I recently spent time on retreat with an Executive Committee who were working on issues of business transformation. As the workshop progressed, the conversation increasingly became focused on responsibility and control. When to take it; how to own it; what to make of it. And it reminded me of the story of President Harry Truman, who famously had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read “The Buck Stops Here”.

Turman’s sign is so emblematic because it supports the prevailing idea that leaders should have all the answers and control what happens. Yet, as we increasingly understand the organisations that we lead as complex systems, it becomes ever clearer that the assumption of control is no longer appropriate as the cornerstone of our leadership task.

Complex systems have a number of characteristics that fly in the face of leadership control. They are nonlinear, meaning that there isn’t direct causation between our leadership actions and the effects that result. Such systems are also subject to emergence: novel outcomes that are difficult to predict or regulate.

There are two other key characterises of complex systems that render our ability to control them questionable. That is they are adaptive and they are interdependent.

Complex Systems are Adaptive

Complex environment’s react; they don’t just acquiesce to what we want. And they react in a special way that enables them to adapt to their circumstances in order to maintain their thriving and survival. Adaptiveness is when a system modifies itself to a changing environment. When a decision or action changes the environment to the system’s disadvantage, it will adapt to regain at least some of these losses.

Take for example the case of an MD who attempted to reduce the overall expenses bill of the sales force by reducing the size of the sales field that each sales executive operated in. In theory this would mean each sales executive would travel less. However, the sales executives had become used to a certain level of expenses supplementing their income, so the system adapted. Sales executives spontaneously began having their sales meetings in the furthest geographic distance to maximise their travel within the new sales region. Three months later the expense bill was almost exactly the same, but now the total number of meetings had decreased as sales executives were being less efficient with their time.

When leaders assume they can control a situation, it’s based on an assumption of cause and effect being uni-directional. That is that the leader can create a cause that has a predictable effect. Yet what we know about any system that involves people who have opinions and are in any way able to govern their own actions, is that they will have a view about any intervention from a leader and they in turn will act back on that decision.

Complex Systems are Interdependent

Complex systems have a high degree of interdependence between the constituent parts. And when leaders are working with complex issues, it typically involves working with multiple stakeholders to the problem. This interdependence between stakeholders is further complicated because these stakeholders not only have different needs and desires, but each group is likely to define a issue differently depending on their perspective on it.

The system operates more like a network than a hierarchy, so a leader can’t assume that they sit outside of the system and act on it. The leader is a key part of the system. Leading in this type of environment requires that we work with the complexity inherent in the system to try to bring stakeholders together. In these situations, the shift is away from controlling and towards convening.

Initiating and convening conversations can shift people’s experiences on the problem they’re trying to solve and is more likely to result in forward momentum. The leadership practice on convening to help people articulate the question and to listen deeply produces energy in the system rather than consumes it. It shifts part of the responsibility back onto people, allowing them to find their own power to resolve issues and take forward action.

What we can and cannot control 

According to stoic philosophers, this is about understanding what is within our control and what isn’t. We can control our own intentions, the processes we use to lead and our own behavior. What we can’t control – often much to our frustration – is others’ responses to what we say and do; their beliefs, biases, emotions and behaviors. We can impact them, but we can’t control them. This difference between impact and control is crucial as we lead complex systems.

Sometimes it is only by giving up this illusion of control that, paradoxically, we are able to shift the systems towards what we actually want. An example from parenting teenagers: when we try to impose our will on our teenage children, they push back against it with predictable regularity. So eventually, parents who are outcome focused and not dogmatic, learn to lighten up a bit and offer insights and suggestions without the imposition of their own solutions. To our delight and naive amazement, in these circumstances we often find our young folks moving towards what we’re advocating. They’ve got nothing to rebel against and their own insight and wisdom is allowed to kick in.

As leaders, we may all wish to consider how much time and attention we’re giving to the things we cannot control relative to the things we can. Accepting that ‘control’ in a complex system is an illusion allows us to shift our notion of leadership responsibility away from having the answers towards one of enabling the system to find its own solution.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway is an organisation effectiveness consultant with two decade’s experience working with executives as they grapple with disruptive change and relentless complexity. She helps executive teams increases their adaptive capability as they align their culture to their purpose and as they solve intractable problems.

About Jacqueline Conway