Complexity, the Dragon that slays Heroes?

“This is always the problem with building heroes. To keep them pure, we must build them stupid. The world is built on compromise and uncertainty, and such a place is too complex for heroes to flourish.”

— Bernard Beckett

There’s a saying “We can be Heroes just for one day” and maybe the truism is that just like Fireflies, Heroes burn brightly and then are past their sell by date. Once, they slay the dragon, what are they good for?

Hero Leaders, in the modern complex world are problematic. Driven (at least subconsciously) by their egos and a need to be worshipped, they start to believe in their own myths. They see only their success and discount failures. They have a sometimes enviable belief in themselves, that they can overcome any obstacle, slay any foe and save the day. If only life in our complex worlds were as simple as fairly tales. There is a reason why fairy tales finish at the point of immediate and gratifying success, because after that it gets messy and a whole lot harder.

Believing that there is an easy solution is incredibly attractive. It’s easy and doesn’t require any great leaps of imagination from you or your followers. It seems the risk free option as, after all, what is being presented is something that is familiar and there is comfort in that; comfort in the known.

Leaders, surprisingly, can be incredibly inflexible, unwilling to take risks with new ideas and new behaviours. Potentially, it’s the fear of admitting that they don’t know, the fear of being vulnerable. This may way be because we’ve all bought into this idea that we pay our leaders to have the solution, to have the answer to any problem.  Together, Leaders and followers create this narrative that there is a right and simple answer, the holy grail of a solution that our hero leader can find.

In our increasingly complicated worlds, the likelihood of there being a simple answer is about the same chance of winning the lottery. Yet, Leaders promise their followers time and time again that there is and followers believe them. We see it in organisations and in our political machines. This obsession with their being a simple way to lead (and yes the Hero Leader is the simplest, borrowing from fairy tales, with just one evil foe, slayed by the purist of protagonists) is often a contributing factor to the mess we find ourselves in. The issues we face today are of the complex hue, multilayers and systemic. The nearest they get to the easy narratives of fairy tales is that the problems are ‘wicked’ and there isn’t one good solution; every answer has a compromise or a caveat. That’s not an easy sell for the hero protagonist whose purpose in life is to get the glory for slaying dragons. And whilst it might be easy to scape goat the hero for acting to type, we mustn’t forget about our followers who all too often want to believe in the easy, particularly when a problem comes neatly wrapped in a crisis (even if that crisis is of the Hero’s making).

In my experience, crises come in two flavours; internally or externally generated. Internally generated crises are often an issue with leadership and culture, whilst an externally generated crises link to things like market instability or a pandemic. Whilst the latter is largely outside of your control, how you respond is and in a crisis it’s important to take swift action to gain stability and then consider the wickedness your problem, and given it’s a crisis, it will be a series of systematic interlinking problems.

The most important skill to have when reviewing sticky problems, the kind of problem that causes a crisis is to take on the perspective of knowing nothing; being a tabala rasa. This is especially hard if your preferred style is to be the hero because from this stance you are the part of the narrative and expected to have the answers. This therefore makes the Hero part of the problem as they start from the assumption that they will have the answer.

Models are useful as a navigation tool when approaching a situation from a not knowing perspective. They are there to help you understand the terrain and are not a map, in themselves. It is up to the leader to use their team to create the map, to bring in range of people with the skills and knowledge to plot and readjust the course as more information becomes available.  The Cynefin framework, developed by Snowden, is a very useful tool to help gain understanding of the situation as it is and begin to help understand what to do next. (The other model, I use a lot is Logical Levels, but more of that another time).

Cynefin (Ky-nev-in) is a welsh word that literally translates to ‘habitat’. The aims of this model help you to understand the key components of your current context i.e. it’s qualities and natures and how this is influenced by what has happened in the past. It is multi faceted and like all truly complex things, we know there are many inputs into the system, yet we are only every partially aware of what those inputs are and like many models, it seems to me the main purpose of Cyenfin, is to increase awareness whilst simultaneously putting  edges on complexity through sense making. It would be a mistake to think that it’s aim is to make the complex, simple. The desire to make the complex, simple is understandable and a form of self-delusion that leads to danger and largely works by categorising some pieces of information as not important and potential in times of complexity, it is not possible to know what is and isn’t relevant (rather than not important) as it is not possible to know the all the connections between different bits of data. The aim of Cynefin, in my mind, is to give you a means to live with and be comfortable with complexity and complex situations. This includes the ability to understand that there is no such thing as the ‘right’ answer, just multiple answers that will give you different outcomes. This is where Hero leaders come unstuck, there are no baddies, no villains, just different things that have different impacts on the system.

The key to using Cynefin, is not to just to conclusions or try to categorise information.  The aim is to understand and explore the data and understand the inherent messages. This is both hard and soft data; numbers, stats, behaviours, ways of doing things. Almost anything is data and it is the making sense of it that turns it into information.

Cynefin, helps to understand systems by breaking it down into 3 types : Chaotic, Complex and Ordered. For ease, ordered is broken down into 2 sub types: Complicated and Simple.

In the Simple domain, the world is ordered and data and the patterns within it are evident e.g. x+y=z.  What is happening is easy to identify and therefore it is easy to take action.

In the Complicated domain, the environment is still ordered, i.e. there are still cause and effect relationships, yet it is not obvious and further work or expertise is needed to make sense of the data before responding with a potential solution. There may be lots of ‘right’ answers here and the key is to understand that implementing one of a range of answers will give rise to learning and provide more data on which to base future decisions.  There is no ‘best’ practice, just ‘good’ practice.

Within the Complex domain, the system appears to have no cause and effect relationships, and these are often only evident after the event. From a Leadership perspective, it is important to identify this to your followers. For example “ this situation is unprecedented and we will need to find solutions through experimentation and innovation, we will have to do it differently and we will find the answers together through your input and your ideas”.  Notice here, that there is no “I will fix this issue for you”.  The role of the Leader here is to create an environment where not having the answers yet, feels ok and feels safe.

Chaotic environments can be deliberately generated for the purposes of innovation. It is more likely, however, that chaos is caused by external factors, such as, market fluctuation, competitor activity or like our current situation, a pandemic. In these instances, the role of Leaders is to stabilise the situation before taking further action. Therefore, what is done is dependent on the situation and because of that action will be novel.

It is clear, that the message in this model is that what a Leader does, how they think and behave, is predicated by the environment in which they find themselves.  The issue is that much of the time, Leaders don’t reflect on the space they are in but react to the situation as they perceive it, without consideration. When they do this they tend to behave according to their personal preferences. Therefore, if their tendency is to Heroic Leadership, this is how they will react to any and every situation. Occasionally (but not often) this style will work (for some people) and that will be because of luck not design.

And this is the issue for Leaders. Leaders tend to get stuck in rut of their expertise and see every problem through that lens. This would be in Cynefin terms a disordered approach.  For instance, If you have a background in Policy, failure is a failure of Process (Simple), if you come from a specific area of expertise, then you are likely to view failure as a failure of knowledge and analysis (complex) and a crisis tends to appeal to those who want ultimate command and control (Chaos) and have the ability to stifle conflict by telling people to do what they are told for the good of the common cause.  True Complexity, tends to get interpreted as one of the other styles, according to the Leader’s preference.  Of course, not recognising what space you are in and reacting to your type, your preference, is likely to not bring about improvements and could make the situation a whole lot worse.

This tendency to ruin is particularly evident in the boundary between Simple and Chaos, with the darker line representing a cliff or chasm.  The issue is, if you believe that everything is simple and ordered, that you are the answer, and that your own mythology is true and that you are invulnerable. This opens up the possibility that you can fall into the chasm of complacency and the area you lead will be vulnerable in a crisis. This may well be because this type of Leader is part of the story of the crisis, as often our strongest traits can become our worst when overblown or overdone. The Hero becomes the organisational Villain or the Jester becomes the Buffoon. This is the one area where there is no transition between areas i.e. the aim is to stablise, chaos, to innovate through complexity, develop good practice (Complex) and eventually establish the Best way (Simple). The fall from Simple into Chaos is often sudden and surprising, even though the warning signs are there. This failure to take the right action is often painful and recover is expensive in terms of cost and often in terms of reputation.  The Simple area, whilst looking easy, is the area most vulnerable to rapid change.

And this is where we get back into the problem with Leaders and specifically Leaders who believe that they have the answer, or they are the answer; the Hero Leader, that saves the day. Heroes are simple creatures and that means, inherently they struggle with managing complexity.  A Hero slays one dragon and moves onto slaying the next but the world is no longer like that. Issues (dragons) are now highly connected and our actions have consequential interactions. It makes decisions making harder and it means that Leaders in the new world have to gather and listen to views, take in a whole range of information, enable others to give their expertise and most importantly, admit quickly when it’s not working and try something else. The era of complexity will need to be the era of the Leader who has the confidence to get it wrong, to innovate and experiment. This kind of Leader needs the resilience to take a few brickbats and keep going in terms of the overall purpose, but most of all they need to know that they intrinsically are not the answer.  They can’t be the kind of Leader that gets their identity shored up from being ‘the one’ with the easy answer, because easy answers, whilst popular with followers, are just a fairy tale in the modern world.


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