Leading in an Era of Increasing Complexity

 In Leadership
People working in a co-working space

We live in an era of increasing complexity. In one day, we take in more information than our great-grandparents accessed in their entire life! Today, I realized today that I have 7 email accounts, one for personal emails and online purchases, one each for my two companies, accounts for my two academic affiliations, and two for business partners so I can communicate with their clients using their company brand. I belong to several organizations who send me weekly emails and monthly newsletters.

Then there’s the news and social media. The concepts we are required to understand are also increasingly complex. Scientists and technologists continue to add new knowledge and create new gadgets that we must learn to use.

It’s no wonder that stress is the natural state of most people in a world of internet and immediate news.

How do we as leaders adapt to this ever-increasing level of complexity? It might be helpful to understand a bit about the stages of human development as they relate to our mind-set and meaning-making when faced with complexity.

I use the Leadership Maturity Framework[1] developed by Suzann Cook-Greuter, which extends Loevinger’s stages of adult development model.[2]

Leadership Maturity Framework from VeDA

We all begin at the left side of this framework when we are babies. Most people in the world exist in the stages grouped in the conventional or postconventional categories. The specific stages correspond to a person’s capacity for complexity. The lens through which we see the world and make meaning of what we see is determined in part by our stage of development.

Typically, today’s leaders move through the earlier stages to at least the self-determining stage by the time they move into a position of leadership. Many supervisors and early-career managers may still live at a skill-centric level. In order to move to the stages within the postconventional spectrum, we must expand our capacities to adopt multiple perspectives. The big shift is toward systems-thinking, an awareness of the interconnections between all aspects of existence, and the ability to consider multiple perspectives simultaneously. There is not enough space in a blog post to expand further on these developmental stages.

We will deepen our understanding of this framework and how you can apply it to your own development in our upcoming Masterclass, Leading from Your Higher Self. 

So, how do we succeed in an era of increasing complexity?

Image of a project planWhen we are at the Self-determining stage, we focus on goals, achievement, root causes, analysis, and agreements to live a successful and fulfilling life. A person living at this developmental stage generally depends on scientific methods to find answers. People at this stage are curious to understand more about their personal psychology and how that affects the way they behave and make decisions. One challenge with decision-making for people at this stage is when they are faced with two seemingly opposite choices. Leaders at this stage may believe it is an Either/Or decision, which prevents them from imagining other options. As self-determiners continue their self-exploration, they develop capacities to move toward the next stage, which is Self-questioning.

Layered sheets of multiple colors

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

At the Self-questioning stage, we come to realize that our understanding of reality is affected by the position from which we view it. We come to appreciate diverse perspectives, cultural values, and belief systems. We can now choose among multiple perspectives, and even hold more than one at a time as being true for ourselves. This is the key to adapting to and living successfully in ever-increasing complexity. A leader at this stage will see the situation in which there are opposite choices differently than at the self-determining stage. Instead of making an Either/Or choice, the self-questioning leader can discern options that may combine the best of the opposites to make a Both/And choice. A leader at this stage is able to make decisions with greater ease in an era of increasing complexity.

The big shift from conventional to postconventional stages of development requires deep personal work.

Practices such as meditation, psychotherapy, and journaling are examples of deep personal work. We will include a variety of practices and exercises to help leaders develop the capacity for greater complexity in leadership and decision-making in our Masterclass, Leading from Your Higher Self (6 weeks, 2 calls/week, beginning September 9). [Registration for this masterclass has closed. Please contact us if you would like to co-create a version of this masterclass tailored to your organization].

[1] Vertical Development Academy – Leadership Maturity Framework

[2] Loevinger, J. (1969). Theories of ego development. In L. Breger (Ed.), Clinical-cognitive

psychology: Models and integrations (pp. 83-135). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-


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