10 Reasons to Embrace Complexity

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Leading Through Complexity and Uncertainty

In The Center For Creative Leadership’s White Paper, The Future of Leadership Development, Nick Petrie describes the new work environment as “typified by an increased level of complexity and interconnectedness.” This new work environment requires new leadership skills, including a willingness to lead when the situation is complex and the outcome uncertain.

“Embrace complexity,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos told about 3,000 graduates who persevered through a national financial crisis and devastating Nashville floods during their tenure at Vanderbilt University.

“Challenge your assumptions, welcome disagreements and along with others make a mission of discovery and education,” Zeppos advised in his May 11, 2012 Commencement address. “Be confident that the habits of mind you have practiced here … will help you face the future and all the unexpectedness it brings. … Living in this way you will make us all proud, and you will make this world a better place.”

Chancellor Urges Vanderbilt Grads to Embrace Complexity, Vanderbilt University, insidevandy.com

 Complexity Presents New Challenges for Leaders

Leading through complexity is not easy.  According to Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights From the 2010 Global CEO Study at IBM.com, “Today, CEOs are telling us that the complexity of operating in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world is their primary challenge. And, a surprising number of them told us that they feel ill-equipped to succeed in this drastically different world.”

Why Should We Embrace Complexity?

Embracing complexity means acknowledging that we do not have the answers, and we do not know the outcome. It means being willing to think and lead in new ways.

10 reasons why we need to embrace complexity and learn our way through uncertain times:

1. Because complexity is the way things are

2. Because by embracing the way things are, we seek to understand them at the level where we need to resolve problems

3. Because embracing complexity helps us avoid oversimplified, knee-jerk reactions

4. Because it forces us to rethink what we do at a higher level, and keeps us from just going through the motions of leading

5. Because it helps us get beyond the surface chaos to see naturally complex and connected systems

6. Because our organizations are relying on us to make decisions in ways that benefit multiple stakeholders

7. Because it is how we learn and grow

8. Because it is one of the key competencies sought in leaders, and it will make us highly employable and highly valuable to the organizations we serve

9.  Because it makes problems and solutions clearer

10. Because considering the impact of our choices at multiple levels helps us make more responsible decisions

What Happens If We Don’t Embrace it?

The old ways of thinking (linear, analytical, sequential problem solving for example) are not going to help us lead successfully through complexity.

The linear mindset does not reflect how organizations are structured (they are systems made up of subsystems), so solutions generated using linear thinking are generated “out of context” and are not likely to be successful.  This means that more problems are generated by each solution.
Five Unintended Consequences of Linear Problem Solving, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog

If we fail to acknowledge and wrestle with the complexities of leadership in a global society, then…

  1. We see only parts and fragments of problems, not natural complexity and connectedness
  2. We attempt to solve problems at the level of the parts and fragments, and in doing that,
  3. We create new problems

Related Posts

Leading Ethically Through Complexity: How to Prepare Leaders, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog

Five Unintended Consequences of Linear Problem Solving, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. Thanks so much, Thomas. I like the idea of the “beginner’s mind.” It aligns with Otto Scharmer’s concept of “presence” and Marilee Adam’s concept of the “learner path.”


  2. This is a fascinating and thoughtful post. In Zen we say to keep your “beginner’s mind” and to remain open and ready. For me this resonates with your conceptions of leading through complexity. Thanks.


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