Supporting leaders to thrive in complexity

When leaders are faced with complex issues which go beyond their current capacity they often feel completely overwhelmed or “in over their heads”. This is called “the complexity gap”.

Aiden Thornton is an independent management consultant and researcher who is passionate about transforming our current paradigm of leadership development to support our organisational, political and global leaders rise to the challenge of our current global conditions. His business is focused on developing tailored developmental experiences which help leaders thrive in complexity, and is conducting a world-first project: ‘Facing the complexity crisis: Supporting executives to thrive in a complex world’. His research project involves several hundred Australian executives across a number of large organisations to tackle the most pivotal questions in leadership development:

  • Are Australian leaders suffering from the complexity gap?
  • How can we close the complexity gap by taking a radically new approach to developing leaders?
  • How can we get the most development from the least investment in leadership development?
  • What factors influence how quickly executives develop?

What is this notion of complexity?

Globalisation and the digital economy mean that entire industries, companies and business models are being rapidly transformed and reinvented. This adage of ‘creative destruction’ now requires the need for CEOs and leaders to continually identify, be prepared for, and drive future growth, diversification and disruption within their organisations to stay ahead.

“In the 1980s, CEOs could be effective by just focusing on their financial results,” Aiden says. “When we introduced the balanced scorecard, CEOs needed to focus on four outcomes including: financial, people, process and customer. But now the number and complexity of business outcomes they must focus on is even more challenging and include social, environmental, industry-wide and even global outcomes for the future. The interdependency between all these issues is nothing short of astronomical.”

Aiden highlights the work of Harvard Professor Robert Kegan, author of ‘In Over Our Heads,’ who says that the constantly changing demands of modern life means that “at any given moment, around one-half to two-thirds of the adult population appear not to have fully reached [the necessary level] of consciousness”. Aiden says, “This is a sore point for many leaders, but many of them do feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to look for support. It is often a relief to them when I share that this is global trend and reassure them that there is a way out. The point is that you just can’t make complex issues simple unless, of course, you reach band-aid solutions which avoid tackling root causes. The only way out is to rise to the challenge.

Aiden’s business and research was inspired by his 17-year career in management consulting and industry in a variety of senior transformational roles. “I spent years with senior leaders, and it was clear they were dealing with incredibly complex issues on a daily basis such as changing market dynamics, rapidly evolving business strategies, new operating models, culture transformation and structural changes. There is just so much going on, that it is virtually impossible to spin so many plates all at the same time unless they fundamentally transform their capacity for complexity. However, these leaders were often struggling to find ways to develop themselves so they would be better equipped to do so. There are plenty of executive development programs out there, yet very few tackle complexity in a way that fundamentally transforms their ways of thinking, feeling and being.  We need a whole new paradigm of leadership development to enable leaders to achieve this.”

Aiden outlines “The complexity gap is not only relevant for leadership development, but also for talent management and succession planning…talent management has always been a slippery subject for large organisations as getting a clear measure of a leaders’ potential has always been very subjective. One way to approach this more objectively is to draw on insights from the complexity gap.  Leaders with little or no complexity gap may have high potential for their next role quite quickly, whereas leaders who do demonstrate a significant gap may not yet be ready to move before further development. This could become a more measureable and meaningful way to evaluate potential and determine how long leaders may need in order to grow into their next role”.

Old habits die hard

So how can organisations help those in leadership positions feel more competent quickly and affordably?

Aiden believes that our current leadership development paradigm is highly limited for a number of reasons, since it frequently encourages programs which:

  • are extremely expensive but sometimes deliver questionable results.
  • simply provide one-off training events rather than daily leadership practices.
  • focus on entertainment at the expense of development.
  • focus on changing leaders’ behaviours which is insufficient to impact development.
  • do not tackle the dynamics in the organisational system which lock old patterns in place.

When times are tough, leadership development is often one of the first things to be cut. So organisations need to be much more commercial about how they think about their investment in leadership. They need to know how much development they are buying for each dollar spent. This is a major aspect of Aiden’s consulting and research in which is he focused on finding out how to get the most development from the least investment. “Why would we spend $80K per person on an executive development program which may not fundamentally transform leadership practice?

Bringing out the best in our leaders

Aiden believes the ways to bring out the best in leaders are to:

  • develop leaders who can access totally new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving so they no longer feel trapped “in the organisational system” but can truly lead “on the organisational system”. This means going well beyond the old behavioural paradigm, to leadership programs which are based on the principles of human development.
  • once leaders can see the organisational dynamics at play, work with them to transform their organisations to greater states of health. Leadership needs to be institutionalised in the system and not dependent on any particular individuals.

How can leaders bridge the complexity gap?

In the past, scientists believed that development stopped at the end of adolescence. We now know that development continues throughout our entire lives. In general terms, adult capacities move through a series of developmental levels from linear thinking to more systemic and integrative ways of seeing the world. This is sometimes called “vertical development”.  At each developmental level, leaders can see more subtle aspects of the organisation at work, observe patterns, display more agility and quite simply make wiser decisions. It is no wonder that “there appears to be a relatively strong relationship between adult development levels and leadership effectiveness,” Aiden says.

Aiden outlines that many current programs are too simplistic and just focus on getting leaders to change their behaviour. Whilst this is important, changing behaviour does not take leaders far enough to thrive in the face of the complex challenges they face daily. Aiden’s consulting work and scientific research builds a space for leaders to develop themselves from the inside-out by thinking about leadership as a daily practice (rather than a training event). By doing this, leaders get to see themselves in a whole new light and can step into (rather than oversimplify), complexity.

“Many leadership development programs focus on entertaining their participants through fun activities and outdoor events,” Aiden says. “Whereas I see leadership as being a daily practice. Then leadership becomes something you need to practice in every conversation, every team meeting, every decision, every coaching conversation, in each and every moment. On one hand, you can take someone to the symphony orchestra, give them a beautiful memory for life, but leave them fundamentally unchanged as a person. On the other hand, you can give someone piano lessons and help them to build a whole new capacity which they can access every day. Most leadership programs are like the symphony orchestra (great memories but little development), what I attempt to do is give people piano lessons (new capacities and lots of development). My approach to consulting and research is rooted in 120 years of work in human development, so this is unlike many of the leadership fads we read about these days. The trick is knowing how to build a space for deep developmental transformation, and that requires guidance from an expert in human development”.

Leadership development made effective

Einstein once said, you can’t solve a problem with the level of thinking which created it, and in this increasingly complicated, evolving, volatile corporate world, understanding that some problems will never be solved is vital. In many ways, Aiden’s consulting practice and research is focused on tackling Einstein’s challenge head on. What our leaders can do is explore new ways of working and new, creative ways to develop and build our future leaders so they are prepared for change. Even within such complexity, there is also increasing opportunity for those who are willing to take a step back and reassess exactly what being a leader means.

Aiden says, “Our current leadership challenges go well beyond just organisational life.  Many experts would agree that current global risks put our world in a very precarious balance.  Being able to cast our gaze towards potential futures and then identify what leadership capacities we need in the present is an essential exercise for all leadership experts. Since complexity is so prevalent in the 21st century, then we need to rise to this challenge by taking a new approach to building a whole new cadre of leaders.  To achieve this we need to put “development” back into how we approach leadership development””.

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