4 effective ways to lead in today’s complex world

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano answers questions during the 2009 Reuters Washington Summit in Washington

Keep a true commitment to change in the face of challenges and uncertainty. Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Karen Demavivas
Lead, Friends of Ocean Action, World Economic Forum
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The challenges the world is facing are extremely complex. From combating terrorism to tackling inequality, we need leaders who can think clearly and act decisively within intricate systems.

But how do you do that? In a recent talk at the Leadership Institute of the London Business School, Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration (2009 - 2013) and now president of the University of California system, discussed this very issue. To her, leadership in today's volatile world is about deeply listening to a diversity of voices and then taking action.

Here are the steps Napolitano found most effective to bringing about systemic change from her own experience as she tackled immigration reform, education, and security:

1. Keep a true commitment to change in the face of challenges and uncertainty

If you want to bring systemic change, first of all you need to understand that the road to change is paved with many challenges. Napolitano experienced this first hand. In response to the scapegoating of immigrants at the border in the name of national security, then Arizona governor Napolitano declared, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder” But it did take her true commitment, a number of drawbacks and a lot of patience to build that ladder.

Her first reform effort under the Obama administration failed: the 2010 Dream Act, which would have legalized undocumented young people in the United States, was killed by the Senate and as a consequence, approximately 1.9 million unauthorized immigrants were deported under her term. Despite the partisan tensions on Capitol Hill that hindered much of Napolitano's reform agenda, she understood the far-reaching strategy of transforming the whole system. It meant the short-term enforcement of existing laws that led to mass deportation in order to convince lawmakers in the long run to support comprehensive immigration reform. In the face of criticism and failure, she wryly noted that developing callouses is inevitable.

Undaunted, in 2012, Napolitano was able to succeed in passing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. A less polarizing version of the Dream Act, DACA permits young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to apply for two years of work authorization and the ability to stay in the country. With this action, she has provided a constructive model moving forward to allow a broader spectrum of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.

2. Develop an ability to listen and a capacity to understand other viewpoints

To address the challenges of higher education at the University of California (UC), Napolitano embarked on a listening tour. She took the time to visit all the campuses and meet with a diversity of students, faculty, and staff members to hear them out on their concerns. Many of the students come from immigrant communities impacted by deportation under her watch and came out in protest against her on the UC campus.

Instead of acting defensive, Napolitano empathized with their plight and responded, “What this reveals is a law that doesn’t match our moral standards, and that weight is falling on these students.” She is even known to personally sit down with her harshest critics to hear out their opinions and, if needed, take steps towards her own improvement.

Napolitano is, therefore, able to map out and understand context in order to generate informed strategies and actions. After her tour, she acted by increasing financial aid and counseling for undocumented students in the UC system.

3. Inspire commitment at all levels – not just the top. Address the root cause of incidents, not the incident as a standalone.

While at the Department of Homeland Security, Napolitano mobilized a multi-stakeholder response to the attempted 2009 terrorist attack by the "underwear" bomber on a U.S. bound flight to Detroit from Amsterdam:

  • She forged a partnership with the UN specialized agency International Civil Aviation Organization to fortify the international aviation system against evolving terrorist threats.
  • They worked with governments and the airline industry in bilateral and multilateral contexts to develop new global standards and improve data sharing among all airports. For example, a critical gap they filled was to collect passenger data at the point of embarkation and not just disembarkation. She forged a partnership with the UN specialized agency International Civil Aviation Organization to fortify the international aviation system against evolving terrorist threats
  • To top it all off, a UN resolution was passed to strengthen international air security.

In her strategy, Napolitano shifted from the reactive problem-solving of a terrorist incident to co-creating the future of aviation security. These efforts have oriented the system to be more responsive to terrorist risks in the long run, which continue to be of critical relevance today in the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels.

4. Be open to new ways of working and show a willingness to innovate, adapt, and take risks

From concrete to virtual borders, Napolitano opens the door to new ways of addressing the growing risks of cyber-security. Navigating this uncharted virtual territory, she underscores how critical social media is in countering violent extremism. Every day, extremist messaging goes viral through Facebook and Twitter among other platforms. So the efforts of Google, Facebook, and non-profits such as Active Change Foundation in launching campaigns to counter extremism are fundamental to getting through their virtual ranks. An innovative strategy Napolitano notes is to engage former extremists to help craft the messaging for these campaigns. Why? Few would know better than they how their old networks communicate and operate.

Overall, Napolitano's openness to new technologies and medias has led her to adapt them to age old questions of security with the understanding of one fundamental difference: the risks are coming through the virtual realm.

This brings us back to the immediate need for system-level leadership. Before another bomb explodes, someone has to make sense of the systemic challenges that have led us to this point of terror alert.

As the challenges are nonlinear, so the development of new leadership has to be so as well. Coming at all angles, system leaders like Napolitano have to be agile in listening, discerning, synthesizing, acting, adapting, and forecasting in collaboration with many different individuals and institutions. System leadership is here to stay.

Read more on System Leadership in a Corporate Responsibility Initiative Report from the Harvard Kennedy School highlighting the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture: "Tackling Global Challenges: Lessons in System Leadership from the WEF's New Vision for Agriculture Initiative"

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