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foxwizard ☾

🌿 The photocopier & the garden

Much of my work is in helping leaders navigate complexity, ambiguity and change. In leadership offsites, this often translates into an attempt subtly unravel the threads of patriarchy and conventionally “masculine” approaches to leadership, whenever and wherever they may appear.

And by this I mean the narrow-focused, action-oriented, data-driven, metric-obsessed and direct/neat/linear/ordered tendencies that favour highly ordered contexts.

This is not to say that the conventionally masculine doesn’t have its place—it does.

It’s quite apt for clear, stable and unchanging contexts that allow for tightly coupled performance metrics (sports, factories, olympics), or formulaic work with predictable outcomes.

The masculine hero-approach is often quite appropriate in chaotic contexts where swift action is needed to make sense and orient—such are not the times to hesitate or dither.

And finally, the more conventionally masculine leadership styles can also be appropriate for complicated contexts, where an experienced and analytical approach is conducive to diagnosing faults and generating solutions.

It’s just that... the masculine approach is less apt in complex contexts.* Contexts where the path to meaningful progress is emergent and thus: non-obvious, non-linear, lacking direct precedence, and difficult to accurately assess or measure. In such domains, our focus we sense more into the patterns and dynamics of relationships between individual elements (rather than the individual elements themselves). We thus need to be a little more mercurial and hermetic.

* I’m largely riffing from the Cynefin framework pioneered by Dave Snowden.

The best analogy I have is in the distinction between a photocopier and a garden.

the photocopier

A photocopier is a complicated system; if something goes wrong, we can open it up and break it down into its requisite parts. And, because the parts relate in linear fashion, any faults can be determined via analytical diagnostics. Once a fault is found, a fix can be administered and voila: solved.

the garden

But if there is an issue with a garden—if certain plants are dying, and you don’t know why—you can’t just rip everything out to “find the issue”. It might help—but such an approach might also harm. Similarly, with medicine—if a patient is sick you can’t simply remove all their organs to inspect each in isolation. We must instead approach this in relation.

living systems as machines

When leaders “rise through the ranks” they generally move from working in clear contexts (where things are relatively simple and straightforward, with established “best practice” as a reference point, along with direct quantitative measures of performance) managing in complicated contexts (where things are less straightforward, and where best practice requires interpretation, governance and coordination with other elements of the system).

Some managers get very good at driving results, hitting targets, and making the right numbers go up. They get promoted to leadership positions.

And this is where the issues tend to manifest. After years of experience working in the machine and then on parts of the machine—when confronted with complexity their default is to treat living systems as machine. When things go wrong they search for fixes. Rather than listen they turn to what worked for them in the past (that is: in other contexts). So used to being the hero, they impose interventions to solve for certain metrics—whilst also causing unintended consequences and longer-term harm in the process. The ‘move fast and break things’ approach that served within stable/contained contexts ends up quickly making a mess.

To quote a favourite passage from Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk:

The stories that define our thinking today describe an eternal battle between good and evil springing from an originating act of sin. But these terms are just metaphors for something more difficult to explain, a relatively recent demand that simplicity and order be imposed upon the complexity of creation, a demand sprouting from an ancient seed of narcissism that has flourished due to a new imbalance in human societies.

There is a pattern to the universe and everything in it, and there are knowledge systems and traditions that follow this pattern to maintain balance, to keep the temptations of narcissism in check. But recent traditions have emerged that break down creation systems like a virus, infecting complex patterns with artificial simplicity, exercising a civilising control over what some see as chaos. The Sumerians started it. The Romans perfected it. The Anglosphere inherited it. The world is now mired in it.

The war between good and evil is in reality an imposition of stupidity and simplicity over wisdom and complexity.

on moving quietly and planting things

Leadership requires the ability to coordinate amidst complexity. This calls for the integration of gentler and more feminine approaches to leadership. I don’t want to be accused of creating a binary here—it’s more of an oscillatory yin-yang both/and and either/or fluid simultaneous super-positional thing. But for simplicity’s sake: the feminine tendencies include: listening, sensing, intuiting, nurturing, nourishing, empathy, patience, creating, imagining, caring, tending, and so on.

We move quietly and plant things, and ultimately seek to de-centre ourselves as leaders. Rather than strive to be seen as the hero-leaders with all the expertise, answers and solutions—we instead seek to cultivate contexts in which we are no longer needed.

This is an anathema to much of what the Western world grooms us for, and it’s a tricky proposition to sell (as a leadership program). Most of us want recognition and renumeration—which is very understandable. And yet, if we are to collectively achieve great things—well beyond the default—we need to step up and into leading amidst higher orders of complexity.

In the coming months, I am shall attempt to bring about a kind of “living curriculum” for folks seeking to develop and grow as leaders. Key patterns pilfered from the various programs I run in Enterprise Land, which may be universally apt.

I still have an allergy to the word “leader” (it’s too individualistic and overused)—but I will hold to it for now. Stay tuned for more. 🧡

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