• A more complex world requires organizations to adopt systems approaches and systems leadership.
  • To face the uncertainties of the future, leaders need to upgrade through different forms of mind, like operating systems, aiming for “stage 4.0” or “stage 5.0”.
  • Reaching this higher level of consciousness will help them and their organizations succeed.

The Scottish-American naturalist and philosopher John Muir once wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This is exactly the challenge organizations and their leaders face. To create flourishing organizations on a fair, just and healthy planet is a complex problem, which means it has no clear definition, crosses multiple stakeholder groups and knowledge domains, is interrelated and contains feedback loops, and is continuously changing. As such, it has no single, clear moral or optimal solution.

This is very different from the image of organizations as large, complicated machines with wheels and cogs that can be understood with enough expertise. “Complicated contexts” assume some level of structure, where cause and effect are perceptible, and correct answers can be found by experts based on facts; “complex contexts” are unstructured with an ambiguous relationship between cause and effect and solutions that must be based on emerging patterns.

Today’s complexity forces us to go well beyond the boundaries of our organizations and organizational structures; it demands we lift our gaze and take into account the whole system, including issues of climate change, inclusivity and inequality, to name a few. To be able to do this, we will have to embrace systems approaches and systems leadership as a way of creating understanding, influencing and creating impact.

How has the 21st-century changed what's required of our leaders?
How has the 21st-century changed what's required of our leaders?

This is, however, in sharp contrast with how we currently organize work, manage organizations and lead people. Most people — and this includes leaders — are not equipped to thrive in this new, complex reality.

Leaders are in over their heads

During our lives, we all go through various stages. We transform from babies to children to young adults. In her book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Jennifer Garvey Berger refers to these different stages of our brain as “forms of mind”. These transformations are like operating system upgrades, but for the brain: suddenly, people can handle more complexity with less effort. The first upgrades are like auto-installs; for most people, they will happen regardless.

But after “stage 3.0” (the young adult stage), people need to work hard to upgrade and it’s less about skills than about ways of being. According to Garvey Berger: “Our adult changes tend not to show up with new skills or a new physical growth spurt. Generally, you can see them most easily when you get really interested not just in what someone knows but in how he makes sense of what he knows.”

In his book In Over Our Heads, American psychologist Robert Kegan calls “stage 4.0” the self-authored mind. In this stage, people leave behind their dependence on the opinions of others and the automatic adoption of the mission and values of those that surround us. Instead, they’re able to evaluate these, reflect on them and define their own mission, values, and self-worth. It’s only in and after this stage that people can start to deal with complex problems. This is where we see powerful changemakers emerge.

What is required of 21st-century leaders?
What is required of 21st-century leaders?

Yet, in a complex and ambiguous world, holding onto our own values and beliefs too strongly, regardless of where they come from, can prevent us from learning and holding multiple perspectives about how the world works. That’s why upgrading to a self-transforming mind (“stage 5.0”) is crucial.

“People with this form of mind are always searching for the next thing that might challenge a deeply held belief system. They spend less time creating and defending a particular vision of themselves and more time letting life transform them,” writes Garvey Berger.

“They are jazz musicians riffing along with others rather than believing life can be rehearsed and perfected.”

These individuals have the ability to bring people on a new and uncertain journey — with optimistic, constructive energy, understanding and respect for what is and high ambitions for what could be.

Research by Robert Anderson suggests that leaders who make it to these later stages are scored as better leaders by others and are between two and nine times more effective in realizing business outcomes. Unfortunately, at least 75% of all adults haven’t done the hard work to get to stage 4.0 while less than 5% have reached stage 5.0. It’s no wonder most adults are in over their heads – they were never set up to succeed in this world. To continue the computer analogy, they are trying to run Windows applications on an MS-DOS operating system. We see this in the number of people who feel ill-equipped, overwhelmed and burned out.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, 2019
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos 2019
Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Although most haven’t yet, it is possible for leaders to transform themselves and acquire the higher-order perspective needed to handle complexity and deliver the outcomes users demand and the impact the system deserves. We see glimpses of this type of leadership in politics (New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern); in business (Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella); and in society (International Institute for Peace chair, Forest Whitaker).

More leaders will have to upgrade. As Anderson says: “An organization’s culture cannot operate at a higher level of consciousness than the collective consciousness of the leadership team.” These leaders will have to hold their beliefs loosely, postpone their judgements, and lead with questions instead of answers. They will also be called on to collaborate on the basis of trust and equality, not authority and power. Above all, they will need to embrace the wholeness of the system with its many, often surprising, intricacies.

To thrive, all of us will have to awaken our inner John Muir and learn to see the world as it really is: messy, unpredictable and, sometimes, even unknowable; a world in which everything is hitched to everything else.