Coping with the end of reductionalist leadership in a complex world – insights from complexity and social movement

The King’s fund in the UK is an important think tank commenting on UK health policy.  Last week it published its thoughts on leadership and engagement.  As part of this the King’s Fund commissioned a report from the Centre for Health Enterprise at Cass Business School in London of which I am part.

Following a comprehensive literature review, heavily influenced by complexity sciences, we came up with seven essential criteria that are important to consider in an increasingly complex world, these were:

  • Go out of your way to make new connections.
  • Adopt an open, enquiring mind-set, refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Embrace uncertainty and be positive about change – adopt an entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Draw on as many different perspectives as possible; diversity is non-optional.
  • Ensure leadership and decision-making are distributed throughout all levels and functions.
  • Establish a compelling vision which is shared by all partners in the whole system.
  • Promote the importance of values – invest as much energy into relationships and behaviours as into delivering tasks.

So what has changed over the last few years to make this more important?  There are a number of reasons, but here I would like to look at one – social movements, which has been the subject of a previous post.  Here we stated:

The past five years has redefined the place of social movements, earning them a new place in papers like this, simply because the world of social media technologies has emerged so rapidly and with such powerful effect that social movements have almost unfettered and certainly uncontrollable power. The timeline for social movements has been rewritten. Mobilisation is now achieved in a shorter time than that required for differences and conflicts to emerge. The social movement exceeds critical mass long before fragmentation begins. In a world of instant, viral communication to a staggering proportion of the target population, the spontaneity of action and the lack of structures have reversed the power balance, so that social movements can form, mobilise, gain headlines and have powerful impact before organised systems are even aware of any opportunities or threat. (p14).

Not only have the rules of the game have changed, the boundaries of the ‘pitch’ have gone.  Whereas leaders used to think about a defined remit of their activity (for example boundaries of a single department or organisation) they now need to be far more aware of the entire ‘ecosystem(s)’ of which they are part.  In this case I’m thinking of the general public, patients, staff, the other organisations that come to affect the ecosystem, education, social care and many more.  In other words, there is the end to the illusion of certainly.  However, this is not to say that randomness takes its place.  There is a form of order, but not in the sense of comforting reductionalist predictability.  By reductionalist I mean that a problem can be separated and understood from its component parts allowing wider conclusions to be drawn on the whole.   However, useful insights can be made in considering the entire dynamic entity as it continually emerges and develops.  And it is here that the above bullet points are important.  This is why I have used a photograph of eroding sandstone as a metaphor for this post.  Although it is random in the sense of each grain of sand and the exact formation of the pattern there are predictable themes that do emerge, from which further thought (and in our actual case) action can be taken.

This brings me onto my final point –how should these seven bullets points be used?  Firstly, not as a point by point list, or like some instruction manual akin to assembling a piece of flat pack furniture.  That reductionalist approach would run counter to my argument.  Instead, I would suggest that they prompt conversation between people as to how they are jointly making sense of the developing and emerging world that they are a part of.   To have these conversations regularly and to share stories and experiences that makes sense to them and those that don’t.  Also, it enables people to explore their ability to become more intuitive of the emerging dynamic.  In this way the above bullet points become a prompt to conversation and joint understadning and not a constraint.

Reference: Welbourn, D, Warwick, R, Carnell, C and Fathers, D (2012) Leadership of Whole Systems, King’s Fund: (Accessed: 29.05.2012)

6 thoughts on “Coping with the end of reductionalist leadership in a complex world – insights from complexity and social movement

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