[May 22, 2014] During the 1980s, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR was frightening, complex, and potentially deadly for millions of people. The stakes were high, the issues multifaceted, and solutions were hard to come by. Ultimately, the U.S. President and USSR leaders agreed to put some controls on nuclear weapon development. U.S. President Ronald Reagan agreed and eventually developed the concept of “trust but verify” to ensure that the USSR upheld its part of the bargain.
When working at the senior leader level, the types of situations (or problems)1 we often find ourselves involved in ones that are very complex and difficult to manage. The risks can be enormous; the lives of people, the failure of a large company, etc. The mark of a successful senior leader is to first understand the complex situation. To understand it is hard; to communicate it to others and offer solutions is harder.
I have personally seen many leaders, especially at the senior leader level, fail to know that they are in a state of affairs that demands their attention. Usually these situations are new and come as a surprise, stretching their personal leader capabilities so much that they have either simply overlooked the problem (very likely) or have chosen to ignore the problem. Leaders oftentimes do not have the relevant experience to recognize and act on the issue.
Therefore, leadership failure to understand complex situations is usually an outgrowth of leaders being unable to bring the issue within their mind, to think about it, to put into perspective and relevance information that they have, and to define the problem. This is why so much literature on complexity focuses on identification of the problem and why we are so often surprised by it.
In my experience there are many pertinent factors that go into understanding complex situations. There are two important factors in my personal experience to understanding complex situations:
- Having an established, experienced senior leader team that works closely with the senior leader on other major organizational issues. They provide that relevant experience needed to begin the process of understanding the issue by putting it within the context of their organization.
- The senior leader, him or herself, must be capable of visionary judgment. The leader must be able to look into the future and keep the organization on its mission.
Understanding complex situations also means being able to simplify it so that it can be communicated to others. President Reagan was able to do this with this “trust but verify” policy on nuclear weapons.
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 For the purposes of this senior leader characteristic blog, complex situations (or problems) means that something may be difficult to define and may change in response to some solution; may not have a single “right answer” or any answer; has many interrelated causative forces; has no (or few) precedents; has many stakeholders, and is often surprise prone. Often we know that a complex situation or problem exists but it is not clear what the problem is. Some people simply call this a “mess.”