Disruptive times call for transformational leaders with a knack for addressing complex problems. To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go—and become more complex ourselves.
We live in an age of accelerating disruption. Every company is facing up to the profound changes wrought by digitization. Industry boundaries have become permeable. Data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of forecasting, decision making, and the workplace itself. All this is happening at once, and established companies are responding by rethinking their business models, redesigning their organizations, adopting novel agile-management practices, and embracing design thinking.
We’ve had a front-row seat at many such transformation efforts. Their importance, and the challenge they pose for institutions, has been well documented by management writers. But comparatively little attention has been paid to the cognitive and emotional load that change of this magnitude creates for the individuals involved—including the senior executives responsible for the success or failure of these corporate transformations. What makes the burden especially onerous is the lack of clear answers: the very nature of disruption means that even the best, most prescient leaders will be steering their company into, and through, a fog of uncertainty.
You aren’t alone if you feel threatened by this—everyone does, whether consciously or subconsciously. Even seasoned leaders internalize the acute stress of such moments—so much so that their judgment and decision-making skills seem insufficient. The result? They fall back on old habits, which, unfortunately, are almost always out of sync with what the current context demands.
The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem. In other words, we have many of the skills needed to handle what’s being thrown at us. But when faced with continual complexity at unprecedented pace, our survival instincts kick in. In a mental panic to regain control, we fight, flee, or freeze: we act before thinking (“we’ve got to make some kind of decision, now!”), we analyze an issue to the point of paralysis, or we abdicate responsibility by ignoring the problem or shunting it off to a committee or task force. We need inner agility, but our brain instinctively seeks stasis. At the very time that visionary, empathetic, and creative leadership is needed, we fall into conservative, rigid old habits.
You can’t steer your company through constant change if you are relying on the safety of your own cruise control. To spot opportunities—and threats—in this environment, we must teach ourselves how to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty. That means learning how to relax at the edge of uncertainty, paying attention to subtle clues both in our environment and in how we experience the moment that may inform unconventional action.
Developing this kind of inner agility isn’t easy. In some ways, it goes against our very nature, which wants to simplify a problem by applying our expert mind-set and best practices. To address complex problems, we need to become more complex ourselves. We need to recognize and appreciate emergent possibilities. That’s how the complexity we face can become manageable, even exciting.
In our experience, five personal practices can meaningfully contribute to the mindset needed for leadership effectiveness during transformative times. They are extensions of timeless principles of centered leadership; taken together, they can be the building blocks of your personal inner agility:
- Pause to move faster. Pausing while remaining engaged in action is a counterintuitive step that leaders can use to create space for clear judgment, original thinking, and speedy, purposeful action.
- Embrace your ignorance. Good new ideas can come from anywhere, competitors can emerge from neighboring industries, and a single technology product can reshape your business. In such a world, listening—and thinking—from a place of not knowing is a critical means of encouraging the discovery of original, unexpected, breakthrough ideas.
- Radically reframe the questions. One way to discern the complex patterns that give rise to both problems and windows of emergent possibilities is to change the nature of the questions we ask ourselves. Asking yourself challenging questions may help unblock your existing mental model.
- Set direction, not a destination. In our complex systems and in this complex era, solutions are rarely straightforward. Instead of telling your team to move from point A to point B, join them in a journey toward a general direction. Lead yourself, and your team, with purposeful vision, not just objectives.
- Test your solutions—and yourself. Quick, cheap failures can avert major, costly disasters. This fundamental Silicon Valley tenet is as true for you as it is for your company. Thinking of yourself as a living laboratory helps make the task of leading an agile, ever-shifting company exciting instead of terrifying.
To be clear, these steps are not panaceas but a set of interrelated touchstones. Nor are they trivial to tackle. (See sidebar, “Micropractices that help you find stillness.”) But with conscious, disciplined practice, you stand a better chance of rising above the harried din of day-to-day specifics, leading your team effectively, and surveying your company and its competitive landscape with creative foresight. Let’s look now at how this played out in some real-life examples, starting with two leaders who were trying to save a merger that had unfolded in unpredictable, troubling ways.