I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy these days. And maybe some of you are hoping that I’ll just get on with things and get to the list already. I mean, there has to be a list of what a leader needs to do, right? Bullet points are fine, but numbered lists are better. Well, the good news is there are lots of lists out there.
The problem is not that there aren’t lists, the problem is that there isn’t just one. And it’s not a matter of taking all the lists out there and squishing them together, either. The problem is what works one time might not work the next and what works for one person, might not work for another.
A few weeks ago, I brought up the possibility of using non-linear science as a metaphor for leadership. This idea made so much sense when I heard Brenda Zimmerman talking about complexity theory in our Leadership class. She said there are three types of problems:
1. Simple problems. These can be solved using a set of instructions like using a recipe to make a cake. If you follow the recipe, you should get a pretty good cake every time. The outcome is known.
2. Complicated problems. These are difficult problems like sending a rocket to the moon. Here, you need protocols, formulas and expertise. If you are successful, it increases the chances of doing it again. The outcome is knowable.
3. Complex problems. These are like raising a child. As any parent knows, having a set of protocols that are strictly adhered is almost impossible (if not laughable), and just because a certain technique worked on one child doesn’t mean it will work on the next. These types of problems are relationship-based and the outcome is unknowable.
When we think of science, we usually think of simple or complicated problems. However, leadership problems are complex. The starting conditions cannot be used to predict the final outcome. Think of gathering your team together for their first meeting. You can run the exact same meeting for every team you work with but the end results will be different every time.
Complexity has its origins in chaos theory which is not about randomness but rather patterns that develop. It’s non-linear, which means that small changes to the system can produce unpredictable results (think the Butterfly Effect) and it has emergent properties that come from the interactions between the people. Let’s go back to the example of the first team meeting. As a leader, you can give the exact same opening speech, assign the same tasks and the pattern of behaviour for each team will be different. This seems logical because each person has their own unique personality, but we can also say that each team is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Complex Adaptive Systems are made up of independent agents (people) that interact because of common goals, outlooks or other needs. They are also adaptive—new relationships form, old ones may dissolve—and that is what makes them so challenging.
This is why there are so many lists. Each list is successful sometimes. This also helps explain why some managers are successful even though they possess what you might consider to be terrible leadership skills. Like the micromanaging leader that controls every aspect of your work life and is driving you crazy. Their style of interacting with people is successful sometimes. Some people like the constant guidance. The same holds true for the boss that’s on Facebook all day. Some people like being left to their own devices. The problem is that these successes can reaffirm a particular leadership style if it never occurs to the leader that even a broken clock is right twice a day.
So how do we ensure that we’re more useful as leaders than just occasionally?
Just as your team is constantly adapting and evolving, you need to as well. As leaders, I think we also have to be willing to concede that we don’t have full control of the situation; that eventually, we have to let our kids get on the school bus by themselves and see what emerges. It doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. We still have to lead. But instead of looking at the little details, we have to look at the wider situation. The patterns and interactions usually tell a story much earlier than a failed project or missed deadline.
This means that leadership is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right. Which means that about the only thing I can think of to put on a Leadership To Do List is this:
1. You have to try.
I think that’s a great place to start.