By Pratap Nambiar for The Sunday Times

Complex times mean unlearning the problem-fixing mode. Be comfortable with the unknown. Integrate cognitive and emotional aspects. It’s okay to go on an inner journey. “The world is not what it was. So much has changed. I don’t have any solutions, and I don’t know if I will ever have any answers to questions I have never asked myself before.”

 These are the exact words of a CEO client with whom I was conducting a coaching conversation a few days ago. How does that make you feel, I asked? She thought about it for a while and then said two things.

First of all she was feeling lost and completely out of control. “I don’t think I can get any ideas from all the Harvard Business Review articles I keep reading.” She found this unnerving and it took her into unknown territory where she did not know how she was supposed to lead any more.

I don’t think she was the only one feeling like this. The whole world is out there struggling to find new ways of adapting to the challenges that none of us had ever envisaged. So even as we struggle, we should know: we are not alone.

 

MANAGING COMPLEXITY

Professor Rick Nason, in his book It’s Not Complicated, says that if you manage complex things as if they are merely complicated, you’re likely to be setting your business up for failure.

Complicated problems can be hard to solve, but they are addressable with rules and recipes, and experts who have solved these algorithm-based problems before. They can also be resolved with systems and processes, like the hierarchical structure that most companies use to command and control employees.

However, the solutions and tools that help us fix difficult problems cannot deal with complex problems.

Complex problems involve too many moving parts, too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. Tried and tested methods, working longer hours or just harder, just cannot work where there are just too many unknowns.

Dealing with complexity requires a new way of thinking. The past is a poor guide to the future, and as author Charles Handy says, when we deal with ambiguity and uncertainty: “We need leaders who delight in the unknown.”

It was Professor Robert Kegan of Harvard who highlighted that when we are experiencing the world as too complex, we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and the complexity of our thinking.

The structure and complexity of our mind is not able to cope with the external complexity, and so we are overwhelmed. Hence the greatest investment we can make as leaders is to keep growing our minds beyond just abilities and skills, but through new ways of thinking.

Slowing down is the first step in navigating the treacherous waters of the unknown.

Leaders have to unlearn a great deal based on how they have led in the past. Dr David Drake, the founder of Narrative Coaching (which takes a mindful and holistic approach), asks leaders to rewind their stories – what they have been telling themselves, consequently shaping the realities they experience – based on the environment, their aspirations, mindset and behaviours.

Most importantly, he asks them to check on the impact their stories have on their identity. Continuing to protect identity prevents them from developing new stories necessary to deal with complex times.

The critical skill needed is to notice how external challenges trigger their internal self, their self-image and everything about themselves that has made them successful in the past.

 

INTERNAL OPERATING SYSTEMS

Today leaders need to change their internal operating systems. It was Robert Anderson, author of Mastering Leadership, and founder of The Leadership Circle process of assessing leadership effectiveness, who first introduced me to this concept.

This is how, when business became more and more complex, the old DOS had to be replaced with Windows, which itself had to go on being upgraded to deal with greater levels of complexity.

The internal operating system of leaders needs to keep evolving, requiring better and more complex designs as the old self reaches its structural limits. It is the structure of mind that drives performance. Hence, to achieve a higher structure of mind, the leader has to be restructured.

Dealing with complexity is essentially an inner journey, requiring a new level of consciousness, a new self, a new way of thinking, so a new self can emerge. This is the time to experiment and learn, to get out of the problem fixing mode leaders are so used to and let the actions emerge as you go along.

Just try out stuff that you – or for that matter others – have not tried before. This is where it becomes critical to overcome fears and try not to operate from a mindset of trying to resolve everything. Taking risk is intrinsic to this process.

It requires a great deal of curiosity and no fear of failure, or even the loss of status or power, or recognition – purely performing experiments to see what develops.

Every country is approaching the Covid-19 virus in its own way and on its own terms. The price some of them have paid for it is immense, while some countries have done really well through different forms of experimenting.

 

EXAMPLES OF TRANSFORMATION

Three client companies where I have helped transform the entire C-suite in the last few years have shown remarkable agility of thought during the pandemic.

An Australian company that was a leading supplier of towels and sheets to the hotel and hospital industry, through various team conversations, focused on its biggest strengths. These were its trusted relationship with hospitals and its Chinese suppliers.

The outcome was that it did many multiples of millions of dollars worth of business supplying its hospital clients with much-needed personal protection equipment. It has made more money this quarter than in the “good” times, and has plans to sustain it.

An Indian company manufacturing edible oil and the largest brand of hair oil developed a new supply chain using food delivery companies to sell its products to customers using its app. It also leveraged on new technology to help its dealers place orders directly with supplies made through the simultaneous link with distributors’ warehouses. Simultaneously, it developed a new product offering natural disinfectants to clean vegetables, altogether generating increased revenues and profits in these challenging times.

The third, an American multinational food company with its regional headquarters in Singapore, showed remarkable dexterity when, for unfortunate personal reasons, its regional leader had to leave and it found itself in the midst of a crisis. The humility, passion and selfless mindfulness with which each country leader coordinated and pulled each other up to not let performance slacken, is a wonderful testimony to their collective higher order of consciousness.

MAKING BETTER CHOICES

The leadership “ask” has changed so much. Reactions are not the right response. It is the creative structure of mind that drives better choices. Leaders have to intentionally support the development of greater complexity of mind through integration of cognitive, emotional and behavioural aspects of perception and interpretation to act in a different manner.

The usual ways of trying to manage constant anxiety does not lend itself to managing the changes needed in the mental make-up to deal with adaptive challenges.

Prof Kegan has also done work to help us understand the journey of adult development, and the need to break through the threshold of the socialised mind operating with an external locus of control, to a creative mind that is self-authoring and built with a strong internal locus of control.

The greatest need for leaders today is to understand how to change themselves, reinvent themselves, transform themselves, and increase the complexity of thought in keeping with the ever-increasing complexity of our times.

Clients usually come to me because they have become aware that what has worked for them in the past is not likely to work in the future. They know that what used to be

self-confidence has now become self-righteousness, and a strong sense of identity gets in the way of accepting feedback, and their own team has succumbed to telling them what they want to hear. In fact, they have gathered “yes” men around them as they shy away from any potential challenge and misplace the need for agreement as the need for loyalty.

They have a strong desire for control, although nobody can control complexity, and they are aware they are trapped in a cause-effect way of thinking though they are now working in a completely unpredictable space. They hunger for certainty, driven by their delusion that they alone are responsible for their success.

 

THE NEXT LEVEL

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says that as leader, her job is to help address and reduce the anxieties of her people. This can happen only if the leader facilitates the process of exploring the minds of the people, along with the underlying assumptions and beliefs that drive their anxieties.

Prof Kegan says that anxiety is the most important private emotion in public life. What limits us is the system that we have developed to constantly try and minimise our anxieties. Alter the assumptions, the beliefs and you can change behaviours and help overcome fears about the future.

If you want to take the organisation to the next level, particularly in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity, you have to influence the thinking process of your people. You have to change the very language they speak, and get them to explore possibilities, taking them to places they have not been before.

A lot of this can be achieved through asking a broad range of very different questions, rather than the typical questions most leaders use when trying to fix problems.

What are you willing to give up to get to where you need to be? Are you willing to shed the rock that you have been carrying for so long? What was going on in your mind when you made this choice? What is your inner voice telling you now, what is your narrative? What is it that you fear? What would we be doing differently if we look at this situation a year from now? What kind of culture would we have after we have resolved this issue? How would your identities change?

I ask my clients how many times they sit around and have conversations without an agenda, not to discuss their work-related issues but to reflect together and discuss aspects that they have never done before?

This involves developing new perspectives new ways of making meaning of what is developing around them, creating new material to learn from, and committing to new experiences without any fear of failure or recrimination. These conversations are not only critical among one another, but also with themselves.

Introspection and deep reflection– searching for the inner consciousness that will teach and inform in a way that has not happened before. Learning, then, is not of a reactive nature, not downloading old habits of thinking, and continuing to see what they always have and are comfortable with.

The reflection is not about old mental models and old habits of thought and action, but at a deeper level to create awareness of how we interact with the world and all the competencies that can develop from these interactions, and how we can create an alternate future.

This is an inner journey, an exploration of the emerging reality and finding ways of being in harmony with the truth. And with deep listening, address the challenge of answering the question “What is the truth?” So many versions of it exists today.

The social media scene and the associated fake news have made it no longer easy to align yourself to the truth. There is no longer one truth, you just choose your version of the truth.

We cannot work alone, but in an interdependent fashion, with our whole self, crossing existing boundaries and embracing the physical, emotional and economic pillars of the new leadership paradigm.

Leadership is a journey of constant development and self change. To be comfortable with the unknown and prosper will become the single biggest competitive advantage that leaders can give their organisations.

In the words of Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Awakening: “Ultimately, preparation is more about being centred and present, rather than anticipating every possible outcome.”

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect (Singapore), dedicated to coaching CEOs and senior leaders transform themselves for better performance. 

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020. Image used in this article is also courtesy The Sunday Time.

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Thought Perfect offers leadership transformation coaching  for CEOs and senior business leaders to improve their business performance and maximise their potential. The company has coached senior executives of global multinationals based in Singapore as well as in other parts of the world, including India and the United States. If you are looking for an experienced executive  business coach to help your senior management, contact us now to discuss your business objectives and challenges.

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