group of medical staff in a meeting sitting at a table looking at a laptop

The problems we face today require that every one of us embraces the mantle of leadership available to us wherever we find ourselves in the current system. How then should we lead?

Sometimes, traditional leadership approaches are the right ones. As Keith Grint notes, in critical situations -having a clear line of command - where everyone knows their role and there is no dissent - is appropriate. Similarly, in situations where you have known and predictable outcomes - the ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’ issues described in Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework - you can manage them and know what you’re likely to get. 

And some aspects of COVID-19 need these approaches. If you’re building a large field hospital, for example, though it’s complicated and logistically tremendously difficult, you’re building on a known pattern. But other situations call for different approaches to leadership. These situations are best described as complex.

We have been working with leaders at all levels in the health and social care system, between us, for over thirty years. Our focus for much of that time has been on helping leaders to develop the skills, tools and confidence to lead collaboratively – across professional, organisational and cultural boundaries – in complex systems. 

Complex systems are settings in which:

  • Individual leaders do not have the answer(s) – there may not even be ‘an answer’ and instead we have to aim for partial or good-enough solutions;
  • The environment is volatile – constantly changing, with information which seems sometimes sketchy and sometimes overwhelming, and because of that the future is uncertain;
  • You won’t be able to predict what happens - there isn’t a straightforward ‘cause and effect’
  • There are multiple purposes – all of which are valid, some which may be conflicting;
  • People can’t wait for instruction – they have to think, and act, on their feet;
  • No heroic individual can lead us from the top or the front – the situation needs lots of people leading, at all levels in the system.

Four suggestions:

  • Recognise that with risk and experimentation comes ‘failure’ – find ways to learn, make mistakes, fail fast and move on, without being surprised or accusatory when things go wrong. This is exceptionally difficult at one extreme, when failure literally costs lives. But the principle applies everywhere: we are all trying to adapt to new ways of working. We will get it wrong sometimes. So we need to find ways of learning as we go, sharing what we’re learning, ‘borrowing with pride’ and being kind to ourselves and others.
  • Let go of outdated mental models, ‘frames’, which tell us how the world ‘is’. Much of what we ‘know’ is changing: we know, for example, that virtual conferences are no substitute for the ‘real thing’ of face to face meetings. We know that work takes place between morning and evening, we know that people are only productive when they’re physically doing things, and that people will put in maximum effort only if they’re alternately rewarded for good performance and penalised for poor performance. If we are open to developing new frames, the new world post-Covid-19 might have interesting possibilities and opportunities. New ways of knowing, new paradigms.
  • Create virtual spaces where people can collaborate, share information and experience this crisis together. Technology can be a powerful enabler of relationships and collaboration. We are seeing incredibly rapid learning in IT solutions to replace meetings, both formal and informal. Less common seems to be use of virtual learning spaces, forums where people can connect with others in a learning environment, get and give feedback in a safe, collaborative space. Leadership trainers have an important role here, to offer those virtual learning spaces, so that people can use them and are encouraged to collectively develop their learning about what it means to be a leader in this context. But they need to take place when and where people need them, be supportive and not distract from focus on the crisis. We have seen physical spaces used as places to download, vent and recover – Wobble Rooms, as some hospitals have called them. Where are the virtual wobble rooms?
  • Find ways to harness and spread interest and energy – it will ebb and flow – to keep people motivated and resourceful. We have seen a lot of emphasis on connected virtual physical activity, on learning new skills, on sharing innovative ways to learn together. Leaders are building stronger relationships and connections across their teams through encouraging the sharing of personal stories and pictures, anecdotes and humour. These have an important function in counter-balancing a narrative of fear and panic which can paralyse and create a sense of powerlessness.

“In these troubled, uncertain times, we don’t need more command and control, we need better means to engage everyone’s intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise” 
Margaret J. Wheatley, 2005. “How Is Your Leadership Changing?