Leadership Rules for the Age of Complexity

leadership rules for the age of complexity

I was recently having coffee with a good friend (Happy Birthday Kathrin!) and we were discussing the biggest challenges business leaders face currently. Near the top among these challenges has to be managing all contradictions in today’s workplace, both internally for yourself and within your company.

I think wherever you go these days, you’re faced with two opposing sides of the coin, both of which can seem logical and maybe even correct to you. For instance more and more literature shows that workers who take time off from work, rest, and unplug are more productive and creative. Yet dollars to donuts, I bet when you have a big work assignment due, the last thing you think you should do is unplug and go to bed. Here the conflict is between the research/logic versus the loud voices in our head pushing us to just get a little bit more done before we go to bed.

internal conflictThis is more an external/internal conflict – the wisdom “out there” versus the wisdom in your head. But what about your fully internal conflicts?

Maybe someone on your staff has a family crisis. On the one hand, you want to be considerate and supportive, yet after a few days, you find your frustration mounting when s/he isn’t around as much, isn’t as responsive to emails and is making careless errors. How can you balance your need to keep up with workplace speeds and your essential compassion and humanity?

Even more common is the internal dilemma I hear from clients between acknowledging all their accomplishments and successes, and wanting to crack the whip and keep themselves moving towards an even bigger goal. How is it possible to be both pleased with where we are in life AND hold out greater ambitions and dreams for ourself to move towards?

And what of organizational conflicts? A good friend of mine from college who is now a professor of organizational development studies how organizations handle paradox and opposing goals. (Here’s her Ted talk on this subject.) Take social enterprise – how can organizations develop to consistently do good in the world and also turn a profit? Which trade-offs do they have to make and how? Organizations are constantly facing conflicting goals. What about law firms? How do they keep rewarding the partners at the top who have worked hard to make it there and who cultivated the lucrative relationships and yet still have room for advancement and upward trajectories for younger lawyers in the firm.

I believe that understanding both sides of these conflicts, whether in your organization or in your own life gives you both more flexibility and strength in your leadership. I have been noticing more and more that my coaching clients who can understand these conflicts, who can live in this “grey area,” rather than searching for the “right” answer, end up feeling they have more options in their life.

Because in the end, leadership is not about finding the needle of “right” in the haystack of possibilities, it’s about understanding all those possibilities. And then taking the time to step back, combine and integrate them effectively to create your own personal leadership platform. One that will inevitably grow and change as the complexity and conflicts around you grow and change.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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