Technologically, economically, politically, environmentally the world is shifting beneath our feet. Change is now no longer confined to organisations: it is system wide, interconnected and discontinuous. Wherever we look, leaders are challenged as they struggle to adjust and align in situations of increasing complexity. Navigating in a context such as this requires different skills, attributes and abilities. Through my work as an academic and advisor I have been fortunate to closely observe and assist organisations facing and managing change in the most extreme environments. From that work a number of key lessons surface: areas of reflection that will help you and your organisation develop your vision and align to an environment in flux.

The first involves thinking about how you frame your leadership.  Leaders are ‘pathfinders’ within organisations. At their best they articulate a shared vision, understand strategy as a dynamic process, and ‘sense make’ from confusing environments and mixed messages from stakeholders. Having external ‘sounding boards’ can help leaders untangle conflicting information and allow them perspective amidst frantic activity. An analogy which is may be helpful comes from studies of emergency medicine. When a patient is in difficulty they often have a number of skilled physicians working on them at the same time. But the consultant – the leader, is standing back, often behind, and watching. Because they can’t just look at blood pressure, or respiration, or bleeding – they need to see it all and how it connects.   When I’ve worked with leaders dealing with extreme volatility, they have identified the cultivation of this mental ‘space’ – a standing back, as a way to manage complexity and confusion.

The second is the need to reflect on your organisation and what it is actually established to do. This may seem like a strange question but think of it in this context - Harvard academics Heifetz and Linsky have observed that “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to get the results it currently gets”, so asking what your organisation is actually aligned to do is useful - even if sometimes uncomfortable for leaders to identify hidden areas of dysfunction.

The third is your own conceptualisation of what leadership actually is. Traditionally we have tended to see leaders as having some significant attributes which were usually positional (at the top), gender based (male) and heroic (superhuman). Thankfully, we now recognise that leadership appears at all organisational levels and often looks very different from the stereotype. Recognising enacted leadership when we see it is crucial.  Rewarding and protecting those leadership behaviours you want within your organisation is just as vital. Retired US General Stanley McCrystal reflects upon this in his recent book on iconic leadership. He comments that leaders are just humans surrounded by those who enable and find meaning in their activities. Leadership is all about context and is an organisational process, as well as an individual one.

Sometimes timing is everything. One of the things that my research has illustrated is that common guidance on managing change doesn’t work in all contexts. Indeed, when an organisation is under stress introducing what is often called ‘a sense of urgency’ can be actively unhelpful. Instead, a paced and inductive approach is more useful. I saw this most critically in the newly established Police Service of Northern Ireland who embarked upon radical, rapid change in a highly volatile environment. Ensuring that the organisation had a period to prepare was important, even though it drew criticism at the time. Thinking about how you time and pace big decisions and their implementation allows you to be in a better position for psychological and structural transition to be successful.  

One of the most significant personal challenges for any leader is managing through periods of stress and instability – just the environment we are in at present.  Continuing to demonstrate positive behaviours in negative environments is difficult to sustain but vital to those who are looking for direction. During the Northern Ireland peace process senior officials in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs coined a phrase for periods of difficulty - they saw it as having a ‘duty of hope’. Essentially, this spoke to two aspects of the challenge which faced them: their professional duty and their personal emotional response. As such it was a powerful and accessible idea to hold on to in the darkest of times. 

Leading in complexity is tough - having time to reflect even when (especially when) volatility is at its most disruptive, is critical. Barack Obama and John McCain were both running for Presidency of the United States when the financial crisis hit. McCain suspended his campaign and suggested that the first Presidential debate be postponed. Obama refused, commenting ‘that a President needs to be able to focus on more than one thing, at one time’. It was an inflection point in the campaign and McCain never regained momentum. Obama had hit upon a fundamental truth of managing in extreme turbulence: the need to at least attempt the management of environmental complexity. These lessons; the cultivation of mental space, an awareness of aspects of dysfunction, leadership as a whole organisation process, the timing and sequencing of change implementation, and personal and organisational resilience should act as a guide for implementing your vision in challenging times.

Dr. Joanne Murphy 

Period18 May 2020

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