This current coronavirus outbreak begs a fundamental look at the question: What leadership guidebook, rules or templates does one follow when the complexity and uncertainty we face is beyond our comprehension or control?

In 1999, I was enrolled in a class on Adult Development theory as part of my doctoral studies in Human Development & Adult Learning.  The entire semester was devoted to one book by Robert Kegan, a well-known human development researcher and psychologist at Harvard at the time. The title of the book was “In Over Our Heads”, published in 1994.  As an avid reader and lover of theory, I have to admit, I both was fascinated and overwhelmed by the book at the time.  I knew this work was pointing to something I intuited unconsciously by the work I was doing with leaders, but the limitations of my own mind wrestled with understanding it all.

I kid you not, I read the entire book three times that semester.  Each time I did, I felt like a child finding the answers to a series of “why’s.

“Why were human beings so divided?”

“Why were there so many explanations about the same fundamentally human things?”

And finally, it led me to understand the answer to this question more clearly:

“What is needed from leaders in today’s complex and uncertain world?”

You see, what Kegan pointed out was that adults, just like children, are constantly learning and growing. Learning is not just gaining knowledge or information, as most of us equate it to, but was also changing the way we look at something completely.  He also pointed out that our learning and growth as adults is not keeping up with the complexity of the world we live in.

The big “aha” from Kegan’s work was this.  Modern life is not living in an isolated tribe in an isolated place.  It is a diverse, technologically advanced, global, complex, and uncertain interrelated system.   There are many things we are exposed to or presented with that we do not know or understand.  As humans, our habit is to make up stories to explain these things so that we feel grounded and comfortable about what is happening around us.  The problem is that the operating system we have in our minds that creates these stories is not advanced and developed enough to be able to separate from our frame of reference to see what is actually happening around us.  We are literally “in over our heads”—swimming in uncertainty and complexity that is unknown to us and that no simple story can explain.   Our attempts to control our environments, quell our fear and discomfort, and create a story anyway is often futile and divisive.

Leaders who are used to being in control, all-knowing, and having all the answers are suddenly thrust into a zone of discomfort and unfamiliarity in the midst of the uncertain and complex situations we face in modern times.  The reference point of what we did in the past is not sufficient in navigating complexity—as the past data we used to make decisions no longer applies to an unknown future.

Navigating the unknown requires a surrender of control.

It requires a set of skills and way of looking at things that may feel unfamiliar and even weak to someone who is used to having all the answers.

Leading in complex and uncertain times requires a different leadership face than we may have been used to wearing:

·     It requires a separation from the story that tells us that authority and control is about creating an image of being all-knowing and the tribal patriarch.

·     It requires comfort with discomfort, and the ability to hold a calm, grounded space for ourselves and others in the absence of answers.

·     It requires us to separate ourselves from our own ego and personal stories, and look at the whole system and landscape from afar rather than how it affects us personally.

·     It requires us to see all the stories people are creating, look for how they are similar, and serve to unite them into common ground.

·     It requires us to ask the question “what is needed here” and respond from a non-defensive, humble place of empathy, understanding, and common humanity.

Bottom line:  Leading in complex and uncertain times requires a powerful ability to see the sameness in what seems to be difference, and to continuously remind people of that sameness.  This type of leadership sees and appeals to the fragility of all human life, and inspires unity with transparency, honesty, trust, hope, and faith.

Above all, it reminds us all of our inner strength, resilience, and power to survive and thrive as one species and as united citizens of the planet Earth.

Peace & Light to you–