As many of you have experienced, leaders are facing the impact of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) even though they may not have come across the expression. We believe there is a way to grow individuals, so they are more able to handle the complexity in the world around us. We start by drawing lessons from complexity in nature and their application in methods such as Action Learning. 

Have you seen videos of flocks of starlings known as a “murmuration”? This is one of nature’s extraordinary sights. Murmuration refers to the phenomenon that results when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starlings fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns through the sky.

Scientists had to wait for high-powered video analysis and computational modeling before they could unearth the keys to what is happening. What they discovered was that the guiding rules that create the harmony are simple. Each bird abides by the following simple rules:

  • Travel at the same speed as your neighbor
  • Maintain a minimum distance from neighbor and objects
  • Always turn towards the center

 

In Jennifer Garvey Berger’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, the same is true. She maintains there are three habits of mind that stretch one’s thinking capacity and they too are deceptively simple.

  • Asking different questions
  • Taking multiple perspectives
  • Seeing systems

 

This is one of the reasons as practitioners of Action Learning we strive to include this approach in our leadership development offerings. Action Learning embraces two simple principles; the first is that statements can only be made in response to questions and the second is that a coach can intervene to support the team’s learning. The result is that asking questions and reflecting on the work and talking about your ideas with others will actually lead to breakthrough thinking. Other benefits include a process that enables us to suppress the need for speed and solutions, helping team members slow down enough to explore other perspectives as well as the bigger picture.

Asking questions is a leadership talent that is hard to develop. It can be frustrating at first to practice asking questions rather than giving advice, but it’s the frustration that always comes when you’re learning a difficult but worthy skill.

Highly agile leaders set new benchmarks by questioning old assumptions and actively encouraging others to do the same. In Leadership Agility, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs write that agility requires flexibility in four competencies: context-setting (selecting and framing issues), stakeholder (understanding and aligning key ones), creative (solving complex problems) and learning (from experience). These get applied at three levels during the course of Action Learning: individual, team and organization.

The research by Joiner and Josephs shows that leaders progress through a series of predictable, learnable “agility levels” in each of these situations that conform to well-documented stages of personal development.

  • Expert. These leaders use their technical and functional expertise to make tactical organizational improvements, supervise teams, identify and solve key problems, and sell their solutions to others.
  • Achiever. These leaders use their managerial skills to se