Learning To Lead Through Times Of Great Complexity

This post was originally published in Forbes Magazine on August 6, 2020. You can read the post on Forbes website here. Laura Maloney is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council.

As humans, we naturally seek simplicity, routine and predictability. When we see a problem, we want to be able to enact a straight-forward solution. Often, however, our problems aren’t simple, but complex. The Covid-19 pandemic might be one of the most complex environments many of us have ever encountered. Those of us in leadership roles may feel the weight of frustration and overwhelm as we juggle multiple demands for our time and manage situations with no obvious solutions that tap our emotional reserves.

The Cynefin model is one tool that can help us make sense of the challenges we’re confronting and match the most appropriate leadership approach to each situation. The model helps leaders diagnose and categorize events as either “simple,” “complicated,” “complex” or “chaotic,” and helps people organize everything swirling in their midst so they can avoid applying an ineffective “one-size-fits-all” approach to problem-solving and learn to form agile responses to complex, novel situations.

One of the first steps to acquiring more breadth as a leader is learning how to identify the type of situation you’re in as well as its cause and effect (or the absence thereof). Let’s take a look at the four types of events leaders can face, the efficacy of different leadership styles and how leaders can transcend their default leadership style to better address any event.


A lot of tasks in our lives are simple activities that we can successfully predict and navigate with an established order of operations. Think about the safety checklists we follow when boarding a plane or the standard procedures doctors and nurses rely on. Simple situations are repeatable and have a clear, seeable cause and effect. But not everything in our world works this way.


The second type of environment leaders confront is the realm of the complicated. In organizations, people may think that most situations they encounter are complicated, so leaders often feel at home in this space. Complicated problems have an attributable cause and effect; they are challenges or situations that are solvable, but the solution may lie outside of the leader’s field of expertise.

This is when leaders call on experts, consultants and advisors to deliver solutions. For example, you don’t have to know how to solve a technical issue yourself, because you can hire someone with the right expertise to do it for you. However, because we’re used to navigating complicated situations, we have a tendency to think there’s always someone out there who can “fix” any problem. But not every problem has a researchable solution or even a true cause and effect.


Most situations involving any kind of social change lie in complex territory. Typically, complex problems have no clear relationship between cause and effect and you often cannot rely on history as a reliable predictor. In hindsight, you might be able to look back at a complex problem and say, “I should have seen that.” However, with so many variables at play, it would have been impossible for you to see what was on the horizon.

Looking at complex problems through hindsight can spark blame within organizations. People might say, “Why didn’t someone see or address this issue?” But, there’s a chance that the source of the issue wasn’t so clear at the time it was occurring. Only in retrospect could we see there was a pattern that led to the circumstances that eventually unfolded.

Effectively leading through complex situations requires a more experiential mode of management, which is at the root of innovation. Frustration and impatience can set in, however, when leaders don’t see the results they were aiming for quickly enough. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding.

If leaders try to overcontrol the organization when tackling emergent complex problems, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Hiring experts to “fix” complex problems will not have the desired impact. Rather, the best course of action is to hear from diverse perspectives and allow innovative pathways to emerge.


Chaotic situations are unpredictable, abrupt and cataclysmic. Two obvious examples are disasters like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. While “command and control” and directive leadership styles are effective in restoring stability after a chaotic event, applying this type of leadership to complex problems can cause more harm than good.

The sudden onset of Covid-19 was a chaotic event. The initial reaction to chaos is to immediately stop the bleeding. Over time, the goal is to move the situation from the chaotic domain to the complex, where leaders can work with their teams to test new approaches and identify patterns that may help to shape a path where a successful outcome is within reach.

Getting Comfortable With Complexity

Assess whether you tend to employ one leadership approach more than others. For example, do you prefer to apply a command and control approach to most situations, recruit experts to “fix” an issue, or move most things to a standardized process?

Some of us tend to think almost exclusively in complex terms (even when situations don’t require it) while others may oversimplify problems or lean toward a one-size-fits-all leadership style. Once we’ve learned to distinguish the difference between simple and complex problems, we can recognize our tendency toward one particular leadership style and actively work toward developing our aptitude for the others.

If you’re dealing with a persistent or recurring issue within your organization, where there is no direct correlation between cause and effect, a good way to begin flexing different leadership muscles is to invite a group discussion with voices from different vantage points to see what may emerge.

All of us have cultivated a set of tools and approaches to help us deal with tough situations. Like scaffolding, every complex situation we experience becomes part of a framework that strengthens our ability to withstand future complexity so that, over time, complexity becomes more comfortable and less daunting.