Ten Lessons From the Other Side of Complexity

In the last blog, we considered the covenant of leadership. The idea came from Ricardo Levy. It emerged in real time as he and I discussed his personal experience with transformative learning. He was facing a complex and difficult task. He had to enter the unknown–the “cauldron of uncertainty”–and suffer there until he could find the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” and thus “see the way.”

When we understand the covenant of leadership, learning to see the way becomes a sacred task. The crucible becomes a chalice. It becomes a privilege to enter, suffer, and transform. The people grow and the leader grows. Everyone is better able to cope with the unknown.

He articulates all this in a blog entry. He writes, “A number of inherent conditions come with the passage through complexity, regardless of whether we avail ourselves of the crucible-to-chalice metaphor.” I find his ten observations to have the freshness of deep reflection and recent, personal discovery. He speaks to us in an authentic voice. Here are his observations.

  1. Gaining clarity “on the other side” does not, in itself, represent leadership. It is only insight. But this insight affords us a unique opportunity to lead. Yet only if we chooseto act on this clarity can we capture the “leadership moment.” We do so the moment we lend voice to this insight.
  2. In that instant, if the moment is right and our insight is on point, we are expressing the thoughts that are latent in the minds of all the participants: when we lend voice to our clarity, we are helping the group recognize a path to resolution of the complexity.
  3. We have an opportunity to lead, yet we are also undertaking an obligation to the others with whom we “resonate.” They put their trust in us. This results in an understanding that is unwritten: a covenant that we will do our best to carry through. It is critical that we be aware of this covenant if we are to be good leaders.
  4. While the ability to capture the “essence” of the group in the leadership moment is crucial, we should not rely on it alone. We need to have the discipline to check in with all team members to make sure there is also common clarity in understanding the path forward. I have often failed in this because, in the pressures of the moment and the dynamics of action, I have assumed too much.
  5. The ability to lead does not necessarily require hierarchy: as long as there is an understanding of leadership and follower-ship and a collective team goal, any member of the team can become the de-facto leader for that endeavor. If that happens within an already established leadership context, so much the better; if not, it is an opportunity for new leaders to emerge.
  6. I emphasize follower-ship because I find that we spend a lot of time on leadership development and training and not enough time on its counterpart, follower-ship development and training.
  7. The “leadership link” between leader and followers is strengthened by the leader’s willingness to be vulnerable: to accept shortcomings and fears. It creates in the leader a greater capacity to be fully in the moment and allows a true connection. If the situation is of real import, and the clarity we articulate comes from that deep “point vierge”described by Thomas Merton… we do well to expose this deep place. It opens the corresponding deep place in others in the group, thus enhancing the strength of the mutual commitment. It also creates a “safe space” for more intimate dialogue and a strong bonding. It has the potential to create unbeatable teams.
  8. Willingness to be vulnerable is not only important for good communication between the team and us: it is important to our own inner growth. This is especially necessary when we are facing failures. The times when I have been willing to admit vulnerability to myself have enabled me to traverse difficult situations better and have led to profound personal growth. To accomplish this, I have had to own my experiences, especially my failures. They have become my most real teachers.
  9. Admission of these failures has also increased the chances that others on my team would step in and supplement my shortcomings, thus increasing our odds for success.
  10. Being open to our own shortcomings and being forthcoming with our vulnerability are also important ways for us to teach others. To the extent that one’s voice comes from that deep “point vierge,” it will engage the listening and receiving capacity of others more intensely. This is true both for teammates in a leadership situation and for students in a learning situation.


  • What does it mean to “see the way?”
  • Which insight is most powerful to you?
  • How do you create “an unbeatable team?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

One thought on “Ten Lessons From the Other Side of Complexity

  1. This is a lot of contemplation on leadership (when, how, why, etc.). It may just wrap up my 2 years of school ha! Okay really there was more to it.

    I highlighted some pieces that resonate with my perspective below. I feel that these four highlights are the basis of leaders that authentically care and understand their role.

    With regard to moving between complexity and simplicity, in my experience this is often the dynamic on teams and where leaders may not understand their role. For defining this, I prefer to use the Cynefin framework lens. For reference here is a decent article explaining (when you have a minute or two):


    Anyway, this is a favorite topic from my school learning! And it really makes me reflect on how our Workplan stuff is going and the support we are receiving as we move between chaos, complexity, complicated, and simple pieces…especially with their interconnection. Not to mention the whole SDI debacle, or should I say “all in – all together” yaaaay ☺

    Hayden Kowel MA – Engagement Consultant
    The City of Calgary | Customer Service & Communications
    T 403.268.5348 | M 403.620.0792

    Liked by 1 person

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