What is the emotional side of complexity and how can it help us understand and manage complexity?
John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and expert on leadership and change, said this year that managing change is about understanding the human condition of fear that is inherent in all change. Change, he added, is managed through deeds that generate credibility.
How leaders generate credibility is not a lightweight change plan. It involves depth and honesty; it is transformational rather than transactional.
Fear is often made worse because people often don’t take accountability for working through the change themselves. Instead, they wait to be saved by the hero who they hope will come along and take care of things or they lack authenticity by denying their feelings.
In an article that ran earlier this year in Resurgence magazine, Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze posited that it is time to recognize that, emotionally, we are addicted to a hero-type of leadership—that we are seeking out the one who will save us and the one we can blame if they don’t.
Indeed, this seems to be happening in the political arena. We quickly blame one person, like the commander-in-chief, for an entire nation’s systemic issues as if that one person could really have that much influence. We fail to look at the system as a leadership system where every citizen has a role in creating the outcomes.
In organizational life, it is no different.
In his work, business consultant and author Jim Collins challenges us to first “confront the brutal facts” about our situation. This means not only viewing our mental models, but also how our capacity for or lack of empathy and trust can stand in the way of our ability to adequately think about and respond to complexity. By continuing to hold onto the hero model of leadership, do we not give away our power and our responsibility? Or if we see ourselves as the hero, do we not say, “I am great” from a self-centered viewpoint?
When we blame someone else for our own ills are we not saying that we are in a dependent relationship not in an interdependent relationship?
In organizations, I hear people say, “Just tell me what to do and I will do it,” which may be appropriate in some instances. Most often, however, it is an emotional response to a challenging situation, indicating “I am helpless.”
Wheatley and Freize suggest that when leaders buy into this emotional codependence model, they limit their ability to respond effectively to complex issues. By accepting that they are to be the hero, leaders isolate themselves or invite only a few advisors into the inner circle and attempt to fix the problems with limited input and understanding. Organizational problems are too complex and environments shift too rapidly for this to be an effective approach. There is an alternative to this way of working.
Leaders might explore the emotional side of leading as a way to understand the common trap embedded into the co-dependent, hero-rescuer relationship. They might explore how their feelings of power and authority keep them locked into a familiar path when a new path needs to be forged.
The application of a shared leadership model or an institutionalized action research approach to broaden the engagement capacity of an organization could provide greater success at dealing with complex issues. Both of these approaches serve to broaden the circle of those working the issues and recalibrate the relationship from codependent to collaborative and shared.
While not all complexity is within our control, we can control our approach. We can think about how we think and about how we feel, and we can choose how we manage our engagements and relationships with our environments.
We do not have to be the hero and we do not have to believe we are in control to make things happen. What we do need to believe is that culture matters, relationships matter, and interdependence matters.
Perhaps leaders need to respond more as facilitators who invite others into the circle and offer emotional support in the form of empathy, trust, and curiosity as the means of solving tough, complex problems. Doing this recalibrates the role so that everyone can be a personal leader.