Leadership in Transformation in Complex Environments

On Wednesday 19th June I was a guest of both Harvard Business Review Brasil and Infinity Conferences who were hosting their first event on the transformation of leadership in complex environments. My wife Maria Auxiliadora had been invited by the organisers to discuss how to lead people in complex environments. Maria has been a long time champion of both the principles of biomimicry and also the philosophy and processes developed by BCI, and she discussed how business leaders in Brazil could be inspired by the principles of nature in developing their business strategies. The article below is a slightly shortened version of an article which was written by me and published in Portuguese by Harvard Business Review Brasil (Liderança em transformação em ambientes complexos).

Leadership in Transformation in Complex Environments

This event has come at a historical moment in Brazil, one where hundreds of thousands of people have been peacefully taking to the streets to send a strong message to their own leaders regarding the lack of education, security, health, corruption and economic mismanagement. President Dilma in an extremely symbolic moment was roundly booed at the start of the Confederations Cup, a moment which was broadcast around the world and which became the trending topic that moment on Twitter. I was absolutely delighted to be at this event especially as it was so in tune with two themes so close to my own heart; transformation and complexity.

Harvard Business Review Leadership

Starting the day with two international keynote sessions was Peter Capelli, Professor of Management at The Wharton School. Peter began by discussing the “attribution error” which causes people to blame a person far more than the circumstances in which a person finds themselves, and the “Pygmalion effect” which is where students who are told they will do well do far better than students who are told they will not. His conclusion therefore was that “the problem is often not leadership but management.”

His talk was really interesting for me when he discussed his research in India and China. In India, although society is extremely hierarchical, there is a huge amount of investment in employees. He continued talking about India in the “talk show” panel session, pointing out how when a US company does well, it is the CEO who is on the cover of business magazines. In India, CEOs do not talk about themselves or the leadership team, but rather saw competencies as coming from within.

In China the culture is one where so long as people are honest, they have security. The assumption is that everyone is telling the truth since they have security. There is transparency but China do not develop leaders well. Peter did not mention any research relating to Brazil, but it seems that Chinese culture is almost the opposite to the culture in Brazil, where only 6% of people have trust and confidence in others, and it causes great problems in many aspects of business and social life here.What was extremely surprising to me was Peter’s observation on Generation Y and the Millennials. Peter specifically stated that any research relating to this new generation are “fake” and that it is a “consultancy thing”. The problems organisations now face with Gen Y are the same problems organisations have always faced, since a 22 year old today is no different to a 22 year old 10 or 20 years ago.

Peter’s talk was followed by Anthony Mayo, Senior Lecturer of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard Business School who spoke about Contextual Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence. What was interesting in this talk was his observation that the higher up a person is in an organisation the less they can accurately see reality since they are less self-aware. The leadership are less likely to have people disagreeing with them or giving them feedback, and they have no one above them to coach or guide them. The next trait in which they lack is empathy, unable to understand the point of view of others, and they are more likely to be “political animals”.

Maria Auxiliadora

After lunch came a talk by Maria Auxiladora Robinson, Director of Education at Symnetics on how to lead people in complex environments with constant change. She began by stating what qualities a good leader should have in the new context in which we are living:

  • A clear sense of history in that they understand why there is a need for change
  • A sense of reality in order to know what to change
  • Coherence based on values to give people the confidence to change

Her emphasis was on showing that it is possible to create a more organic, authentic and legitimate model of leadership focussed on meaning and purpose. Focussing first on recent history, sensemaking and reality, Maria took us through the non-linear change we are now experiencing, a rate of change that our linear minds and mental models are no longer able to cope with. Building on the notion of ego discussed in the morning, Maria discussed the move from ego-centric to eco-centric thinking and introduced the organisational framework of the Biomimicry for Creative Innovation institute which is based around the following principles of organisation found in nature:

  • Resilient
  • Optimising
  • Adaptive
  • Systems-based
  • Values-based
  • Life supporting

She then went on to discuss which companies have moved away from the traditional command-and-control paradigms with an over-reliance on hierarchy, and which are leading the way in implementing radically different sustainable organisational structures, structures which can sustain the survival of the organisation through both good economic periods and more challenging ones. Maria talked about Local Motors and their disruptive model of innovation which is based around engaging communities, Gore Associates’ lattice organisational structure, Patagonia’s focus on sustainability and conscious consumption, and the Amoeba Management System of Kyocera. These case studies were placed in a context of the challenges for leadership, and for Maria these are the need for

  • Transparency
  • Active listening
  • Confidence and humility
  • Flexibility
  • Vision and purpose

These tied in well with what was discussed in the morning in terms of the challenges of contextual and emotional intelligence. To finish with Maria discussed the importance of dialogue as the key solution to complex problems. Her inspiration comes from David Bohm, and Maria summarised some of the key guidelines for what Bohm conceived as good dialogue. I teach dialogue at Sustentare Business School, but I have two days to take students through a deep learning journey, so that they can comprehend just what a difficult skill true dialogue actually is while also appreciating just how important dialogue is for the solution to problems but also as a tool for unlocking collective creativity.

Guidelines for Dialogue

It was interesting therefore to then take part in an in-depth case study facilitated by Alexandre Santille, the President of LabSSJ. In this case study we discussed training solutions for executives such as networking, feedback, influencing, co-operating and empathy etc, and it was clear that ego also played a large role in the problems facing the organisation being analysed. I think for me one of the main points is that ego is one of the most difficult issues for a person who is trapped in ego to recognise. We therefore have to work with people first on the recognition of the problem, which for me is a very significant part of the solution, which can then flow and be implemented with far less difficulty.

In this event on leadership I saw very similar parallels with the Bioeconomics summit. Juan Enriquez began his keynote by really emphsising just how much money Brazilian entrepreneurs could make from biotechnology, and Peter Capelli jumped in with a startlingly crass slide with the single slogan “It’s all about the money” – just that – “It’s all about the money.” I think Maria should really be congratulated for taking the discussion to a much higher and inspiring level, where purpose and vision are paramount, showing some great examples of organic and authentic leadership. I would also like to recognise the vision of Harvard Business Review and Infinity Conferences in having Maria speak since she was the only woman presenting today on leadership, and it was great to see her own philosophy and vision of leadership which is steeped in purpose human values recognised, also by the many delegates who were taking many photos of her slides.