Leaders learn to embrace complexity

Why does everyone choose Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, as either their lockdown hero or as the leader to emulate? Without doubt, she has been successful at managing the Covid-19 crisis by being decisive. She has handled other crises with a very human approach. Her ability to communicate and be at one with her people has seen her rise from 37% in the last election to over 50% in the most recent opinion polls. Her normal minority party is set to command an overall majority for the first time since 1987. Can we take these political leadership lessons of one person one vote into the corporate world of one share one vote? Is Jacinda Ardern saying to us that there is a new way to lead?
Traditional project management has been to disaggregate the problem into manageable units and then aggregate to produce the completed task. This skill was reinforced by commercial terms which encouraged the offsetting of risk. Academics referred to this as “complicated”.
“Complicated”, which is the unravelling of a tangled ball of wool, is not to be confused with “complex”. The latter is the management of a series of interdependent events. I never did quite understand how a butterfly in the Amazon could cause storms in Europe but the principle holds that one apparently unrelated event can have unforeseen consequences when working on projects and in organisations.
Therefore, the size of organisations and projects combined with a new set of expectations of younger people mean that leaders have had to move from their previous dictatorial position. The old style leader was a feudal lord with the general understanding that “he” had superior knowledge. However, “he” is not rounded enough to deal with today’s issues. The modern day leader is now having to contend with VUCA which is far harder to overcome than a troublesome verruca. VUCA is more than the passing fad of a wart, it is a pandemic infection of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.
This new scene is a challenge for the engineering mind that wants a route map that will take him or her from A to B with certainty. The acceptance of VUCA paves the way for a new and enlightened style of leadership and a more forensic approach to risk.
There is a recognition, in the complex environment, that leadership is a team exercise. The leader has to recognise personal weaknesses and accommodate these in the immediate team. This concept of “the incomplete leader” is being used more and more. Although not a new idea, it is only just gaining traction in the construction world.
Could this leadership concept be given a fresh boost by Covid-19? Undoubtedly, it has reinforced the collegiate approach. There has been more empowerment with the key word “trust” being increasingly used in chat and coffee rooms.
Leaders are now focusing on outcomes and not judging their team on hours input. With this trust comes a sense of empowerment and therefore a common purpose. In addition, although not mentioned as often, there comes a flattening of the hierarchical pyramid. This, in turn, leads to less of a need to redefine the purpose for lower levels. They, themselves, can feel the common purpose and interpret their position in achieving it.
Leaders have also embraced new technology as they communicate with their team. No longer are they a distant figure in a far off office but now a real person and one with human characteristics. They are also allowing feedback and with the power of search engines, individuals are not short of benchmarks by which to judge their elders.

Simon Flint, the author, is chairman of the Leaders Breakfast Meetings which seek to discuss topical construction issues. He has worked with Constructing Excellence and its predecessors since the 90s – looking at pioneering initiatives that improve the efficiency and productivity of the industry. However, the thoughts expressed in this “article” are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Constructing Excellence or Advance Consultancy. 

The Leaders Breakfast series are a collaboration between Constructing Excellence and Advance Consultancy and SCC.

2 thoughts on “Leaders learn to embrace complexity”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post, thank you, Simon. Perhaps a follow up post could be considered, looking in a bit more detail at some of the points raised? Discussions on improving leadership by moving from ‘feudal lord’ to Ardern’s approach surely must include discussion on gender and inclusion. I look forward to part 2!

    1. Thank you Janet, a really good point one that we will certainly be picking up on! Happy to discuss with you.

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