Leadership Imperatives for Complexity #2

Remember the 5 blind men and the elephant.

In the previous post, we talked about getting real about what’s complex and what’s complicated. If significant aspects of your situation are complex, you’ll need to practice different ways of looking at the situation.

Note: The application deadline for our annual coaching scholarship is August 22.
This year, we’re focusing especially on coaching for complexity.

The story of the 5 blind men exploring an elephant reminds us that what we see depends entirely on our perspective. This suggest two things we want to consider when working with complexity.

1.     Taking multiple perspectives on the “elephant” (our situation)

2.     Finding the balcony view where we can see the whole system

First the elephant.

Each person or organization has their own perspective on the situation, shaped both by their history and preferences and by their vantage point. We intuitively know this. For example, you don’t need anyone to tell you that the customer whose system is down sees things differently than the tech support person trying to fix it. Not just because of their different roles in this story, but also because of who they are. One grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, the other in New York City. One is just getting over the flu, the other is preparing to run a marathon. These factors (and many others) in addition to their roles shape how each perceives and responds to the situation.

When we are leading in complexity, it’s crucial to take many perspectives on the situation. Sometimes you may be able to talk directly with other people or organizations about different aspects of the system and different perspectives on the issues. Other times, you may need to mentally place yourself in their position. Either way, you’ll want to get curious and really listen to learn new things about the situation from their point of view.

Next, the balcony.

Given this elephant problem, we need not only multiple perspectives (e.g. trunk, ears, etc.) but also a bigger view. We need to step back and look at the whole system – the five men, the elephant, the surrounding area, and ourselves watching all that. The more you are personally involved with the system, the harder this may be. But you need a perspective on the system that lets you take in the whole, not just the parts. And ideally (although it can be a mind bender) you want to consider your own part in the system from this balcony observer perspective.

There’s a mindset shift here that’s worth some extra attention. Remember the old saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem?” Bill Torbert says we need to flip it to “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” This invites us to consider how we may be impacting the system and what options that might offer us for change.

Since all of the parts of the system are interconnected, a change in any part (e.g. you) affects other parts of the system. The changes are often unpredictable and sometimes perverse, but there will be shifts. (More on that in a future post.)

Here’s your homework.

Identify a complex issue you’re working on. Probably there is an issue that “pushes your buttons” in some way or feels a bit overwhelming. Maybe it’s that thing you’ve been intending to tackle for ages but for some reason, you never got started on it. (See the prior post for resources to help you determine what’s complex.)

Got one?

Now identify three perspectives on the issue that you haven’t yet considered. Maybe a particular stakeholder who isn’t really on your radar, a competitor you don’t know much about yet, a government or regulatory agency, etc. Now here’s the hard part. For each of these, bring to mind anything you know about their concerns, their worldview, their goals, etc. Then holding that mindset, see how your situation looks from their point of view. Having reflected on that, consider reaching out to them to get their point of view.

Let me know how it goes! In the next post, I’ll talk about


If you’re work on challenging social issues like poverty, diversity and inclusion, education, the environment, etc., check out the 2017 coaching scholarship. Application deadline is AUGUST 22.