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Personal Reflection on Complexity and Leadership

Thursday, December 13, 2012

With the year coming to a close, I am taking the opportunity to pause and reflect on how we can continue to sustain our work in the future.  Our jobs are more complex and emergent.  Prior routines are no longer effective; it is more difficult to predict the course of our work and funding; and there is too much information, too much to do, and more and more people we need to engage.  

Rethinking your strategy?
Restructuring your organization?
Developing a network to advance social justice?
Managing leadership transitions?
Distributing leadership?

MAG may be able to help. To learn more about MAG’s organizational development services, contact us at 202-659-1963 or visit us at www.ManagementAssistance.org.

As a new Director, I find myself, like most of our clients, wrestling with how to manage my own sustainability in the face of so much complexity.   Seeking insight and inspiration, I informally tapped some of our clients, MAG colleagues, and a few articles as well as reflected on my own experience.  Below are a few thoughts that have helped me, and may help others stay inspired and present in this work. My personal goal this year is to take on a couple from the list that I am not utilizing now and put them into place more regularly.

1.    Embrace uncertainty.   Uncertainty is a natural outgrowth of operating in greater complexity.  When my response to uncertainty is to try to “know THE right thing to do” or “force THE best solution,” I only seem to succeed in making myself and others a little crazy.  Clarity in the face of a complex and uncertain environment cannot be willed into existence.   On the other hand, doing nothing while waiting for certainty to arise means I often miss opportunities and risk irrelevance. Instead I try to acknowledge what is -- name the multiple perspectives and forces at play -- and look beyond myself at what is actually happening.  By embracing it all and learning to hold my own internal discomfort in check, I can take what Gibrán Rivera calls the “next elegant step”.  By taking some initial action, trying a mini experiment or embarking on a calculated risk I can learn what is needed and what might work.  Then, with open eyes, mind, and heart, I can see what emerges.  By embracing uncertainty, I can learn to let go of what fails and build from what works.  

 I still have moments of vertigo—it is inescapable, it seems to me—because the environment is always shifting. But most times now, I can trust that my feet will find some ground eventually, and my faith is reinforced by knowing that the payoff for hanging through these moments is so worthy.   – Bill Traynor*

* Bill Traynor, “Vertigo and the Intentional Inhabitant: Leadership in a Connected World,” The Nonprofit Quarterly (Summer 2009): 83–86

2.    Re-imagine your relationship to failure.  A question I sometimes ask my coaching clients is… “imagine what it would be like if your organization was expected to come up with the most innovative, groundbreaking, bold strategies to advance your mission and success meant that a minimum of 50% of your ideas failed miserably.”  No, I am not suggesting that we should try to fail.  But I am suggesting that if we can do everything perfectly the first time around then we probably aren’t playing big enough given the scope, scale and importance of the issues we hope to address.  Recognizing and releasing a fear of failure and the pressure to achieve can expand our vision, impact and satisfaction with our work. See this great TEDTalk by Kathryn Schulz, author of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" : [http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html].

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. --J.K. Rowling

3.    Honor your natural rhythms.  For me, I do my best thinking and writing in the early morning hours and when I have a bigger block of time I can use to really focus.  Recognizing this natural pattern in my work style and rhythm has meant that I try to reserve chunks of time in the morning for my significant projects and use my afternoons for appointments and travel.  During my morning blocks, I stop looking at email, IMs or calls and have told my staff to text me on my cellphone if an emergency requires my attention.  A process of trial and error, a log book, and quarterly review of my calendar and timesheets helped me uncover these patterns and create new structures that support me.  

4.    Throw out work-life balance.  Manage your energy, instead. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t possible to create an artificial wall between work and life when it comes to social justice.  Not only is there more and more work to do, but that work isn’t constrained to a regular work day, my commitment and passion for social justice doesn’t end when I “clock out,” and my family and friends are as embedded in the work as I am.  

Recently I was introduced to an article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,”** which has given me an alternative approach to reducing stress and increasing my well-being.  Schwartz and McCarthy suggest a number of concrete steps you can take to renew physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.  For me personally, I have discovered several rituals that I use to support my energy flow.  Physically, I try to get to sleep relatively early, set aside time each weekend to cook for the week, and I’m starting up a regular exercise routine.  Mentally, I set my phone timer for 15-minute mediations before a particularly challenging piece of work begins. .  I also try to take a break  from work after dinner and have technology-free time with my family. Spiritually, I engage in practices that help me stay present in the moment including: breathing deeply and connecting to “still small voice” inside; writing down on a small slip of paper issues that I feel challenged by but are outside of my control and then placing them in a box on the top shelf of my bookcase (for me a physical manifestation of the spiritual practice of letting go); using tools I learned at Rockwood’s Art of Leadership particularly around feeling triggered; and participating in a regular Shabbat dinner with my community.  Emotionally, I’ve adjusted my mindset to appreciate each day as a win and I have regular check-ins with coworkers that help us to let go of negativity and celebrate success.  Overall, caring for my whole person helps me to continue doing a lot without feeling so depleted or overwhelmed.

** Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” Harvard Business Review (October 2007).

5.    Communicate more. Sometimes leaders feel they need to know all the answers or at least act like they do in order to be strong leaders, so they hunker down in the face of a challenge.  However, not naming the reality of the situation and isolating yourself from others undoubtedly increases stress, while reaching out to others and admitting to a difficult situation often leads to catharsis and a greater sense of clarity.  While some people may be judgmental about you asking for help, I’ve found that most appreciate being leveled with and invited to express their views, especially if it's regarding things that affect them.  

I try to be open with my staff about the big challenges I face.  They often have new ways of looking at the situation, innovative solutions, or generous offers to help.  When there is a sensitive issue that I can’t share with staff, I try talking to a trusted board member or my network of peers.  They provide a safe space for constructive venting and emotional support.  Sometimes, it also helps to get an independent sounding board.  A confidential consultant or coach may help you to address complex organizational challenges and dynamics, adjust to the current environment, and manage the additional strain on yourself.   

6.    Stay inspired by the big picture and open to new opportunities.  Seeing the forest from the trees can be hard in the press of daily work.  It is important to discover what helps you get some space from the grind and reflect on the big picture and explore new avenues.  For me this often can happen when I structure some time to step back with my MAG colleagues.  For instance, we recently developed a mindmap of trends we are seeing and hearing about through our client work.    I also periodically do a round of one-on-ones with a combination of trusted thought partners, people engaged in social justice work on the ground, and new folks who come from a vastly different perspective (like talking to a capacity builder working with organizations in the Middle East or a practitioner working with corporations and applying complexity theory).   Letting that all marinate can help me see an even bigger picture view and spark new creativity and passion.


Robin Katcher   12/21/12 10:23 am
Thank you Peter
This is a really excellent point. We often confuse commitment to "the most important objectives" (as Peter calls them) with attachment to the organizational structure we are working in. For me learning to see destruction as a natural part of evolution and transformation can be so hard. But that moment where I am really willing and able to let it all go and ask ... what is the ultimate aim and is this approach, structure or organizational form still the best vehicle for advancing it? Am I so attached to the structure's survival that I can only imagine doing what is possible within its constraints even when that work isnt what will have impact now? What if I could create what ever was needed to do the most critical relevant work and have the greatest possible impact? What would that look like? Im not suggesting that we blow up all organizations -- they are extremely valuable vehicles for social change. But rigid attachment to a specific organizational form risks that the vehicle is taking us for a ride and possibly in the wrong direction. thank you Peter!for sparking this conversation.

Peter Hayes   12/17/12 7:54 pm
Sometimes Let Go Of Everything, Start Again!
Dear Robin, thank you for this superb reflection. Sometimes, the eruptions that ambush a non-profit (and an individual) simply can't be anticipated and overwhelm budgets, capacities, mental scope. In addition to Robin's key five lessons learned, one also has to be willing to let go everything but the most important objectives, which is really really hard to do. And if the constraining vice is so powerful that it crushes the life energy out of the organization and individual, it's better to step aside, observe, and start again than to resist or merely adjust. This doesn't mean the objectives were wrong; just that they weren't realistic at this time. But it's wise to go back and re-examine the objectives and their underlying values when attempting to realize them results in organizational challenges that are devastating. Finally, we have the great advantage of agility and speed in the face of overwhelming complexity, unlike the corporate and government sectors. If we are alert, we can anticipate and adjust our course, even 180 degrees, in seconds--if we are willing to recognize that the wind has shifted, the tide has changed, the current is set against us, and the sails are torn to shreds. Also, we stay with the ship until the tip of the mast is below the water, before casting off as that maximizes the chance of rescue, including self-rescue. As in any organization, your crew are your greatest asset as they chose to come on this voyage, and infusing them with the courage to change is the leader's greatest challenge. Thanks again for your insights. Peter

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