In times of uncertainty leaders learn best in trusted circles with personalized learning, reflection and connection around shared issues.
During this unprecedented pandemic, we are learning new ways to lead in complexity. Discuss your issues at hand and apply new lenses to them in a quest to be more effective and at ease.
Join this Leadership Circle as now is the time to embed these capacities for your future and for that of your organisations.
STARTING 20 AUGUST 2020
5 sessions @ Thursday 4-6pm SAST
Starting 20 August – 17 September 2020
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Even before COVID-19, the complexity that leaders faced was intensifying daily with the world becoming more connected and increasingly globalised while experiencing the rise of social media. Business leaders, in particular, were encouraged to embrace a broader vision than making profit (Hill, 2019), to be more responsive to matters such as global warming. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria needed to be included in asset manager portfolios as a measure for allocating financial investments (Economist, 2019).
COVID-19 has since increased the level of complexity that leaders need to deal with in their decision making, illustrated by the impact that the pandemic has had on every sphere of society – political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal. However, it is primarily a healthcare pandemic. It is causing considerable uncertainty and fear but also brings with it possibilities and opportunities in both South Africa and the rest of the world to create a post-COVID-19 world with new business, social and economic structures.
The decisions leaders take in response to this pandemic will create the world of tomorrow and therefore they must take into account the long-term impact that their decisions will have on tomorrow. To enable decisions that will create the desired future, leaders will need to understand how complex systems work. Complex problems and systems are resultant from the numerous interactions within the network and thus cannot be individually distinguished; the system needs to be addressed in its entirety and cannot be addressed in a reductionist way; small inputs could result in disproportionate effects; problems that the system presents cannot be solved once and for all but instead require to be managed systemically, and any intervention tends to morph into new problems as a result of the interventions; and thus, relevant systems cannot be controlled and at best can only be influenced (Poli, 2013).
Viewing the world and our current crisis through the lens of a complex system, one can observe the emergence of unintended and unforeseen patterns and behaviours that cannot be attributed to any of the constituents within the systems (Checkland, 1999) but must be taken into account when making decisions to address the challenges brought about by this crisis. This calls for a mindshift in decision making because a decision could present new challenges or the consequences of a decision could result in an unintended outcome due to the numerous interactions among the different elements within the network that cannot be individually distinguished. This results in a process of continual learning and improvement within the system.
Ways to understand complexity
The Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden offers a useful frame to understand the underlying dynamics of a situation, to enable choosing a particular response which is most effective in that domain. Cynefin, pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influences us in ways we can never understand.
The framework outlines five domains as ways of understanding the dynamics of a context based on the relationship between cause and effect. The domains are confused, clear, complicated, complex and chaos. By understanding the context, leaders can approach their decision making and problem solving in a way that matches the nature of that context.
The domains on the right are ‘ordered’, meaning they contain knowable, solvable and predictable contexts. Starting on the bottom right, the ‘Clear’ domain contains obvious and simple issues and best practice can be applied to solve these matters. For example, if asked to produce a spreadsheet, this task is clear and straightforward. The spreadsheet may get more complicated as more factors are added but they are still answerable by an expert. Building a jumbo plane, for example, is more complicated process, but is still nevertheless solvable.
Another example may be producing an annual integrated report. We can draw on the domains of experts, there are many stakeholders involved, and a number of iterations may be needed to produce the report but we do know the end output and can plan to complete this task.
Moving to the left, the domains are ‘unordered’ in that the situations are unpredictable with various factors of the system interacting, so different scenes emerge with no clear line between cause and effect. One event can happen on one side of the world in a seemingly small wet food market and a global pandemic emerges. One person is murdered by a police officer that sparks global protests. This is complexity in an interconnected world.
Businesses face many complex situations: the economy has declined, demand has been zero for our service for two months, the Reserve Bank has cut rates, the lockdown is looming, staff are required to work from home, our cash flow is stymied, etc. Should we retrench or not? Will demand increase and when? How will we need to organise the business for an unpredictable future? We may use many tools to assist us but the fundamental premise is that we simply do not know how our sectors and economies will emerge in the long term. Our best response in complexity is to probe and try various responses in the business and have multiple feedback loops to see which response best suits that context, and to grow those with positive trends. And the context shifts in complexity at an alarming speed, requiring ongoing responses to the multiple probes, such as trying new products in different markets, trying new organising principles for the business, trying new automation on part of a process.
The chaos domain resembles crises and random events. As there are no constraints, what is needed is to primarily act to stabilise the situation. When COVID-19 first struck there was a call to stabilise the situation and clear communications came out to wash hands for two minutes , to maintain social distancing , to work from home – and a plan for five stages of lockdown was initiated, all in a quest to stabilise the situation. Once stabilised the context moves to the complex domain. We saw that the same rules did not apply to this domain. With the enforcement of lockdown level 5 and 4 the situation shifted and there was some backlash and resistance to the imposed rules. An adept leader reads the context and checks if constraints need to be reduced as they respond to a complex situation.
Confusion may reign for a while and this domain in essence means that we do not know yet what is going on and where the context will go, so we may park some decisions until we are clearer of the patterns and implications in a complex situation. Leading in complexity means that we take multiple actions without knowing yet how they will all unfold.
“Leadership is an improvisational art …. In the complex, fast-changing world we live in today, any ‘solution’ is just a temporary resting place, a park bench where you can pause and take a breath before getting back into the game” (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky, 2009, p. 277). Good leadership requires openness to change on an individual level. Truly adept leaders will know not only how to identify the context they are working in at any given time but also how to change their behaviour and their decisions to match that context (Snowden & Boone, 2007).
Leadership capacities that will support leaders to adapt and lead with greater ease and effectiveness in complexity are:
· Systems thinking
· Seeing multiple futures
· Trying, probing, experimenting
· Holding ambiguity and a ‘both/and’ mindset (rather than an ‘either/or’ mindset).
The leader would therefore adopt different decision-making styles of leading and choices depending in which domain the context fits. The more effective style of leadership is inclusive with the leader listening to all perspectives, being curious and learning continuously, so the table below is for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reductionist in thinking. Most leaders will feel most comfortable in the complicated domain that has been driven by our expertise, deep knowledge and often hierarchical approach. In the complex domain this insight is key, as is being open to multiple perspectives and experiments to explore which decisions and choices best match a particular decision or context.
The way forward
A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style will be required of leaders who want to make things happen in a time of increasing uncertainty (Snowden & Boone, 2007).
Leaders need to build their toolkit to work more aptly in a context of complexity and fast-paced change. This means that they need to enhance their capacities to understand the domain they are in and make decisions and respond to suit these complexities. Applying a complicated choice set on a complex domain may frustrate and achieve unintended consequences of greater disruption rather than control. Leaders need to listen to a broader range of perspectives to inform sense-making and build a broader network to enable a range of responses, both to experiment and receive more feedback. At the heart of this is building a more adaptable and flexible approach to contexts and holding ambiguity and a ‘both/and’ mentality. This does not mean inactivity; on the contrary, this means fast-paced and multiple responses, and then tracking what best serves the overall purpose and strategic direction of the firm.
Leaders will also need to consider how they can build, upskill and structure their teams and organisations to work with complexity. Many a time complicated structures and processes have killed innovative ways to be agile in an ever-changing context. Leaders need to consider the lens through which they view complexity, learn to adopt these capacities with their teams, and consider which organisational processes and cultures allow for appropriate responses to flow. However, this does not negate that there is much complicated work to be completed and maintained. And this is where an astute leader learns to navigate between domains with greater ease and impact.
Dr Gideon Botha CA(SA), Sarah Babb , email@example.com
Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking, systems practice. Chichester: John Wiley.
Economist. (2019). What are companies for? Big business is beginning to accept broader social responsibilities.
Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/08/22/big-business-is-beginning-to-accept-broader-social-responsibilities
Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009) The practice of adaptive leadership Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press, 2009.
Hill, A. (2019, 23 September). The limits of the pursuit of profit. Financial Times.
Poli, R. (2013). A note on the difference between complicated and complex social systems. Cadmus, 2(1), 142–147.
Snowden, D.J. & Boone, M.E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, November 2007.
"Naming and navigating through polarities helps us lead in the world, and lead ourselves. This session helps us name and find ways of navigating the polarities, to find a flow again; to reconnect with our agency through the small ways and to regenerate a new way that serves humanity and the world in better ways" - Sarah Babb
Sarah Babb has specialised in leadership development - both the design and delivery of programmes - for over 20 years. She is focused on helping build the capacity of leaders of the future. Sarah has designed and facilitated numerous programmes for multinationals, businesses, associations and business schools, reaching vast numbers of leaders, across multiple industries.
I completed two days of online facilitation and I could not quite pin down the quality of how I was feeling. Yes, tired, but there was something else underlying it. Usually after a few days of facilitating a room full of managers, there is an aliveness, an alertness, a pleasure, a joy underlying that tiredness. I am as much a part of the questioning, vibrant challenging exchanges, the heaving and journeying, of each person in the room. Yet there was a different quality to this tiredness after days on Zoom. After I closed the computer I felt quite flat. A foreign feeling.
A psychologist stated in an article in The Guardian ” I miss noticing how people enter the therapy room – the subtle difference from the session before, or the way they may hold their face and body; ……Finding new ways to nourish one’s needs in this new reality – especially in the absence of touch and gaze, which we unknowingly rely upon to recognise ourselves – can be tricky….Isolation can maraud all of us as we miss the interactions, intimate or causal, that confirm our sense of our value, our place in our community, our work and the world.”
Lockdown and social distancing as brought on in response to the COVID-19 pandemic impacts our interior world of identity in fundamental ways. But in different ways. Here are four ways we are impacted, and ways to work with these.
1. In lockdown all identities are switched on at once
Each of us holds multiple identities as to who we are in the world, each of which is socially animated and affirmed. Our identities include what roles we hold and how we strive to be in these. As a manager we may aim to be firm but fair, results focused, and as parent we may strive to be gentle, kind, present, generous in this role. It is how we identify in a role that weaves into who we are and who we strive to be.
Each context brings a particular identity to the fore. Such as when we arrive at work the salience of our work identity comes to the fore. This means our cognitive and emotive attention can be focused that role with the behavioural and cultural cues of that context.
Under lockdown it is beyond exhausting and depleting as multiple identities are brought to the fore at once. Working at home means our identities of parent, manager, home maker, partner, and others are all switched on at once.
There is no natural transition between role demands and a constant pressure to meet all expectations all at once, each role demanding different things. Managers are exhausted by code-switching between roles at the best of times, as they both adopt power in some roles and lessen personal power in other engagements. Without transitions between roles all switches are on at once. This is depleting and confusing in equal measure.
Switching between multiple identities in lockdown needs us to build in different rituals and routines to signify and mark the distinct identities and transitions between them. Where you sit, how you enter work and exit ‘family’ time, as this gives us time to breathe in between, time to decompress and refuel.
2. Identities interplay and conflict, and even more so in lockdown
We also know that our identities hold tension as we play out different behaviours, patterns and even values between them. Our way of being with the family may differ to how we have been on our work roles, and we may feel conflicted by this.
Under lockdown it is confusing and we can feel stuck in between roles and identities. We may even feel down about our seemingly low efficacy in either one. Being liminal can feel fraught as you are hanging between; betwixt and between, not able to meet the obligations of either.
Holding multiple identities gently
We can practice small ways in which we hold different identities. We shift our mindset from being in an’ either/ or’ approach to holding a ‘both/and’ approach. We can hold the tensions and even contradictions as to who we are and want to be. So temper that self-criticism to hold compassion for what is going on and where you are at right now. Press pause. Breathe. Have empathy for you and others in the confusion and messiness of it all. Notice when you add the confounding layers of judgement that you ‘ought to’, ‘should have’, ‘must’. Notice and accept where you are as a start. Only then can you think a bit more clearly around your next choices.
We need to build our capacity to be personally agile - emotionally and dispositionally – in that we are self-aware and have a self-authoring mind as per the work of Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development. Susan David in her book Emotional Agility talks to unhooking from emotions in order to move through them.
3. Identities are not fixed.
As soon as we accept that our identities are constantly shifting and evolving, the more ease we will have to be in the flow of the moment. And to see what is emerging for ourselves. If we cast our minds back ten years it is clear how we have changed: our preferences in music, hobbies, social activities, even friends, roles and ambitions. Yet when we look into the future ten years it is somehow harder to see that we will change as much in this time. Dan Gilbert calls this the ‘end of history illusion’, that somehow at each point we think we have reached the pinnacle of our development and that now we are finally the person we were meant to be. In actuality our identity constantly evolves as we confront different contexts and inner shifts.
In lockdown we feel powerless – that the changes are being forced on us.
In lockdown many a colleague are questioning their next moves, either out of necessity or calling. Find ways to deliberate about what is becoming clearer for you about you to find your agency in what your needs are. Our yearning to have meaning and to contribute to a world, may leave us with some curiosity to explore multiple alternative possible selves. Ask what is next for me, and have at least three alternate stories. Be playful in exploring possible future selves.
Jennifer Garvey Berger in her book on Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps (2019) poses a series of questions as ways to overcome Leadership Mindtraps. The ego is one mindtrap preventing us from acknowledging the reality of a context, which keeps us stuck. We want to prove things and protect our ego and be in control and yet we are not in control of many things. The question which loosens the grip of ego is ‘who do I want to be next?”. By asking ourselves this question it frees us to consider the next move, and the multiple possibilities open to us.
4. Identities need social interaction
We need social interaction to affirm who we are in the world. Our identity depends on social endorsement to boost who we try to be in the world, and to contest when we push or shift boundaries. And these social cues are often subtle- who greets us in the office, where we sit in the boardroom, who nods when we voice an opinion, who looks away. It is also in the spontaneous and casual interactions that our identity is enlivened. We discern meaning in the daily social commentary and make meaning of ourselves from connecting with others. We need to be valued, to be seen, for the world to reflect back to us who we want to be in the world, and who we are.
Without social interaction in lockdown we feel flat.
In lockdown our social cues are limited. Confined to 2-D interactions via online meetings and calls. It is in this we feel social distance, not only physical distance. We feel somehow out of touch, disconnected and keep reaching for ways for the social norms and social cues that affirm us, somehow. Peering into a screen does not do this, and somehow scheduled meetings with pre-set agendas limit social reinforcements. It is the pre-meeting chatter, the coffee rituals, the corridor interactions, and even the school drop offs or parking lot encounters that reflect who we are. These myriad of small daily connects keep us knowing who we are in this world where we fit in and ultimately why we matter.
Forge multiple social interactions
Find ways in lockdown for many interactions and in those interactions keep these to the small, not only the big ways. Also connect with those outside your inner circle of family and immediate work teams. Joining a circle of different people to connect with can help us find ourselves in these times. You may be a part of a WhatsApp group of friends, family, work and professional colleagues but these are familiar and known. It is beyond this- a more diverse set of ears and eyes that will serve us. Connect with those one layer out on your social and work networks that you share common interests with and can trust. Those less vested people will provide a more earnest and sincere place to reflect and share. In times of uncertainty social learning is as important.
“We learn how we — and others — feel and think about the new situation we are in, and how to manage those thoughts and feelings. This type of learning has us focusing on people and requires that we inquire about our own and others’ experiences. Just as cognitive learning teaches us how to manage the natural world, socio-emotional learning helps us manage the social world.” 
Find trusted spaces to reflect and have some echoed back to you. Most of all remain curious as to what you are learning about yourself in these times. A multitude of possibilities opens up to you from this gap. The gap of where you are and who you want to be now and into the future.
A further question to ponder is ‘how do you want to remember yourself during this pandemic and lockdown, ten years from now?’ Step into crafting the future and the future self you see each day, with social support and learning, step into this future.
Social distancing and lockdown impacts our identity work in several ways. In summary
1. In lockdown all identities are switched on at once – build rituals to ease the transitions
2. Identities interplay and conflict, and even more so in lockdown – hold a ‘both/and’ mindset, gently
3. Identities are not fixed- ask who do I want to be next.
4. Identities need social interaction – connect with different circles for multiple interactions and learning
 Susie Orbich in The Guardian UK, 7 May 2020 This article is adapted from the John Donne lecture at Hertford College, Oxford, which was delivered on 24 April 2020
 E. Anicich & J. Hirsch, Why being a middle manager is so exhausting. Harvard Business Review, March 2017
 A. Peshkam & G. Petriglieri . Keep your people learning when you go virtual. Harvard Business Review, April 2020.
Over these past four months I have sat alongside a group of top executives of a large multinational corporate in an executive leadership development programme. They are grappling with the question - how do we build the company of the future while we deliver to the current business demands? This tension plays out on a business level and a personal level.
“One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is the need to position and to enable organizations and people for adaptability in the face of increasingly dynamic and demanding environments” (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2018, p.89).
Yet it is these very current ways which have brought success to me and the business. And the drive to stay the same conflicts with the demands for change and adaptability. And this is an inherent tension as a leader can only build the future whilst letting go of the current. Simply building new skills alone will not craft this new leadership and organisational capacity. A leader needs to recraft their leadership identity to support an emerging new organisational identity. And this requires a 'letting go' of current success and letting go of a current leader identity. And herein lies the tension.
This question is tough as it asks how will I as a leader now disrupt this current success to craft a different future business trajectory which is uncertain and not guaranteed? And alongside this it asks how will I disrupt my own leadership identity to become a more future fit leader, of which success too is not guaranteed? This calls for leadership courage to disrupt ones own identity and way of leading and organising.
This leadership identity development work requires support and a psychological safe space for personal exploration and a context of letting go, of stretch learning and experimentation in the workplace. The leader experiences new ways of leading and rebuilds an identity which says I am now a leader who can better hold ambiguity and uncertainty and I am a leader who is now not the expert, who collaborates, is curious to ongoing sense making, learning and unlearning, and who is now more nimble and adaptable.
The aim is to support the leaders to explore the question 'Who am I now as a leader in these times?'. An expanded leader identity supports a leader to be adaptable and to flow in these challenging times. "The manager (then) experiences reduced stress and feels less overwhelmed, as the role switching does not now conflict with the internal leadership identity. The leadership identity remains expanded and coherent within the individual, even if behaviours switch across contexts." (Sarah Babb, White Paper, 2019) And so it is said that a leader finds flow in building the future through letting go whilst re-crafting an expanded future fit leader identity.
2019 - what was it for you: the ‘annus horribilis’ or ‘annus mirabilis’- or both? And what this means for us moving into a new decade
We are mostly familiar with the latin term ‘annus horribilis’ as referred to by the Queen of the United Kingdom in her annual Christmas speech of 1992 as a ‘horrible year. The use of this term in the past has been related to a range of events from military conquests to scientific endeavours. In this context I have heard many utterances that ‘this 2019 was the hardest year of my life!’, indeed an ‘annus horriblis’, and many a times from professionals who are not prone to exaggerating. This has led me to wonder what this has meant for these different people.
For some it seems to reflect a personal overwhelm. That there was too much going on, that it was too hard to deal with so much going on at the same time, that it was too confronting to face the harsh realities of our world every day. In essence that despite all our efforts there is no visible evidence that any positive impact has been had, be it in the climate crisis, poverty or political realms. This could mean that our collective efforts have led to naught which simply would be too great a burden to bear. If anything, the onslaught of change, turbulence, destruction, divisiveness, hate, anger, self-interest and self-protection has grown. Some people have commented that they had a break down, that they burnt out.
The World Health organisation has formally classified burnout as a syndrome characterized by three dimensions:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) reduced professional efficacy.
It has been found that purpose-driven work and care-based work leads to greater burnout risks as we identify so strongly with work and there is a lack a boundary between work life and personal life. [i] Leaders work long hours and drive meeting the relentless demands to a point of burnout, disease and illness.
But this is not the case alone. This would be too simple a description. For the same people it has also been a rather remarkable year. ‘Annus mirabilis’ by contrast refers to a ‘wonderful’ year, a ‘miraculous year’ or even an ‘amazing year’ at that (according to Wikipedia, at least). So these same people refer to personal conquests, new relationships, new ventures, new inventions, new opportunities, new learnings. And the disclaimer is added that 2019 was indeed also a wonderful year.
And I think it is this very counterforce of holding both of these experiences simultaneously that IS the overwhelm. It is not that we experience one or the other. But it is that they come at us at cataclysmic speed and we fling between one and the other at alarming rates. In one day we hold multiple of these experiences. And no amount of trying to avoid one or the other works well for us. We find it hard to hold both of these forces simultaneously, and switching between them at such a fast pace is stress filled.
Code-switching has been referred to as adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fairness amongst other things. [ii]. Switching also refers to alternating between different power states. Both require adopting different mindsets in different contexts. The bottom line is that this is psychologically and physiologically exhausting for us. And these fast paced turbulent times are demanding of us to switch more often and to switch between radically different contexts, and to hold competing demands constantly.
“ Simply put, it is psychologically challenging to disengage from a task that requires one mindset and engage in another task that requires a very different mindset…As if that weren’t enough, conflicting roles can disrupt cognitive performance and the ability to focus on a task without getting distracted. [iii]
This is the way of the world now. In this uncertain world we experience contradiction and paradox and tensions between sometimes irresolvable tensions. For example: Pain – Joy, Hope – Despair, Love – Hate , Fear – Faith. Switching between them is exhausting and we need to be better and holding them all, living with them all.
“The expectations upon us…demand something more than mere behaviour, the acquisition of specific skills, or the mastery of particular knowledge. They make demands on our minds, on how we know, on the complexity of our consciousness” (Kegan, 1994, p. 5).[iv] Kegan talks of adult development where we can move from a socialised mind to a self-authoring mind. And in times of unpredictability we are required to hold paradox, contradictions, opposites. In this level we hold a self-transforming mind in which we can view the abstract system.
If we could hold onto these multiplicity of experiences and be with the uncertainty, without stretching to resolve them or dilute them, we would have far richer experiences of vitality and aliveness. We would not experience this inner anxiety or urge to abscond from one to the other, nor to reach for an elusive state of consonance or resolution. If we can foster a mindset of acceptance of each of these states and even face into them with some alacrity and curiosity our lives would be more peace filled and hope filled.
This is not to say we need to have a naïve optimism or Polyanna-rish view of the current reality or even to have a dystopic view of the future. We simply do not know, and this is precisely what gives us hope. Hope in the sense of the definition offer by Vaclav Havel who of course was a dissident writer and playwright before he became the first Czech President.
HOPE by Vaclav Havel
Let 2020 usher in for each of us a sense of hope of being able to be fully with ourselves and with this world. In this way we can find new ways of being for both of us. We cannot reduce it to being either an ‘annus horribilus’ or an ‘annus mirabilis’. May it be both and may we hold both of these with ease side by side. It is in the space between the both that new paths are forged, in hope.
[i] Moss, J., 2019, When Passion Leads to Burnout, Harvard Business Review, July 2019
[ii] McCluney, C.L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R. and Durkee, M, 2019, The costs of code-switching, Harvard Business Review, November 2019
[iii] Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting, 2017, Harvard Business Review by Anicich, E.M. and Hirsh, J.B.
[iv] Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.