This article first appeared on Wearesalt.org
Perhaps the greatest characteristic of our times is the speed of change. The world we knew growing up is vastly different to the world we face today. And although we may hold mixed feelings on how we view the change, one thing is certain. With increasing change has come increasing knowledge. Our ideas of how things work have largely shifted over the past few decades. As this knowledge grows, what has begun to emerge is an overarching structure that underpins the working of every adaptive system.
This structure is different to the abstraction of old – a top down concept called the Great Chain of Being, with roots in the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece and the derivative philosophies during the European Renaissance, that classified ontology in hierarchical categories.
Today, we understand that we are interconnected at all levels of our reality. From the smallness of our brains to the vastness of galactic objects, there is an intricate web that connects everything with everything else. The discovery of the DNA and subsequently of the process of horizontal gene transfer even debunked the vertical descent of Darwin’s Tree of Life by showing an impenetrable thicket of interrelatedness across all species.
This knowledge would definitely have implications for the leaders of today. Firstly, it means that they are part of a deeply interconnected entity where they can no longer manage through a top down approach that caters to the instinctive desire for control. And secondly, it means that they are leading a complex adaptive system, which is fragile by its very nature. Leading is now about building resilience within the organisation by successfully integrating all its autonomous and differentiated parts into a harmonious whole that can adapt to changing circumstances and harness the opportunities in an increasingly uncertain world.
What are the personal traits that enable leaders to do so? Firstly, it takes humility – a willingness to listen and implement other people’s ideas. A groundbreaking study led by Adam Grant, management professor at the Wharton School of Business, found that leaders who had their own ego under control, were the ones who were able to empower employees to take initiative and dream up better and more adaptable ways of performing. Recent research also shows that humility wards off anxiety more than the prized qualities of self-esteem and mindfulness. This is especially important for leaders, whose pressures can lead them to make instinctive decisions that are based on emotions and unconscious biases.
Secondly, it needs compassion – the ability to enter the lives of others and see the world from their perspective. This is critical in the complex organisations of the 21st century where leaders can often become disconnected from the people who work for them, leading to a downward spiral where employees lose sense of the larger purpose. If we take away one thing from the development of our brains, and we should, given that ontogeny and phylogeny recapitulate each other, an observation initially made by 19th century German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, we would realise that connections thrive on compassion. The better leaders are able to nurture relationships, through small actions that build trust, leading to loyalty and employee retention.
And lastly, it requires faith – a certain trust in the sense of direction of the organisation and the ability to dance with it. In a VUCA world, where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the norm, faith allows a leader to “sense and respond” so that they can adapt to challenges and opportunities with agility, while staying aligned with a larger purpose. This does not always come easily, nor naturally. Leaders have certain expectations placed on them that urge them to predict and control. However, sitting with the discomfort and vulnerability of not knowing, with faith in the emerging properties of the interaction of heterogeneous agents may be just what our leaders need.
Our world needs more leaders, urgently. Not the ones who explain cause and effect through biased assumptions and tribal emotions. Nor the ones whose autonomous pride keeps them bound to a “predict and control” style of management that creates fissures at every level. We need leaders who can hold on to multiple systems of conceptualising the world and can move away from “either-or” thinking to one that is more “both-and”.
Robert Kegan, developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard, says that this ability lies in what he calls the Self-Transforming Mind. By his estimates, only about 1 per cent of the adult population is at this level of development. This may seem like bad news for organisations looking for leaders of today and for tomorrow. The good news is that the strengths needed to self-transform are buildable. Humility, compassion and faith are distinct qualities that can be nurtured, so that leaders can show up as orchestra conductors who are able to appreciate and harness the brilliance of their team.
The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.