April 8, 2020

COVID-19, Complexity, and Dancing with Chaos

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Contributing Authors: Eric Norwood, FACHE  and  Michael Hein, MD

Over the past several weeks, we are seeing complexity play out in dramatic ways. Significant changes are likely taking place for you in terms of how you view your role and impact as a leader. In this post, we’ll explore crisis leadership insights to help you maximize your impact and navigate emerging dilemmas. Like being exposed during a flash of lightning, sometimes powerful leadership insights are revealed during a storm. Some can be novel and powerful.


The COVID-19 experience is complexity in real time. Critical solutions are unknowable until they emerge and are discovered, if we as leaders are looking out for them. Real experts are hard to find; they are learning along with us. The world appears to be disordered, and next steps are often unclear.


Crisis demands change: Rethinking your leadership approach


We believe our current experience calls for a change of posture in leadership. We need to intentionally shift away from one of “Standing on the Hill” overseeing the battlefield (Heroic Leader) to one of “Walking Hand-in-Hand” co-creating coordinated movement with others (Gardener Leader), finding a way through the fog towards a bold, innovative path. If we pay attention, any member of our team may be the one to stumble upon the path forward, the novel solution, the nudge we need to employ. 


Leaders during these times need to resist the temptation to reach for greater control. That only slows down the responsiveness and agility of the organization, when speed and novelty would serve better. This kind of leadership, where you lean towards co-creation rather than control, requires a great deal of HUMILITY. The leader needs to acknowledge that she not only doesn’t know all the facts, she can’t know all of the facts. But, by co-creating with those around her, she and her team can place some bets (nudge the system). Such leaders will be vigilant for emerging solutions, seizing upon them to rapidly promote the dissemination of those novel solutions across the network, all the while, moving forward, looking for more. That same humility requires leaders to be willing to acknowledge what they missed, as new facts emerge, and then adjust their course. 


Case in point: Humility makes way for the new


A recent example was on display when Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College of London  “clarified” his original worst-case forecast from 510,000 deaths in the UK to less than 20,000 based upon new data and actions taken so far. What if instead of clarifying his original estimates, he changed his opinion based on new data? Chances are his audience would respond with appreciation rather than ridicule.


We see a lot of healthy debate in the scientific community over optional paths forward. We also see much finger-pointing and complaining about our trusted leaders and experts, who we expect to have quick facts and solutions in place. And Heaven help the leader or expert who suggests a course correction!


Our prior commitments to a Complicated worldview — one filled with simple solutions, expert directions, and transparent cause-effect relationships — are causing us to stumble over a complex reality, one where emerging solutions arise from anywhere and become the preferred approach.


Sowing grace, reaping better outcomes


Leaders need humility, and followers need to show grace in times of complexity.


We all need to extend grace toward leaders to make it easier for them to adjust their path forward as new solutions emerge. Laying blame is counterproductive and can make it harder for leaders to make timely adjustments.


The truth is no one knows for sure where this coronavirus will take us — we’re placing informed bets. We are updating them as we learn more from our experiments. We are intentionally nudging, not directing, the organization into the future — a future that isn’t predictable. The arrogance of the Complicated Expert mental model, often unhelpful to begin with, destroys the emergent novel solutions that could be organizational salvation in a Complex World.


Dancing with chaos


One more thought: Some parts of our world are dancing with chaos. We’ve been learning that in chaos, leaders need to take decisive action with clarity and confidence. However, it’s essential to be intentional about which direction on the Cynefin graph the leader takes things.


The research admonishes us to lead back towards complexity and avoid the temptation to drive towards the simple. The attraction towards simple is powerful and destructive. The literature is clear that moving from chaos to simple is what breaks organizations. 


For example, forcing the way to simple from chaos is perhaps what happened in Germany in the 1930s or Venezuela in the 2000s — hand the keys to a leader who makes all the decisions and everyone else is forced into a few simple solutions, by dictate.  


Leading back towards complexity is a choice to lean towards humility, a form of servant leadership that engages the insights of the team members to find the way.


Think of General McChrystal and his daily videoconference, and the junior staffer who noticed a critical detail that unlocked the right solution. Be that kind of leader: one who chooses courageous humility over arrogant heroics. You don’t need to have all the answers. Your team will find them. 


Becoming the anomaly


Humility captures our attention in all of this because it can be an anomaly in a complicated world full of self-proclaimed experts. Even in the natural sciences, there is very little that is genuinely “settled.” There will always be things that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” But when we find ourselves in complexity, if we, as leaders, can’t be humble and admit to what we don’t know (or act as if we do know!), or even question what we’ve always believed that we do know, it doesn’t work. Humble leaders are just what we need in complex times.  


When the stakes are very high, when the pace of decision making is rapid, when the context is dynamic, the teams that shine are those that had previously invested in developing a culture of co-created movement. 


What are your thoughts about these ideas? Both of us believe that “iron sharpens iron” — we learn and shape our ideas as we engage in dialogue about what we are learning together.

Michael Hein, MD has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.

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About the author

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC is a trusted, experienced advisor to C-Suite leaders, helping them improve their performance individually and corporately. He is a catalyst for change for his clients.

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.

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