluttering of wings in the Amazon affecting weather patterns thousands of miles away.

Out of Chaos Theory came the understanding about Complexity, Complex Systems, and what are known as Complex Adaptive Systems.  Complexity describes the interaction of many parts such that the system itself creates new structures and the non-linearity means that things become emergent as the interactions happen; a Complex System is one that is not describable by a simple rule, the structure exists on many scales and the characteristics are not reducible to only one level of description.  The term Complex Adaptive System is given to a form of system that contains many autonomous parts that self-organise, have individual values that they seek to optimise.  We are surrounded by, and constantly live with and in, Complex Adaptive Systems; example of these include the biosphere, the ecosystem, our brains, our immune systems, the internet, economic markets, organisations, social systems, the list goes on.

Among the determining factors within Complexity and Complex Adaptive Systems is the constant process of emergent change; the replacement of a part within a Complicated System will mean that the system works as before, it is mended and returns back to its former equilibrium.  However the change of a part within a Complex System will lead to a new future, it is irrevocably changed and can never go back to the old equilibrium; this is the same whether a part is changed (such as a person leaving a work team) or a paradigm shifts due to new thought processes or tools being introduced.  The introduction of computers and then the internet has changed the very ways in which we (as social systems – a Complex Adaptive System) live, work and interact.  With a complicated system we can use past and current behaviour to predict future behaviour; unfortunately the same is not true for complex systems – an understanding of the past will not enable you to predict the future.  In a complex system connections happen in unpredictable ways, with unpredictable consequences.

A possible example of this from the Water Industry has been the introduction of Water Meters; introduced as both money and water saving devices, recommended by Ofwat and other regulators as a means of helping customers save money by only paying for the water they use and supported by the Water Companies as a means of helping to save water by helping to reduce leakage and manage supplies more effectively.  What, though, was probably not recognised was the potential effect of changing the paradigm of the end user from that of consumer to that of customer.  A consumer simply uses the end product and by definition tends to be perhaps rather a passive player, on the other hand a customer is a far more dynamic term, and this person makes a choice to purchase; being put in control of their water may mean that customers do decide to save water – and – they might choose, because they can afford to do so and place their priorities in this area, to use more water, perhaps by having power showers or wanting to use their hose pipe on their lawn or car during a period of drought and shortage.

By installing meters the Water Industry has given the customer (someone who traditionally has had no choice) considerable power, something that does not appear to have registered with many of the companies at the moment.  From being passive users householders now have had their mind-sets changed in irrevocable ways; at the moment we may not be able to choose exactly which company delivers our water, or takes away our sewage, however we have permission to think as customers.  Ironically Thames Water uses the statement “If the customer has a choice they would choose Thames” as a way of showing that they have a focus on their customers, but what they haven’t realised is that their bill payers do have choices, the choice to complain about poor service, the choice to demand a better return on their investment (their bill).

As we start to understand and recognise Complex Adaptive Systems we need to start to adopt new behaviours and ways of thinking about them and this has a considerable implication for education and adult organisational development.  Starting to recognise the complexity and adaptation within organisations, and the markets within which they operate, means that the old ways of training and educating leaders and managers needs to change, and change quickly.  This means that leaders and leadership in the future needs to look and feel very different, especially at the senior levels within an organisation.

Adaptive Leadership

The concept of Leadership is complicated, if not chaotic (but not a ‘c’ system); with a single word entry (Leadership) into Google returning “about 136,000,000 results”, and entering the same search term into returning 83,037 results, with 799 having arrived in the past 90 days[i]. All of these books and webpages provide information about how to be a leader, what leadership should be about, examples of good, and bad, leadership and with many of them trying to provide information based on a traditional, linear, view of leadership, organisations and people.

Within such a paradigm leadership is epitomised by the concept of the leader being at the front (indeed some leadership competencies within organisations are called “Leading from the Front”) providing their followers with a shared vision, a goal in which to invest and aspire to; here the leader should be charismatic, visible, orientated towards action, able to influence whilst being able to provide structure and security for their followers.  These concepts are firmly grounded within a mechanistic and bureaucratic framework that may have been applicable to an industrial age but not for the age of knowledge within which we currently abide.  There is a deep correlation in this paradigm between leadership and control – control over both the environment and the people within it.  As we enter 2014 the way that we have viewed, fined and taught/trained leadership at senior levels may now be better suited to those lower down in the organisation, which means that HR and L&D professionals need to reconsider exactly what is needed for those that lead the business.  It could be said that, in the future, what is needed is Leadership, not Leaders.

What the old way of thinking fails to recognise, or acknowledge, is that any, and all, acts of leadership do not occur within a vacuum, rather they occur within a dynamic and complex interplay of numerous interacting forces; what is needed within organisations and social systems in the 21st Century are leaders who are themselves dynamic, decisive and agile (no change there then) but that go beyond that core and who are able to recognise connections between things as well as being able to identify the space that lies in-between, and make use of the that gap; to fully  understand themselves, and their fellow human beings, in all their guises and personalities; and, above all, be open to learning and adaptation.  Only in this way can senior players within organisations start to create the environment within which true leadership can thrive, adapt and develop.

In order to help an organisation, and its people navigate its way successfully through the permanent white water of the 21st Century business world senior managers and business leaders need to be able to do three main things (as well as all the other administrative, bureaucratic and leaderly things):

  • Think in terms of systems
  • Be very self-aware
  • Be able to learn

Systemic and Generative Thinking

Being able to recognise connections and spaces means being able to think in terms of systems and networks rather than in purely linear fashions; for most of us our education and training has led us to think systematically, here we want to break things down to their constituent parts so that we can understand each bit, see where it fits into the whole and where it is in relation to the previous and next step.  Rather adaptive leaders need to be able think systemically to look at things as wholes not parts, to recognise the complexity and interconnectedness between the components of a system.

“A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”[ii]

One way to start to think systemically is to realise that most of the “universal truths” being propounded as the right way are not false, on the contrary the vast majority of them are true – but only partially!  Even leadership theories!  The 83,000 books in Amazon’s warehouse all show a small part of a whole.  One way to start to change one’s thinking on this is to change the lens through which one views such concepts – try starting to ask where a particular theory or model falls in relation to others.

Systems’ thinking also requires ways of looking at problems in different ways – Generative Thinking.  This differs from how we were taught at school to look at problems, there we were encouraged to utilise “convergent thinking” as a means of getting to that one correct answer, although you could get marks for showing your workings provided they indicated that you were on the “right direction”.  Generative thinking, on the other hand does not necessarily provide a “correct” answer, rather it is involved in the generation of original views or multiple solutions to problems.  It begs having open-ended questions at the start; these seek possibilities rather than answers.

Self – Awareness

The concept of Emotional Intelligence has been with us for many years now and unfortunately is often relegated to a box labelled “soft skills” and seen as either a “nice to have” or something to be avoided because it is too “touchy feely” potentially embarrassing, would mean showing weaknesses (or the fact that we are simply human), or that development in this area is so hard to quantify.  However, what is extremely important in the development of leaders who are able to operate effectively within complexity and complex systems is to have a deep awareness of one of the complex systems that impact on all of us – our selves.

I have deliberately written “our selves” as opposed to “ourselves” as part of what makes us so complex as human beings is the interaction between the various “selves” that make up the person acting as leader.  We are not talking about disassociated personality disorder but rather the fact that there are very few of us who are exactly the same at home, at work, with friends, on our own etc.  In each of these situations I may have slightly differing values, beliefs and roles that are brought to bear on whatever I am doing; many of these are unconscious and out of my awareness.

The “self” can be thought of as the internal representation that emerges from our experiences with others – self is therefore always known in relation to others – which may mean that there are as many “selves” as there are interactions.  These all somewhat overlap and get smoothed over with an illusory sense of continuity – “it’s just me!”

So what is needed here is first an understanding of how I, as a leader, am made up; rather than seeking for a “core self” I need to try and identify these factions and start to reconcile the differing composites.  This will lead me to not only better understand myself and what drives me (and why I respond to certain situations in particular ways) and through this to have a far better understanding of all the other human constituents of the various systems I am involved in.  From this perspective an organisation can be viewed as a collective of many selves held within a particular boundary.

Recognising the ever changing mutuality of the world around us, accepting and welcoming the constant regeneration and shifting complexity, and understanding that the same happens for us as people, rather than rejecting and fighting against it, will provide us with a far greater window from which we can view and recognise the complexity of leadership within the 21st Century.  This all requires leaders to begin to explore the “me” and “not me” that happen in their daily experiences, something that requires both interest and deep self-reflection.

The leader who develops this capacity to adapt, to take in and explore these aspects of the self and the whole will be better able to understand the existence and creation of environments within which they, and all the others under their charge, can thrive, learn, grow and prosper.

Openness to Learning

By their very nature complex systems learn and adapt and if we are to try and lead within such complexity then we must do the same.  However this is not the mechanistic, one dimensional, skills learning that we have all been exposed to at school, university and in professional and work based learning and development programmes.  Such learning is designed to move us along a particular pathway (probably predetermined), we are “taught” how to exams, to get credits, grades, pieces of paper that we can put on our wall etc.  very little of this has actually enabled us to cope with the complexity that surrounds us, apart from trying to get us to attempt to reduce it down to its simplest components, i.e. make it seem complicated rather than complex.

Rather than this, the effective leaders of tomorrow, those who can start to think in systems and networks see both the connections and the spaces in between will be experts at learning at far deeper levels and across three distinct areas.

Figure 1 Learning

Figure 1: Learning

As shown in this diagram what is needed is the ability (and willingness) to learn from the past, the present and the future.  Doing this requires three distinct skills:

  • Reflexivity – Understanding the circular relationships between cause and effect that have made us who we are.
  • Focus and Mindfulness – the ability to be in the here and now, to be aware and observe what is all around us
  • Presencing – To sense, to tune in and act from one’s highest future potential – a future that depends on us to bring it into existence.  Presencing blends the words “presence” and “sensing.”

Each of these needs to be employed at three levels of learning:

  • Single Loop Learning – reflecting on our actions or experiences, but not on the deep assumptions that govern them
  • Double Loop Learning – learning that goes beyond the single loop and reflects on the governing variables and deep assumptions that guide the normal experiential learning process
  • Triple Loop Learning – reflecting on what these rules and assumptions mean for us, contextualising them and asking “what do they say about me as a human and a leader?”

Developing Adaptive Leaders

All of the above begs the big question on how you develop the sort of leader that can not only cope with such complexity, make sense of it and also harness the potential of the system to generate the future necessary for the organisation to thrive and survive?

One of the chief problems we are faced with is the fact that training and development tends to be thought of along linear and mechanistic lines; they are designed to meet objectives set at the start of the programme, irrespective of the length of the programme.  Using such deterministic models are, admittedly, the best way of trying to “sell” the concept of the development to higher management, only though having measurable, determined objectives can the L&D function evaluate the effectiveness of the programme, let alone establish a positive and quantifiable return on investment.  But how can potential leaders learn how to operate within complexity and complex systems without the very programme itself, at least, attempting to replicate such a system and process?

Not only do we need to radically rethink how leadership exists within such systems, I believe that we need to also radically rethink how we develop such leaders and how we design such programmes.

Obviously there are some particular skills and abilities that such leaders need (as I have outlined above) and these could be dealt with through attendance on modules as part of a programme, and perhaps enhanced by coaching, action learning and other such practices.  However these are normally viewed through a fairly linear lens.

One answer may be to try and emulate the very elements of complexity that we are asking participants on such a programme to understand.  Such a programme would need to be emergent, co-designed by the participants and faculty/L&D department, and unique for each individual and group.  There would be opportunities for diagnostic work,, perhaps through the use of 360° Questionnaires, especially those based around Emotional Intelligence, supplemented by coaching, knowledge forums (both across cohorts of participants and perhaps across businesses), experiential modules would enable participants to deepen their insight and practise in the areas of Reflexivity, Focusing and Presencing.  The use of such complex processes as Open Space Technology could be used to help the co-creation and emergence of the programme.

The major trouble with all of this is how do you raise a budget for such a programme, and then how do you evaluate it?  Here, again, I believe that we need to radically rethink such processes.  Both of these presume that training and development is “done unto others” and operates within a controlled environment.

I believe that both of these items, budget and evaluation, can be co-created and also be emergent throughout the programme.  As with most things there will need to be some “seed money” to help kick-start the whole enterprise; this can fund the identification of participants and perhaps run an initial event, perhaps an “Open Space” event where participants start to co-create the programme.  Following that all monies could be found by the participants themselves, having to think through their development needs and the impact that these might have on the organisation should certainly help with starting to identify systems and consequences.  Evaluation should also be constant and on-going; again here the model needs to change – Kirkpatrick’s level’s one and two are almost unnecessary within such an environment – if people aren’t enjoying the programme, or able to cope with it they either have the personal power to change it, or leave.  Individuals should be able to show the impact that the development is having on them and on the business, again this is on-going and emergent, so doing will show greater and greater levels of understanding of the complexity that surrounds them.  Using 360°s as well as other sources of feedback will be vital to each participant if only to show them exactly where they are sitting within the whole system.


How can one have a “Conclusion” to an article on complexity?  The subject itself is incapable of being closed down; indeed any such attempt to control this will lead to the emergence of new systems.  So instead let us look at what might emerge.

I suppose that in a true adaptive manner we would do nothing to help such leadership develop; surely it should just emerge by itself? Well, yes it probably will; but when and where from?  Most businesses need to try and accelerate such processes, relying on fate probably does not go down too well on the stock market or with stakeholders, so we need to do something.

I hope that this article has not given the impression that we need to throw the leadership baby out with the bathwater; on the contrary I do believe that all the “traditional” leadership training, especially experiential leadership development is extremely important.  All businesses will still need “traditional” leadership skills, except that these may have to be pushed down to lower levels within the organisation.  What this means is that senior managers and leaders need to do something different, something that will enable such “normal” leadership to thrive and flourish without being controlled from above, and without egos getting involved.  And this means a radical rethink of how we undertake such development at senior level.

The thoughts are here, but who will be brave and radical enough to take that first step?


[i] Statistics taken on 31st December 2013

[ii] From Frank Herbert, (1965) Dune, probably one of the first fictional accounts of ecology and systems thinking

About the Author

Mike Kitson is a Senior Consultant with the Dove Nest Group, one of the UK’s leading exponents of experiential learning and development. He has a long career in learning and development, is an NLP Master Practitioner, has a Master of Education degree from Hull University, is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Fellow of the Institute for Leadership and Management.  As a coach and facilitator Mike has a deep interest in leadership, personal development, and the psychological processes inherent in growth and change.  Always seeking to introduce new thinking and elements into his work he has a passion for seeking to understand and develop both himself and others.  This passion has led to a deep interest in Integral Thinking, attendance at the first Integral Institute workshop on “Integral Transformative Practice,” and training as a psychotherapist.

Mike can be contacted at or via LinkedIn at:



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