Leading in Complexity

We constantly hear that there is a dearth of leadership in this country, that David Cameron needs to lead in the UK, that we need leaders to save us from ourselves. What is leadership in a complex society? Is it good or useful?

Leadership is variously defined but essentially amounts to influencing a group of people, or everyone in the nation, to change their behavior so that they act collectively toward some goal that the observer wants. Coaches want captains to enthuse the team to win, Tea Partiers want leadership to shrink government, and business people want economic leadership so they can figure out how to increase profits. Leadership is getting everyone to do something that they would not otherwise do to produce some outcome.

Leadership is benign authority. Instead of forcing us to change how we behave and change the choices we make, leaders persuade is. We follow them and do as they suggest because we choose to. Authority forces us to change our behaviors; leadership makes us voluntarily change.

Leadership and authority often are conflated. The coach and the captain can lead the team because they have the authority. In political circles, the U.S. President can fix the economy because he has the authority to lead if only he would choose to. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, can lead in stopping the recent riots, because he can force the police to change tactics.

Authority simplifies systems. By forcing specific behaviors it reduces the diversity of responses to changing conditions. Leadership does the same. If leadership unifies behaviors among diverse agents, it has the same effect through a different channel. Authority changes behaviors but leadership changes the mental model of agents. While the effect may be comparable the mechanism is not. Ethically, leadership may be more generally acceptable but the effect is the same: the system is simplified. Whether all agents choose to act the same way because they have adopted the same mental model or whether they are required by authority to act the same way, the observed effect is the same. Complexity is wrung out of the system.

Is simplification of the system good? In part that is a matter of judgment. If the simplification unifies the behavior of disparate agents toward a preferred goal, presumably it is. But if complexity benefits the system, increases it resilience and adaptability, any simplification is negative.

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