Dealing With Complexity — A Rough Guide to Leadership Models and Theories

Complexity depicted by colourful fractals.


In Transformational Leadership we learned that one characteristic of the transforming leader is dealing with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

So, let’s take a look at a leadership model based on the work of Ralph Stacey, the author of several books on leadership and organisational dynamics.

Far From Certainty

Uncertainty is a sign of humility, and humility is just the ability or the willingness to learn. – Charlie Sheen

We live in a world of turbulence, uncertainty and ambiguity. The workplace is no longer a place of stability, and more often than not, disagreement and uncertainty are to be expected.

Yet many leaders desire certainty and straightforward solutions for today’s business problems.

Why is this?

Usually, business leaders have little difficulty articulating what needs to be done when resolving problems when there is certainty.

But in uncertain times, business problems are complex and often intractable.

So, the leadership challenges are rather different, and demand different kinds of skills.

Agreement and Certainty Matrix

Ambiguity is something that I really respond to. I like the complexity of it. – Robert Redford

Dealing with Complexity — the Stacey Matrix.

Ralph Stacey’s Complexity Matrix

Ralph Stacey claims that many leadership models are characterised by stability and predictability. Or, that rational decision-making is the norm.

In contrast, Stacey’s model — the Stacy complexity matrix — assumes that most modern businesses operate in a fast-paced world where a different set of skills and alternative processes are needed.

In this context, a higher level of interaction with those involved in implementing change, and those affected by change is needed.

Enabling Performance

So, in times of uncertainty the leader’s job is to enable performance. To free people from the shackles of habit, standard operating procedure, and conflict.

A leader who deals with complexity is an enabler. They embrace complexity and adapt to change.

They deal with uncertainty by:

  • saying yes to the mess,
  • encouraging connectivity,
  • fostering diversity,
  • challenging habits and assumptions,
  • supporting initiative,
  • reducing power differentials, and
  • keeping people motivated.

Keep poking it with ideas and check how it responds and changes. – Jurgen Appelo

In an increasingly complex world, we find that our situation is uncertain and there is disagreement about what direction to take, what’s important, and the decisions we need to make.

The leadership challenges are different.

And, they require different leadership skills … those that enable the team to perform.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

Are you comfortable with uncertainty? If not, what would you change?

Back: Transformational Leadership Next: A Framework for Leadership

Creative Commons image courtesy Grant Dawnson.

Last updated 13 September, 2014 3 CommentsShare the knowledge …



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