I was at a retreat this weekend with Meg Wheatley, who has been working to make organisations—and our world—more just, sustainable, and kind for more than forty years. As I looked around at the women–from their 30s to their 60s, leaders of organisations, teams, and movements, I was struck by the ordinary courage it takes to risk learning and growing and leading.
It is perhaps this courage—which is ordinary only in its necessity and not in its attainment—that is the second complex adaptive leadership (CAL) capacity. Leadership takes courage of many varieties: the courage to hold to your convictions and the courage to admit that your convictions are wrong; the courage to tell someone something they won’t want to hear and the courage to receive bad news with grace; the courage to make a hard decision and the courage to know when you should get out of the way and let someone else make the decision. Each of these paradoxical sorts of courage call on a different part of us, and in each pair, people often find one harder than the others. In our leadership programs, we work to en-courage leaders, to breathe courage into them and create the conditions for them to en-courage one another.
Perhaps the most difficult sort of courage, we are finding, is the courage to take risks that might lead to failure. Or perhaps that’s not quite right. We take risks that lead to failure all the time—each of us has our personal graveyard of what looked like good ideas that ended up crashing and burning despite our deep confidence that the path was right. There’s a way leaders are practiced in making tough decisions that they believe will succeed (and then sometimes, painfully, being wrong).
Perhaps the harder challenge is to make decisions about safe-to-fail experiments that are edgy enough to potentially be wrong—and to know going in that they might be wrong. Here the courage can’t come from a conviction (even a wrong-minded conviction) that the decision is the right one and success is just around the corner. Instead, the courage needs to arise from the conviction that learning is one of the most vital things a complex adaptive leader should enable in these unsettled times. That even when you choose interventions (small, safe-to-fail ones) that don’t succeed in doing what you wanted them to, the learning is a constant benefit that comes from walking through the world with your eyes open.
But we do not tend to think of learning as, itself, a success story. We are taught at school to think of the attainment of knowledge—not its pursuit—as the goal. We are taught at work to think of the particulars of our accomplishments—and often not the process of achieving those accomplishments—as the thing that gets the bonus or the pat on the back.
I think this is changing, and not a moment too soon (although perhaps it is several moments too late). In a world that is shifting faster than we can track it, the complex adaptive leader will have a material advantage as a quick and agile learner, and as someone who has the courage to be experimental enough to risk being wrong.
As I’ve been thinking about this I’ve been reflecting on the move my family and I made to New Zealand eight years ago. There was every chance it was a bad decision, and we were never fully convinced we were doing the right thing. It was clear that some people thought we were courageous—stepping out into the unknown—and others thought we were just plain stupid. “Aren’t you worried you’re making a terrible mistake?” a friend asked me. “Yes, absolutely,” I told her. “But just think how interesting the stories will be no matter which way it goes.” Somehow it was a consolation to me that even if this had been a mistake (which it turns out not to have been), it would be the most interesting mistake I’d ever made.
So I am curious. What helps you take a chance in the absence of the conviction that you’re right? What helps you step off into the unknown, knowing that even if it all goes wrong, you’ll be bruised but not broken, and you’ll have learned a lot?