Leading in Complexity: Pandemic Edition


Several years ago, while reading Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Simple Habits for Complex Times, I was introduced to the distinction between complex and complicated. This distinction gave me new insight into why we often get stuck, frustrated, and overwhelmed by challenges. Being stuck, I realized, is rarely a result of not being smart enough to know the answer. It is, instead, a function of being faced with a challenge that is complex—unpredictable and unknowable—rather than complicated–predictable and ultimately knowable—and not recognizing the difference.

When we treat a complex challenge as if it is a complicated problem, we see our inability to “solve” the problem as being about ourselves and our limitations. The strategies we employ to manage a complex challenge don’t work—and we don’t see that there is a different way to operate. Learning to name whether what we are dealing with is complex or complicated—and responding accordingly—produces dramatically different outcomes.

Fast forward a few years from when I was first introduced to this distinction and began to employ new strategies for operating in complexity, and navigating life during COVID is a little less stressful than I think it would otherwise have been. I’ll get to that later.

The Cynefin Framework

Complex and complicated are two of the five domains in the Cynevin (Kin-e-vin) framework which was developed by Dave Snowden just over twenty years ago and has been evolving since. Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning habitat, suggesting that these are fluid and dynamic rather than rigid domains. Together, they create an eco-system.

The domains move from highly predictable (obvious and then complicated) to unpredictable (complex and then chaotic.) The fifth domain is disorder—which is where we find ourselves when we aren’t intentional or have not yet named the domain. As we move from the most to the least predictable domains, the relationship between cause and effect shifts and what is known and knowable changes. Different practices and different modes of leadership are effective in different domains.

The Obvious Domain

The most predictable domain is the obvious. We sense, categorize, and then respond in repeatable ways. Data entry and simple recipes are good examples of obvious. As are social distancing practices. If we follow the same steps, consistently, we’ll get the same outcome. The relationship between cause and effect is clear. We can establish best practices.

Shifting to Complicated

Building a rocket ship is complicated. Here, we sense, analyze and respond. Expertise and research are often required; there can be many parts and pieces. Still, cause and effect can be identified in advance—even when it takes effort to get there. Plans can be formulated; good practices are identifiable. Financial processes and computer systems are additional examples of things that can be complicated. In the COVID context, guidelines for opening a business safely are mostly complicated—especially as we know more about the disease and how it works.

Operating in Complexity

With complexity we move into the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are unknowable in advance.  Cause and effect can be identified only in hindsight. HEhre, we initially probe, we sense and then we respond.

Parenting is my favorite example of complexity. Children are unpredictable, especially as they grow older, and we are not in control of the outcomes. To the degree that I learned to let go of my pre-conceptions of who my children “should” become and gave them space to emerge as whole humans, the better off we all were. Wanting our kids to be good, decent people—that is a direction and vision. That’s quite different from wanting them to become Harvard graduates—that’s a destination. In complexity directions work, but destinations can get us into trouble. The recent college entrance scandal is a stark example of treating parenting as if it is complicated, rather than complex. It resulted from parents being highly committed to a specific outcome and believing they could, as long as they had the money, control the path to get there.

Human cognition is wired more for complicated than complex, and for that reason we can find ourselves looking back at situations that were complex and believing we (or they) should have known more than was possible to have known, losing site of the essential nature of complexity. Cause and effect were unknowable and the path was never going to be linear. When we accept complexity, we can be kinder to ourselves and to others.

In this time of global pandemic, much of what we are dealing with, from working at home, to navigating the return to schools, to simply managing relationships in a very new context is complex. Recognizing the complexity may not eliminate the stress, but it can create more space for self-acceptance and grace.

Once we name the domain as complex, we can move from problem-solving and planning to navigating. We can create safe-to-fail or safe-to-learn experiments—small, lower risk and frequent experiments or probes that offer us immediate and useful feedback. Some of the things we can experiment with in complexity are slowing down, listening deeply, collaborating more, ensuring that we are bringing in divergent perspectives. In complexity practices are emergent. Our job is to support that emergence.

The Domain of Chaos

In the least predictable domain, chaos, the relationship between cause and effect may be unknowable—even in hindsight. While none of the domains of Cynefin are inherently good or bad, chaos is the domain that we mostly want to avoid. It is often the outcome of natural or man-made disasters. Until recently, chaos was the domain I would spend the least amount of time on when sharing this model. It was primarily a cautionary tale. No longer.

In response to chaos, we need to act quickly, we must stabilize the system. We invent novel practices—because we must. Some of our attempts will fail—and some of those failures will not be safe. In the process, we will identify new practices that we can draw on even after we’ve stabilized and are no longer in the domain of chaos. In that way, chaos can be a time of creativity.

When COVID-19 first hit, leaders at all levels made decisions quickly, for the moment, within the context of what often felt like free fall.  The deeper reflection, the collaboration, the long view, the value of slowing down that are inherent to complexity were temporarily sidelined by the need to quickly assess, reorganize, and repurpose. As we learned more, some of those initial reactions turned out to have been mistakes while others contributed to new ways of thinking about the future.

At the start of the pandemic we saw the use of what complexity theory describes as “blunt instruments” to ensure stabilization. Lock things down, create stringent rules, close borders—you get the idea. It was a necessary first response. As we learn more and recognize where the risks are greater, these approaches are modified and adjusted—we shift back into the domains of complex and complicated—and even obvious.

One more important point about chaos—it can also result from wrongly diagnosing something as simple when it’s complex. For example, assuming there’s a simple Law and Order response to the complex issues of racial injustice and the ensuing protests is an example of a simple response to a complex problem and applying this “simple” response creates the conditions for chaos.

The Leadership Imperative

In the midst of a pandemic and the political and social strife that we are experiencing in the United States, the domains of obvious and complicated are occupying less space than the domains of complexity and what Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston call “the edge of chaos.” This is true in our lives, in general, and especially in our lives as leaders.

Navigating complexity requires intentionality and awareness. Otherwise, we risk responding in ways that will be at best ineffective and at worst disastrous. Being intentional about responding to each domain with the appropriate tools or strategies is essential for producing desirable and productive outcomes.

Leaders can support the people they lead by helping them to better understand the nature of the moment—giving them the language to make sense of what they are experiencing.  Helping people to understand the nature of the challenges we are facing can be both supportive and empowering.

Garvey Berger and Johnston write that leaders at the edge of chaos need to be highly attuned to human response—connecting at a human level, understanding the many different responses we have to chaos and supporting people with a range of responses—from those who are more at ease and those who experience anxiety and desperation.

What this means is that we, as leaders, may need to get more involved than we are used to with the personal lives of the people we work with. Listening more, checking in more, encouraging our teams to prioritize self-care are some of the things we can do. Making sure that your team members are taking time to recharge and access their resiliency becomes part of our jobs. In this time, the lines between the professional and the personal may feel blurred—I believe that as leaders we can and should embrace that.

My fervent hope is that we will use what we are learning now to move us forward in new and different ways. The issues we are facing as a planet are inherently complex. The more that we clearly name the complexity, we create the possibility of addressing systemic issues such as climate change and racial injustice, as well as the immediate challenges posed by a global pandemic. My hope is that we can make meaningful shifts that genuinely improve our lives.

Digging Deeper

For a brief introduction to Cynefin, I recommend this four-minute video. As a bonus, you get to “meet” Jennifer Garvey Berger.

Dave Snowden and his co-author Mary Boone in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article  introduced the Cynefin framework.Dave Snowden’s and Sonja Blignaut’s blogs are two of my go-to resources to stay up-to-date about how the framework is evolving and being applied.

Leading in the Time of Coronavirus

To say that this is an unsettling time is an understatement. Having been in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War, I am noting sensations I’ve experienced before. For me, doing what we need to do to address Coronavirus has the sense of being on wartime footing. Especially in this moment–not knowing what to do and what not to do–and beginning to absorb the significance of what we are collectively being asked not to do for the greater good. My mother-in-law describes wartime England–and the long period of hunkering down. And, it is all happening so quickly, only increasing the uncertainty.

So, what do we do?

First, we remember that this is a moment in time and it’s not permanent. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers about impermanence. What they offered me was the understanding that for impermanence to be meaningful and helpful, it needs to be more than a thought or mental concept. I would suggest that you stop, several times a day, and drop in to what you are sensing. Notice the tension, the anxiety, the fear. Be with it and let it be. Giving those sensations space and allowing them to run through you (without the stories) is a way to a more peaceful (at least for a little while) state. Every time we do this practice we experience just a little bit of that impermanence–feeling a little better in the moment and reminded that this moment will not last forever. Research suggests that it takes about 90 seconds for the sensations and the emotions behind them to run through us (when we avoid rumination and piling on the stories.) These days I am finding it’s take a little longer to get out of my head when I do this practice–and am working to accept that as well.

Working With the Polarities That Are Arising

Polarity thinking is one of the tools that I draw on–and this time is replete with polarities. It’s a time when we can get caught in either/or thinking–so seeking the both/and can be a powerful practice. Here are a few of the polarities I’ve been working with:

I’m challenged to BOTH stay informed AND create distance from the information. Each are important and each needs to be attended to.

We are all confronted with the polarity of Distance AND Connection. Are you calling people? Checking in with them? Picking up your phone and dialing (no appointment, not a text…a  phone call.) If you can step outside and walk and see and wave and say hello to people, are you doing that? Are you allowing more time than usual for check-ins in your virtual meetings? Finding out how people are (really) doing?

One idea I found in Deborah Preuss’s Twitter feed (yes, Twitter can actually be a resource!) was to create virtual co-working. Her suggestion: “Open a zoom call with friends. Set a co-working timebox. Set (personal) goals. Start timer. Turn off all audio/video (or use individual breakout rooms) Work, work, work. Check back in at end of time. Take a coffee break together. Repeat.”

And another polarity: Taking care of self AND Taking care of others. Even if you are scared about the economy and what this will mean for you–how can you give to others right now? Who can you donate to? What can you do to support someone who you know needs support (a phone call, a note)? Not only is it a good thing to do, it’s good for us–there’s a wealth of research that shows that. And, are you caring for yourself? Remember, we need both and will not be able to care for others if we don’t care for ourselves.

Last, but not least, consider, as a leader, how you live in the polarity of realism AND optimism? Think about the people who are doing that for you, and look closely at the way that are showing up, the way they are balancing that message. For me, Anthony Fauci has been a model. I like watching him to see how he is able to deliver a sometimes sobering message and remind us that we have power and that this will pass. Getting that right creates a much-needed authenticity. It allows us to be both vulnerable about what we are experiencing and aware that we have a role in helping people stay grounded and calm.

These are just a few examples. Holding the mindset of polarity thinking and simply knowing that there can be an AND is a way to navigate this moment that I find particularly helpful.

A Few Resources

First, in the spirit of staying informed. This is a podcast that helped me to understand the Coronavirus better and why, from a medical and epidemiological point of view. It breaks down some of the myths I’ve been suspicious of and adds some of the information I’ve been seeking. Michael Osterholm, a highly respected epidemiologist who has a broad and deep view of our situation is on the Joe Rogan  show.

Second, in the spirit of creating distance from the information, Tara Brach’s meditations are a generous gift from a talented meditation teacher. I listened to this one this morning and it seemed just perfect. Starting your day with some type of reflection or meditation is something that can radically shift how you “be” in this time. Tara offers meditations that are both shorter and longer.

Third: Since it launched about eleven  years ago, Glo has been my go-to resource for online Yoga. Over the years they’ve expanded the styles they offer, included meditation, extended to Pilates. The teachers are exceptional and the range of duration, intensity, level, etc., extraordinary. They have a great search engine. The monthly fee is less than most single yoga classes.  If you’re stuck at home and needing a way to practice, I can’t say enough good things. (And I am not getting a commission!)

Please take good care of yourself and those you love.

The Doing and Being of Difficult Conversations

Years ago, I bought—and read—every book I could find about challenging conversations. Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Fierce Conversations—all of them. Each added to my understanding of how to have (and why not to avoid) the conversations that we least want to have. I attended several workshops that focused on shifting difficult conversations into productive ones. The most intensive of these workshops was three days long and involved meticulously analyzing a single conversation that we knew we needed to have. We focused on reframing our thinking and mindset and precisely examined the impact of the words we chose for the conversation. At the end of the three days, I was able to have that conversation in a way that shifted the relationship I was working to improve. At the same time, it was painstaking and I wondered if that particular process could be consistently replicated.

Over the years, I began to design and conduct workshops on the topic of difficult conversations—including this as a core topic in any leadership program I offer. In my workshops I drew most heavily from Sheila Sheen’s (and her co-authors’) Difficult Conversations, and from her second book, Thanks for the Feedback. More recently, I added powerful ideas garnered from two wonderful books by Diane Musho Hamilton, The Zen of You and Me and Everything is Workable.

My commitment to improving—and supporting others’ improvements—at having hard-to-have conversations is premised in the belief that our ability to speak candidly, openly and with compassion allows us to create better relationships at work. And, if we can create those stronger, more open, more honest relationships, we can work more productively, with greater ease and get better results. The same is true in our personal lives, as well.

The most important thing I took away from these authors and from the work I had done was the importance of shifting from a mindset of “it’s about them” to “I’m a contributor to what is occurring.” In some way, small or large, we are missing part of the story and have a blind spot about our contribution in challenging relationships.

I also realized that to successfully transform a conversation from just plain difficult to productive and constructive, we needed to genuinely be able to hear the other person—to listen deeply, see their perspective, and shift our own, accordingly. It’s not about one person being right and the other wrong. It’s simply that we each see the world through our own eyes and, by definition, our view is limited. Bringing this awareness into a challenging conversation is essential–and not easy. It goes against our default mode of “listening to win” rather than “listening to learn.”*

Over the past few years, as I expanded my coaching toolkit to include embodied leadership, I began to rethink the way I approached, and taught, difficult conversations. Embodied leadership asks us to consciously bring our whole soma (body) and not just our heads into our work and personal lives/relationships. Wouldn’t this then require us to bring our whole soma into difficult conversations? If we are to genuinely shift our frame of mind to allow ourselves to see multiple perspectives and to respond rather than react to the things that trigger our defenses, then we need to think not only about the “doing” of the conversation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the “being”–and that’s where the body can be an enormous resource.

Until I started doing somatic work, my preparation for a difficult conversation was almost entirely focused on the words I would use. What questions would I ask? How would I frame the conversation? What would I do to ensure that I was communicating that I, too, was a contributor and that together we were looking for a new way of seeing? I took the same approach with my clients. Both in coaching and in workshops most of the energy was on planning the “what” or the “doing” of the conversation. Using our heads.

If we expand and include the soma then we arrive at the “being” of a conversation. We attend not only to what we say—but also to how we show up energetically, physically and emotionally. The preparation we need to do to show up in a state that is open, receptive, and present is quite different from the planning of the “doing.” It’s not surprising that I missed this. In general, we have learned to be better at—and put more emphasis on—doing than being.

Growing our leadership capacity and developing as humans requires that we create a better balance. I’ve written about the distinction between complex and complicated—it is relevant here as well. When things are unpredictable or unknowable we are in the domain of complexity—and our job in complexity is to navigate, not to know where exactly we’re going (we simply can’t know.) By definition, a conversation—especially a challenging one—is complex–unpredictable. Two of the most powerful tools in complexity are openness and curiosity which come not only from our heads, but from our whole self.

When we prepare to be present and curious, then we can be prepared for the response that we didn’t expect to hear. We can navigate in the moment when the other person does not conform to our predetermined script. And, let’s be honest, no one aside from the imaginary people in our minds will ever adhere to the predetermined scripts we write. If we are unprepared for the complexity of the conversation, wed to our plan, then the instant the other person veers from our script, we are thrown—we lose center and presence. The conversation is far less likely to move forward in a meaningful or satisfying way for either person.

When we focus primarily on the doing of the conversation then we may know, intellectually, that we are contributors, but we are still likely to be hooked into responding defensively. Seeing multiple perspectives is not what we were wired to do—being reactive when we feel threatened is a more “natural” response—even if it is unhelpful. Despite our best intentions to not be hooked and defensive, it takes time and practice to respond differently. When we focus exclusively on what we are doing and don’t give equal weight to our being we aren’t resourced to be fully present and capable of navigating the complexity inherent in a challenging conversation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It’s about putting as much, and often more, focus on the question, “How do I want to be in this conversation?” as on “What do I want to say?”  I do this by taking a moment and finding center—the process I use to center (described here) is one I learned over six years ago and has been an anchor for me ever since. Once centered, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What qualities do I want to bring to the conversation?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • How will I find that way of being before I begin the conversation? (This may involve a commitment to center before starting the conversation.)
  • How will I return to that way of being if I feel triggered during the conversation?

This process does not offer a magic bullet—it’s a practice. Like all practices, it requires repetition and reinforcement. It can be immediately helpful and when it becomes part of our way of operating it can positively impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Once it is ingrained in our being, and we can access this process rather than react defensively, even the challenging conversations that are not initiated by us, the ones we unexpectedly find ourselves in, will no longer be as difficult or daunting.

As I’ve embodied this practice, I’ve come to see “difficult conversation” as simply conversations. This simple, and yet not so simple shift, enables me to be curious, attentive, and open-minded while growing my relationships.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who needed to speak with a colleague who, based on all the data available to her, was not delivering on an important commitment. This was not the first time she’d had this experience with her colleague.

At the start of the session, we centered. After centering, and becoming more open and present, she noticed that she had never broached this topic with her colleague. Her colleague was unaware of how his actions, knowing or unknowingly, affected her. It was from this reflection and realization that my client was able to sense that her limited perspective of “this is how he’s disappointing me” only told half the story. My client then consciously set the intention to remain open and curious so that she could genuinely, and without bias, discover where things were breaking down. She made a commitment, from center, to hear his perspective, to learn more about her own contribution, and to figure out together how to move forward.

The preparation for her discussion went as follows: centering and setting intention, recognition that she is also a contributor, and committing to find center before, during, and after her conversation. She would also need to remind herself that her colleague would not follow her predetermined script and that she would not be able to control the ultimate outcome of that conversation. She felt ready to enter the conversation with genuine openness and curiosity, prepared to be surprised.

And another example:

I recently worked with a client who had to let staff go for the first time in their organization’s history. As I worked with the leadership team to prepare for these conversations, we brought the dimension of being into the process. The leaders reflected on how they wanted to be in the conversation to support the people to whom they were delivering hard news—and to support the people who were remaining. In this case, even when the words had to be quite precise, there was an opportunity to attend to how they could use the practices of centering and the emphasis on bringing their whole self into the conversation to convey the genuine compassion that they felt.


Sometimes we are called upon simply to listen, to be present for another person. It is often all that is being asked of us. Our work begins and ends with the question of how we want to be. If we simply allow ourselves to be present and caring listeners, then that is enough. Our need to do or say the “right” thing or to fix a problem is often the thing that gets in the way of what is most important.

And finally…

The next time you find yourself carefully planning your words, take a step back and make sure you are also attending to how you want to be in order to best serve the intent of the conversation. And then, do that again, and again, and again.

We become what we practice.**

* See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps–my favorite book of the past several years for more on this distinction (and so much more than that!!)

** Gratitude to Richard Strozzi Heckler and the teachers at the Strozzi Institute for helping me to experience the power of practice.

My series of posts exploring what I’m learning as I become a somatic coach begins here. You can also find a post here that explores ways to think about practice or, to be more precise, “micropractices” that might make this just a little easier to incorporate into an already busy life.