Complexity: Why Most Leadership Advice Is Wrong

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.” ~ Alan Perlis

Two of the roles I had early in my career were in organisations with a macro-level view on systems: one was in the area of public sector management and the other was leadership – or at least public sector leadership.

Complexity

The wonderful thing about both these roles was that they were largely theoretical. They were at arm’s length from practicalities, like implementation and the day-to-day doing. I was free to pontificate on how things should be, while remaining relatively aloof from how things are.

It’s what I imagine it’s like to be an academic. Or certainly the generalised idealisation of what it’s like to be an academic… ivory tower… buried in a musty office immersed in deep thought… eschewing the company of others, except to argue important theoretical points.

To be honest, as an introvert, it had a certain appeal. Working in the company of like-minded people, writing papers and preparing advice… focusing on outcomes not processes…

But I’m also an immensely practical person. I like understanding how things work the way they do (or don’t, as is more often the case). As a kid, I took things apart to see if I could fix them: watches, alarm clocks, radios. Sometimes I could! I enjoyed building things, and crafting things, and always wanted to be creating something useful.

So today, I want to share with you the reasons why almost all the advice you’ll ever receive about leadership is wrong. At least most of the time.

Including this advice.

There are no rules… only exceptions

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” ~ Richard Branson

I have come to be deeply sceptical about leadership rules-of-thumb. Things like:

  • First, build trust
  • Communicate the critical few things, often
  • Delegate everything you can
  • Play to your strengths
  • A decision made now is better than a perfect decision later

There are literally dozens of these around, and they’re all useful to a point.

Complexity

But the reality is, there are at least as many exceptions as there are circumstances where the rules apply neatly.

Take the first one. First – build trust.

Great. Except building trust takes time. It must be a parallel activity.

So what if you don’t trust your team?

What if you’ve been brought into the role because a recent restructure went very badly and trust in anything is at an all time low?

What if one of your team has proven multiple times that they behave in an untrustworthy manner?

And some of the advice is just plain contradictory!

  • First build trust… but build a team around you that you can trust (certainly implies there might be a few changes required).
  • Communicate everything… except those things that would create worry for your team, or move their focus from getting the job done.
  • Be vulnerable, but lead from your strengths.

There will be a handful of circumstances when these ‘tidbits’ can be useful to you, but the real challenge is knowing the difference between those times, and the times they won’t be useful at all… and can even do damage.

Complexity can be simplified, but sometimes something is lost…

“The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.” ~ Douglas Horton

Even the cleverest quotes and advice I’ve read are prone to losing something in the act of committing them to writing.

Complexity

For example, the other day, a Pablo Picasso quote appeared in my Facebook feed: “The difference between who you are and who you want to be, is what you do.” Alongside the quote was a statement from the person who posted it that said something like: this is my favourite leadership quote.

In fact, that post inspired this post (there’s some irony for you). Because it might be true on an unconscious level. Which I’m sure was Picasso’s point.  In other words your true desires are revealed by what you actually do rather than what you say you will do.

But many of the people who work for you don’t really understand their own aspirations, their unconscious behaviours, or the unintended consequences of their intended behaviours to fully make such a statement useful on a conscious level.

In some ways, it’s like an insider’s joke… if you’re self aware, and an exceptional judge of human behaviour, you might have some hope that this statement is useful to you in guiding your behaviour and direction, but for most people, it’s like an oasis… promising so much, but constantly out of reach… the unconscious and unintended outcomes of the actions chosen consistently getting in the way of one’s actual desires.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good leadership quote. If you properly engage your brain in understanding the meaning – both in what’s said and what’s not said – you can build a solid base of wisdom and insight from quotes… just understand that a great deal of complexity has been stripped away to its barest essence. In some cases you are gaining the benefit of many decades of experience into a sentence or two. I think it’s safe to say that some of the real juicy bits didn’t make the cut!

So what’s left? Character, integrity and judgment

“The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.” ~ Margaret Chase Smith

The reality is, there are no shortcuts. Not really.

Context matters. You need to take a careful look at the situation you find yourself in and focus on what will work best.

Specifically. Not generally.

Practically. Not ‘in theory’.

To do this you need to have a range of sources of knowledge (coaches, mentors, books, courses, experience). You need to have a technique for finding what you need quickly (maybe a notebook that creates a sort of ‘contents page’ for the snippets of wisdom you’ve picked up over the years), and you need a thoroughly discerning mind.

Complexity

In addition, you need to have a solid – I mean rock-solid – foundation of integrity and character. This is the bit that is unyielding. The part of you that is prepared to say “I will not do that – it goes against my values. I would sooner quit”. The part of you that is prepared to say this even if you are the sole breadwinner in your family and the mortgage payment is due. The part of you that knows where your boundaries are, and is unshakeable.

Lead from that place.

Because unless you’re a genius, you’re going to find that the world is a complex place, and leadership is a complex thing…

And that complexity is exactly why you’ll love it.



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3 comments

  1. It’s very well put, Rebecca. The world is frightfully complex, and even though there is much good advice out there, it is impossible to create advice that would fit in the specific case – I think one of the tricks are to collect as much good advice as we are capable of processing – also if some pieces of it is mutually contradictory – because from all of these pieces of good advice, we might be able to put something together that fits in the actual situation. It’s like having an immense jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces that do not quite fit – you might still be able to get the bigger picture, even if you have to a little colouring around the edges, and in any way, you will be better off than if you had to paint the picture from scratch.
    And this with the quotes… I’m a sucker for quotes as well, and the funny thing is that very often, what has been put forward as a quote is something which is already processed for simplicity: Kierkegaard never said that “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself”, T. S. Eliot never said that “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” – they said something far more complex that someone condensed into these one-liners which we have a possibility to remember and bring with us – because somewhere along the way, someone found that it would be worse preserving the essence in a less complex way. And though I would love to be able to quote “So it is too that in the eyes of the world it is dangerous to venture. And why? Because one may lose. But not to venture is shrewd. And yet, by not venturing, it is so dreadfully easy to lose that which it would be difficult to lose in even the most venturesome venture, and in any case never so easily, so completely as if it were nothing…one’s self. For if I have ventured amiss–very well, then life helps me by its punishment. But if I have not ventured at all–who then helps me?” word by word – I am happy that I am able to go with “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself” and know that somewhere, I have the precise wording Kierkegaard used.

    1. So true! Love it!
      And often people are quoted, quoting people (if that makes sense) – sort of meta-quotes and reinterpretations.

      I like the image of the jigsaw puzzle made of many parts… though I’m one who gets very frustrated about the one missing piece… ☺️

      1. I actually often get the feeling of a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece – or a piece that does not quite fit in. It happens all the time when trying to invent metaphors for things, where all does not fit nicely into place. And just like when the jigsaw puzzle is not complete, metaphors that do not work 100 percent correctly or other things where something stands out like a sore thumb are frustrating.
        Interestingly enough: the thing that does not work 100 percent might be so small that no one notices it, if a piece is missing in the corner of a 1000 piece jigsaw it might not be discovered – but it will be frustrating to us who have tried to pull it all together, because we know that there is something not entirely right.

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