Since the pandemic hit North America in March, we’ve spent a lot of our time speaking to thought leaders and executives about its impact on them, their organizations, their customers and markets, and society in general. Through those conversations - whether about resilience, supply chains, or the future of work, diversity, equity and justice - we’ve been able to trace a narrative thread that runs through it all: the leader’s struggle to keep up, to help people through change, and to apply an entirely new playbook without calling a timeout.
Leaders who have performed really well have demonstrated ten notable qualities. They have been:
On their own, none of these qualities may seem particularly remarkable. What’s interesting, though, is that as a group, these are the very same traits embodied by leaders who do well in the face of complexity in general - not just pandemics (in fact, we discuss many of these qualities in our book Cracking Complexity).
Ten Qualities of Complexity-Adept Leaders
1. HUMBLE. Leaders have to start by accepting that when you are facing complexity, there are no known answers, there is no outsourced provider who is going to figure it out for you fast enough, and that the old way of figuring things out isn’t going to work anymore. This requires humility in the face of uncertainty, and throughout the pandemic, this quality has been key. Sharon Callahan, CEO of CDM Agencies, put it this way: “People are hungry for their leaders to tell them what the future will look like, but right now you have to be vulnerable and say ‘I don’t know, so let’s pause and figure it out from here.’”
2. OPEN-MINDED. In the face of complexity, answers can’t be known in advance. Leaders must catalyze conversations that will lead to answers by asking the right questions. This means giving up the illusion of having all the answers and control over what those answers are, being open to others’ ideas, and reframing challenges so others can help solve them. Stephen Shapiro, innovation speaker, advisor, and author, told us that during times of crisis in particular, “To get to good business solutions, you have to focus first on the questions you’re asking because most of our questions are built with a large number of assumptions we don’t see.”
3. INCLUSIVE. To find the right answers to your question, you need to involve the right mix of people. Your goal has to be to include all the necessary perspectives, characteristics, roles, functions, hierarchical levels, and so on - this variety will inform fast decisions and enable you to quickly change course as needed. Jonathan Goodman, Monitor Deloitte’s Global Managing Partner said: “This is the moment to seek out and incorporate different perspectives in decision-making, despite the accelerated time frame. Listen to that person who disagrees with you with the most clarity and specificity. We don’t get to the best place on the other side of the pandemic if we don’t take into account a diversity of experiences, opinions, and points-of-view.”
4. PRESENT. To engage all the right people in finding solutions to complex challenges, one key is connecting them directly with each other, and as a leader, to be a direct and equal participant in that. During the pandemic, with so much going on, maintaining a grounding sense of connectedness for people (whether socially distanced or working busily together on the front-lines) has been a challenge, and finding effective ways to be visible and available as a leader has proven to be a difference-maker. Dr. Omar Lateef, CEO of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told us that, “More than ever before, I felt it critical we were on the wards, in the hallways and in the ER, even for a few moments passing out food or just saying hello. It wasn’t the food that made people feel better; it was showing we are in this together.”
5. FORTHCOMING. In complex situations and in crisis, the sheer volume of noise and confusion makes it incredibly difficult for individuals and teams to think and to act. Noise takes all forms: too much information; wrong information; and missing, ambiguous, unreliable, or fragmented information. Leaders must cut through the noise with honesty, reliable data and knowledge. Laurie Cooke, President and CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, told us it’s about “Conveying assurance, assessing the situation to decide if and when you take action while continuing to gather data, listening to people around you and what they need, and feeding them continuously and transparently with the information you have, even if it isn’t good news.”
6. EMPATHETIC. Before people can get to the right answers, they need to feel like their leaders understand what they’re experiencing. Rather than declaring what matters most and where to focus time and attention, the complexity-adept leader invites people to share their fears, wants and needs. Dr. Michael Cropp, President, and CEO of Independent Health, listed several decisions based on this kind of input. These included: “not forcing people back to the office when they were worried about how to manage their job plus kids; investing in state-of-the-art remote monitoring capabilities to help doctors keep a better handle on the vital signs of people who have chronic and co-morbid conditions and don’t want to go to the doctor’s office; making significant investments in not just technology, but techniques to help people stay connected with colleagues, family members and loved ones; and taking steps and making investments that reflect the reality that the organization is falling short on issues like diversity and equality.”
7. ENTREPRENEURIAL. Amazing opportunities can be triggered both in serendipitous and crisis situations, when something far out of the ordinary throws people out of their comfort zone. Several experts spoke to us about how entrepreneurial leaders don’t just seize the moment, but actively create the conditions where others can as well. Sunny Bonnell, co-author of Rare Breeds, talked about the traits of companies that pivoted well during the pandemic: “Everyone else is looking around, frantic like hot sauce on the brain, and asking what to do. Rare Breeds don’t hesitate, they act. They are willing to throw caution out and radically reshape the future of their brand and business.”
8. TENACIOUS. In navigating complexity, where solutions can’t be predetermined, leaders must trust that great answers will emerge, but only if the right people are given the time and means to work together well, and the freedom to try new things and potentially fail. While several iterations may be necessary, the complexity-adept leader knows that if you put in the hard work, good things will happen. Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, explains it this way: “No one ever chooses to drive when it’s foggy, but sometimes you have to. You can see 20 feet ahead and that’s not enough to drive safely. But if you don’t move at all, you’ll never see past that next 20 feet. Drive 10 and you’ll see a little further. You can still make progress even in murky environments.”
9. DISCIPLINED. Without clearly-defined values, goals, processes, roles and responsibilities, decision authorities, and rules of engagement, and without the discipline to set a plan and see it through - the overmatched leader simply exacerbates the chaos. When people have clarity on all these things, however, they can maintain their equilibrium, stay focused, and do what needs to be done. William (Bill) N. Anderson, CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals observed this in his organization during the crisis: “People are making big decisions and commitments, and investing large amounts without stopping to ask permission. It’s the power of an organization that has a clear sense of the mission and the rules of the road. Everybody knows they can do what’s right without worrying that someone will demand an explanation later.”
10. COMMITTED TO ACTION. Once the complexity-adept leader has asked the right question and engaged the right people in the right way to answer it, what’s left is to execute. By approaching problem-solving and planning the right way, the people involved will be mobilized and motivated to act. Then, it is incumbent on leadership to clear the way for them and commit to providing the necessary time and resources. David Musto, President, and CEO of Ascensus, put it this way: “When I was a young leader, my mentor used to say ‘act, or be acted upon.’ That phrase perfectly captures our current environment, and it guides my thinking on a day-to-day basis.”
These Ten Qualities Are Now Table Stakes
In Cracking Complexity, we lay out a ten-step formula that equips leaders to surmount highly entangled organizational challenges like digital transformation, accelerated growth, and post-merger integration. Add to that list now the mother of all complex challenges, navigating a pandemic.
The ten qualities we just outlined match up very neatly with the ten steps in the formula. During the pandemic, that once rare mix of qualities have suddenly become far more commonplace, as leaders have been forced to rapidly transform their style and behavior for the crisis. That’s because COVID-19 thrust most leaders from a reality where complexity was oppressive but survivable, into a situation where overcoming complexity was a matter of life and death.
When it comes to the qualities of leaders who have adeptly navigated these kinds of challenges, qualities that have been observed and commented on by so many experts and thought leaders, they are familiar to those who understand what it takes to tame complexity in general.
In fact, they are table stakes for leaders in times like these.
Original article posted in Forbes on Oct 5, 2020
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