Three complexity leadership principles for managing in a new role

Three complexity leadership principles for managing in a new role

In this video I reflect on some of the challenges I’ve been facing in a new leadership role that I have taken up, and relate these to some of my earlier learning on effective leadership.

There are three complexity leadership principles that my former tutor, Michael Cavanagh, suggested are especially applicable to leadership in the modern complex work environment:

• The need to focus on connectedness and process;
• The need to take a broader systemic view; and
• The need to have regard to the ‘greater temporal horizon’.

And although this sounds quite academic, these leadership principles do have practical application, which are examined in the video and below.

Complexity leadership principle 1: greater focus on connectedness and process

I am new to an organisation, in a new role, while the organisation itself is going through some very significant changes. It is therefore a struggle for me, in these early days, to find my place in the organisation. It is hard to get to know all the aspects of my role, where the role is going, and what the boundaries of it are.

What is clear to me, given that there is so much complex change taking place, is that I can’t possibly grasp it all in one go. So what this first complexity leadership principle says is that instead of trying to know all the detail and achieve specific goals, it is more effective to focus on the processes you can influence, and the connections between the individuals within the business. In this way you are able to get a sense of the workings of the organisation and can begin to address the challenges you face.

Complexity leadership principle 2: a broader systemic view

We can do this by recognising that the organisation we work in is a complex system and that it operates within various other systems (e.g. within industry, legal structures and so on). Complex systems consist of multiple connections that give rise to complex non-linear causes and effects. Outcomes are unpredictable and emerge from the interactions of the system. Therefore, we need to appreciate that this restricts our ability to influence things the whole time.

The unpredictability makes us feel uncomfortable. But, despite this, rather than narrowing your focus, limiting your view to the small piece of the world you can influence, it’s important, for effective leadership, to try to adapt your thinking to take account of systemic nature of the operating environment.

Complexity leadership principle 3: broader temporal horizon

It is also important for leaders to recognise that we operate in various timescales. Not everything is clear in the short term and not everything can be achieved at once. So whilst there might be a short-term need for certain deliverables to be actioned, there is a broader, longer term pattern that will unfold as a result of the system’s interaction, and we need to pay attention to this pattern as well.

It is also very useful to look back, because in a complex world, it is only with hindsight that we can see the patterns of cause and effect that have occurred. Thus reviewing how events unfolded in the past, we can learn about the kinds of patterns that emerge within our environment. So, whilst we may not be able to predict future events, we can exercise more effective leadership by preparing for the kinds of eventualities that are possible. This is relevant especially when you’re new in a position, facing significant a range of unfamiliar and unknown challenges.


Cavanagh, M. J. (2016). The coaching engagement in the twenty-first century: New paradigms for complex times. In Beyond Goals (pp. 183-216). Routledge.

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