This month I celebrate a milestone—a full year of writing for Actionable! In this post I’ll revisit the first two topics I wrote about, to shed light on how leaders influence and shape organizational cultures. The first topic, complexity, helps frame the kinds of cultures we need to create for our organizations to thrive. The second, polarities, offers up a way for leaders to ensure that their behaviors contribute to the creation of effective cultures.

Let’s start by talking about complexity and, specifically, the distinction between complex and complicated. Complex, unlike complicated, involves navigating a path with an unknown outcome that invariably includes turns and twists along the way. Complicated, no matter how many steps are involved, describes a problem that has a known solution. Increasingly, the problems that we face as leaders are complex, rather than complicated:

How do we scale our enterprise and retain what makes us special? How do we remain profitable when our product is becoming a commodity? How do we respond to the pace of change in technology and stay relevant?

Another way of framing this distinction comes from the work of Ron Heifetz, co-author with Martin Linsky of one of my all-time favorite books: Leadership on the Line. Heifetz distinguishes between technical problems and adaptive challenges.

Technical problems, which can be complicated but are not complex, can be easily identified, and either managed by you or assigned to the right person with directions on how to fix them. Many of the day-to-day issues we face are technical problems. It can be very satisfying to tackle these problems—giving us the feeling that we are getting something done and reducing uncertainty.  

Adaptive challenges are the very definition of complex. Solving an adaptive challenge requires changes in the way we work and in what we believe. At any given point, we are likely working with one or more significant adaptive challenges (see the questions above as examples of adaptive challenges). For these types of challenges, the solutions can’t be imposed top-down—they must be created and owned by the people who do the work. Adaptive challenges take time: they require experimentation and they will almost always entail some failures along the road to success.

For organizations to thrive in complexity, they must develop cultures capable of tackling adaptive challenges: cultures that are safe for experimentation and failure, cultures that allow multiple voices to contribute ideas, cultures that are resilient.

This requires that leaders take a hard look at themselves. Are they leading in ways that support these qualities? What are they consciously and unconsciously doing that might undermine their organizational cultures?

This is where polarities come in.

A quick review: when we reach a point where we feel stuck, or are confused, we can almost always identify a polarity that is in play. When we can uncover that polarity, it can help us to get unstuck. Identifying and working with a polarity doesn’t “solve” a problem—it helps us to reframe it and allow new options, and creates different ways of seeing and thinking about our reality. For example, when I realized that I could access both humility and confidence, I was able to become less afraid of being perceived as arrogant, and be more fully present.

A polarity that can help us to create thriving cultures is that of being and doing. While the formal work that we associate with our role as leaders falls into the “doing” side of the polarity, much of our impact is in our “being,” which gets much less attention.

Being is about how we show up, moment-to-moment. Our being is expressed in the level of trust we exhibit in our teams, and in ourselves. It’s conveyed in our ability (or inability) to be calm under pressure—to be able to slow down and breathe when what we really want to do is react. Our being comes through in the way we respond when we don’t know and don’t have the answers. It’s expressed in our faith in our own and our organization’s capacity to navigate through complexity—and survive our mistakes. It’s expressed in the quality of our listening.

When we focus primarily on doing—rather than being—the results or impacts are often different from our intentions. There are often gaps between how we think we are being perceived and what others experience of us. The quality of our relationships may suffer. Our ability to manage the polarity of being and doing as leaders can be the difference between effectively managing complexity, and leading adaptive change, and failing to do so.

Our being, often more than our doing, determines whether our organizational cultures can handle complexity and adaptive challenges.

In an essay titled “Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host Margaret Wheatley gets to the heart of it. Wheatley suggests that we hold a view of leader as hero because we assume that leaders are supposed to have answers—they should know what to do. Even when we say otherwise, our being (remember the polarity?) feels and communicates these assumptions. We may say we don’t need to know, but are afraid when we don’t. We may tell others that we trust their experience and expertise, but in times of stress, demonstrate that we don’t. When we don’t know, we feel as if we are in some way failing. The idea of the leader as hero runs deep in our history and even in our biological need for certainty.

Another assumption that we often make is that “high risk requires high control. As situations grow more complex and challenging, power needs to shift to the top.” When things get complex, we tend to revert to command and control thinking—both as leaders and as followers. We clamor for leaders to “fix it” or feel responsible, if we are in charge, for being the “fixers.” Leaders are judged harshly (often replaced) when their attempts at heroic leadership fail (I write this as Puerto Rico is suffering mightily after Hurricane Maria. The desire for heroic leadership seems palpable, and the expectation that an adaptive challenge can be handled through a technical fix may well be at the heart of the tragic situation).

A heroic leader will focus almost all their energy on the “doing” of leadership. To quote Margaret Wheatley again:

Many of us can get caught up acting like heroes, not from power drives, but from our good intentions and desires to help. Are you acting as a hero? Here’s how to know. You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things; that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can save the situation, the person, and the world.

When we invoke heroic leadership we end up, in Wheatley’s assessment, “feeling lonely, exhausted, and unappreciated.” We also create organizational cultures of dependence and disengagement.

Given that we are operating in complexity and facing adaptive challenges, Wheatley proposes that we “abandon our reliance on leader-as-hero and invite in leader-as-host.” This requires that leaders admit—in their doing and in their being—that they do not know all the answers, and genuinely trust that the way forward will require that they invite in the talent, creativity, and commitment of the entire organization.

“It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems.”

A leader-as-host must remain conscious of the being of leadership. A leader-as-host listens, learns, reflects, and tolerates errors. A leader-as-host is aware of their being, moment to moment, and develops the capacity to catch themselves when they revert to the “hero.” She notices when she starts to overly focus on the “knower” or “doer.” A leader-as-host asks themselves whether it’s better to step back when he really wants to step in, and listen when she really wants to speak.

Jennifer Garvey Berger, author of Simple Habits for Complex Times, and the person from whom I learned the distinction between complex and complicated, was quoted (in a recent tweet) as saying that “… somehow, knowing less gives you many more options. It means that you’re not locked and loaded.” Leaders who allow themselves to know less can create possibilities for others to bring more of their talent and their creativity, and more of themselves to work. By not being “locked and loaded,” so much more is possible—including vibrant, thriving cultures.

As we cultivate the being side of the polarity, we don’t ignore the doing. What we will find is that our doing looks different. We can collaborate more easily, we can speak with greater clarity, we can create strategies that are informed by broader perspectives. The beauty of a polarity is that leveraging one side changes our relationship to the other. The two, together, form a whole.

To pay more attention to being, start by simply observing. Notice when you feel as if you should know. Ask yourself if that’s your only option. Think about what question you could ask in that moment instead. Know that you won’t always get it right. That’s ok. Experimenting can be essential.

If you’re like me, this practice will not be comfortable at first. We have been taught to have answers, to know, to be able to give sage advice. Leader as hero can feel hard-wired. And, when you are used to giving answers, they may be expected. Yet, I can attest that it’s worth pushing through. When I remember to step back, to give others more space, to listen more deeply, to both be and do, others contribute more and better. New possibilities emerge, and complexity seems less scary. True collaborative relationships are possible, and leadership feels less lonely. That’s worth a bit of discomfort.