Leadership: Leading in Complex Organizations

Many of the organizations I work with are complex. This means they have one or more of the three attributes which make leadership particularly difficult:

  1. Geographic distribution – employees, customers, and partners are spread around the country, region, or the globe. Each physical location creates separation, challenging alignment.
  2. Multi-disciplinary – staff members have differing professional backgrounds, seeing the world in fundamentally different ways. For example, medical doctors, space scientists, and macro-economists each have different mental models for how things work.
  3. Multi-cultural – when people are from different ethnic backgrounds, they have different core values, use different body language, think and express themselves in unique ways.

Each of these attributes creates complexity, challenging the impact of leadership and causing confusion within the ranks. Check the boxes in this table to describe your work environment.

One Two Three or More
Geographic Locations
Professional Disciplines

If all your checks are in 1st column, then moving things forward is a matter of gaining shared understanding. You can count on a consistency between agreements and behavior.

If you are primarily in the 2nd column, your success depends on significant coordination and translation. High performance coordination is the skillful and effective use of structure. Effective translation means taking the time to convert one group’s point-of-view to messages that are easy for the other group to understand.Quality translation preserves both feelings and intentions.

If you find yourself in the 3rd column, you are in a non-linear environment.This means that relationships are not straight-forward. This kind of workplace can wreak havoc with you if you expect to apply a cause-and-effect approach. For success you will need to balance (1) a clear intention about what needs to be done with (2) the ability to embrace multiple points-of-view, especially when they conflict.

To develop a clear intention, define the overall change you are seeking to achieve. This is your preferred future state. With it, you can identify the areas you need to address in order to achieve success. Your environment will shift, and even change radically in a complex organization.Your intention, however, will remain constant and serve as a compass when you need it.

Embracing different perspectives is a leadership competency that is challenging, yet it can be learned. It involves accepting different ways of looking at the world, and allowing them to co-exist even when they appear to conflict.

One of my favorite metaphors for this is the beach-ball. Imagine you are opposite me and we are looking at the same beach-ball which is exactly between us.We are both perfectly still and so is the ball. You might describe what you are seeing as a white circle. I might describe it as a red circle. Neither of us is wrong. However, we are both incomplete. As soon as one of us moves, or the ball moves, we immediately see a third dimension. It is not a circle, but a ball! The added dimension reconciles our different, accurate, and incomplete descriptions.

In complex work environments, leaders are constantly challenged to hold onto their compass – their intentions – and to reconcile differing points-of-view by finding solutions that embrace many perspectives.