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Leadership in the Age of Complexity

In June, I had the good fortune to address a group of international business leaders at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid’s IN3 event. I was inspired by the passion of this group, even as we all admitted that today’s fast pace of change and intense politics can give rise to discouragement, even among the most optimistic of us.

Business today, I argued, is more complicated than it has ever been, thanks to what I term '21st Century Globalization'. No matter where we live or do business, we’re dealing with the same difficult political and social realities, as shown by the tension between progressiveness and conservatism, to name just one. When you combine that reality with the digital revolution we are experiencing, I believe we are dealing with a new age: The Age of Complexity.

In this Age of Complexity, all of us – no matter our role or our experience level – are being driven to find new solutions. The growth agenda is constant, with demands coming from our boards of directors, investors, ecosystems and partners. Moreover, the business world moves at record speeds. How, then, can senior leaders manage through these difficult situations?

I believe there are five basic tenets that all senior leaders can follow to simplify their business interactions and drive results.

Tenet One: Be Mission-Driven

We are constantly inundated and attacked with new data, new ideas, Facebook this, Twitter post that, customer review this, Glassdoor review by your employees that. The noise never ends. 

To focus ourselves and our employees, we must be clear about our mission. We must embed and embrace mission-driven thinking into our organizations. This is important because it will clarify your purpose. It will keep you - and your employees - focused on your North Star, and it will allow you to accomplish and build the collaborative capacity of your organization. Once you have that, you will then be able to frame business challenges in ways that invoke inspiration.

Tenet Two: You Must Have Purpose and Passion

We have all heard this for many years, and all the old business books cite passion and purpose – many in their titles. Even though it often sounds like a cliché, the reality is that in today’s world, having purpose and passion are vital. The energy from your purpose and passion are safety nets, to ensure you don’t get lost.

From a leadership perspective, it is necessary to model that purpose and passion for your employees. It's no longer sufficient to have reward systems be just about title, about pay, about bonus, about commissions, about promotions. We know that purpose and passion, when executed, can be contagious. This is what becomes the new reward paradigm for our organizations. The energy from the shared sense of passion will move mountains, which is why I challenge you to think about, "Are you doing everything you can to drive your purpose and your passion into your organization today?". The results of doing so are immense.

Tenet Three: Relentlessly Pursue Progress

In my mind, progress equals action. There will be failures and mistakes, but you never give up. In doing so, you build the resilience in your organization so that when you get knocked down, either as an organization, as a business, or as an individual, you have the ability to jump back up, to adjust, to reinvent, to change the course of where you're going and to carry on. 

Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz, talks a lot about how there are no silver bullets. You must just keep going - not letting obstacles stand in your way. This is the very essence of being an entrepreneur: it's not enough to just have purpose, passion, and being mission-driven, but you must have this relentless pursuit of progress built into you and wired into your teams.

Tenet Four: Foster Engagement Through Ideas

This is a big one for me, and it really goes back to challenging what many of us learned in business school. Historically, we’ve all been taught that organizational design means hierarchy; therefore, hierarchy is good. 

But in today's world, direction and results executed through hierarchy alone will often result in failure. Direction through a model that's built only on power and status will not unleash the potential of your organization or your team members. Instead, ideas matter; influence matters. So much so that today, our engagement with our employees, our customers and our ecosystems must come through social capital and social capital contracts. That's about human interaction.

One of the biggest things that I fight in my organization is this concept of the big reveal: I do not believe in it, and it’s not allowed! It is completely wrong for a leader to stand up, present a PowerPoint deck and proclaim, “This is our new direction,” if no one in the room has ever seen it, heard about it or participated in the discussion. Yes, as leaders we need to set the direction and vision, but motivation comes through early iterative input and collaboration.

Ideas don’t need to be bulletproof. It is necessary to iterate and get feedback; it is okay to discuss and even be wrong -  that’s how we learn as individuals and as organizations. In fact, pushing out ideas early engages people in the discussion and builds alignment. Ultimately, you’re building a better outcome.

Tenet Five: Project a Dynamic Energy Flow

This is the most theoretical tenet, and it really is about being the real you. 

This is to be authentic, so as to foster access and engagement. I have raised this as a tenet to follow because a lot of us have had executive coaching in which we were told, “Talk a little bit less”, or “Talk a bit more”, “Be a little less forceful”, then, “Be a little more forceful”. Or, “Dress like this, but not like that. Or that”. I say rubbish.

Yes, we have to calibrate our approach for each situation, but today investors, employees, and your customers want to know that they see the real you. Take the opportunity to be yourself, and be your real self through every interaction. It allows you to build trust in your organization, trust with your consumers, trust with your investors. It inspires them.

Going forward, today’s issues need strong leadership. Our teams, our partners and other groups need inspiration – from us. As senior leaders, we have to engage with our organizations at all levels. I believe that the five tenets above lead to this greater engagement, and will provide the new paradigm of leadership in this Age of Complexity.

This post was initially published on LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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