What Does it Mean for Leaders to “Navigate Complexity”?

by Sandra M. Martínez, Ph.D. PCC

When we talk about the requirements for 21st leadership, coaches and consultants often emphasize (and I have stated it many times) that leaders need to successfully navigate complexity.  Some call it a “fitness for complexity.” Well, what does that mean? 

To offer several concrete examples, I’ll describe three behaviors or capabilities that I find are key to effective ways to navigate complexity:  a) sensemaking; b) exercising good judgment in decision making, often resulting in iterative action or “nudges;” and, c) creating safe spaces for deep dialogue and probing questions.  

This is not an all-inclusive list of the skills and capacities required for effective leadership in today’s complex and often volatile world. As a leadership coach, I have successfully worked with my executive clients to build their capacity for these activities, and to support their development to meet the challenges of leadership in their organization and industry so that they, their people, and their organizations thrive. 

  • Sensemaking is maintaining a keen awareness on many levels– as an individual, relating to your team(s), at an organizational level –and engaging with others to interpret what you are sensing, “making sense of it.”  This sensemaking capacity involves developing an awareness of the patterns of your own thinking, acting, and emotional dispositions as well as those of your team. What are your personal preferences, tendencies, and your team’s or organization’s unexamined norms? What is the impact of these patterns on the level of trust, your capacity for collaboration, and your overall resilience? This skill requires being curious about and developing a keen awareness of these patterns and involving others in your assessment. These sensemaking skills set you up for the following. 
  • In responding to your interpretation of what you sense, exercising good judgment in making decisions about action is enhanced by the sensemaking described above.  Actions taken are often iterative because frequently, in this quickly changing world, you need to recalibrate and adjust as you learn how others and your organization as a whole respond to given actions by monitoring how the context may have changed. This implies vigilance about impacts and patterns of response and making adjustments, when necessary.  A “nudge” at an individual level might be, for example, engaging in one or two difficult conversations to advocate for an action that you sense is key, but not being embraced, when your personal tendency is to avoid such likely conflict.  At a different level, in teamwork, a “nudge” in moving toward an objective of achieving more collaboration and innovation might be to change the structure of the teams, ensuring that team leaders get adequate support and empowerment to enact the change. In both of these examples, it would be important to monitor responses and learn to adjust interventions, so they are constructive.  In both these cases, an experienced executive coach provides a framework and support. 
  • Perhaps this third skill should have been described first in this list as it enables the dialogues necessary for success in the first two actions described above.  Creating safe spaces for deep, inclusive dialogue and probing questions, that test assumptions, is key to developing trust, leveraging the assets of your organization, and building your innovative capacity.  A leader monitors how she is responsive to the inquiry of others, uses her listening skills, and how she engages others.  Also, she supports others to set up norms and processes within teams and the organization to ensure, with greater probability, that her organization encourages robust discussion and entertains dissension, to readily examine diverse perspectives and possibilities for action. 

Navigate Complexity

In closing, I’ve described some key behaviors required for successful leadership in today’s world. An experienced coach helps you navigate complexity of your own personal emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical constitution to develop and execute your ‘fitness for complexity’ so that you can lead your teams and organization so they will thrive in challenging times.