Organizational Leadership: Key Skills of Managing Complexity, Leading Complex Change

Q&A with Dr. Marcia Ruben

Associate Professor Marcia Ruben, PhD, is the Chair of the Management Department and director of Leadership Programs at GGU. She was awarded the 2016-2018 Russell T. Sharpe Research Professorship.

Business is changing rapidly. What are the trends?

Dr. Marcia Ruben

I’ve gone to several leadership conferences in the past couple of years as part of my Russell T. Sharpe professorship. At one of the recent conferences on Mindful Leadership, one of the presenters from Accenture shared the 2018 megatrends most impacting leaders from Forbes. Topping the list are artificial intelligence, automation, and the prospect of networks replacing hierarchy as a core organizing principle.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Bob Johansen, now a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. I’ve read Bob’s latest book, The New Leadership Literacies. Bob predicts that more and more companies will be organized as distributed networks, with leadership emerging at various points.

If you think about the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in the aftermath we saw groups of high school students stepping up to become leaders at a national level. This leadership was emergent, spontaneous, and quite effective. The students’ strategic use of social media was instrumental in contributing to the impressive leadership of what became a national movement.

Another noteworthy trend is blockchain, which will likely eliminate the need for intermediaries. For example, if I want to connect with a driver to take me someplace, I will be connected directly to a driver who provides that service, without having to go through a taxi company, Uber, or Lyft. This will, of course, raise new opportunities for companies that provide insurance. Yet another related trend is driverless cars.

Given our global environment and the megatrends we discussed, change is the only constant.

Organizations are changing, but how?

Organizations need to be prepared for and need to adapt to imminent disruption. I mentioned driverless cars, and we can include commercial trucks as well. Right now, there are a number of trucking companies that employ thousands of drivers. They’ve invested in trucks, equipment, and training for drivers. Imagine you are the leadership team of a trucking company. You have to move fast to adapt to new ways of working. You’ll need to make solid decisions and figure out how to stay competitive in the midst of this change.

There’s a term made popular by the Army’s War College, which I first learned about in 2003—VUCA or Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. Given our global environment and the megatrends we discussed, change is the only constant. Leading in VUCA is going to require a different set of skills. When things are unpredictable, leaders need to first be able to manage their own emotions. Secondly, they have to have a finely attuned ability to sense signals and trends. And finally, they need to be comfortable experimenting and figuring out quickly what works and what doesn’t.

What skills do leaders need to deal with change?

  1. Pay Attention: Given the amount of digital distraction and sheer volume of data and information that we are bombarded with, being able to focus our full attention in the present moment is more important than others. The reality is that today’s leaders are under tremendous pressure and are “always on.”
  2. Develop empathy: According to David Peterson, the head of Global Talent at Google, leaders need to develop two critical capabilities. These are empathy – the ability to anticipate and appreciate many perspectives – and what he calls “managing cognition.” This involves being able to focus one’s attention, being aware of inherent biases and making sound decisions when things are unpredictable and uncertain.
  3. Avoid analysis paralysis: Leadership teams will need to make quick and good decisions, sometimes without 100% of the data.
  4. Personal development: “Egoless-ness.” Investing in a solution that feeds the ego may not be the best one. Usually, the need to satisfy one’s ego predates what is happening in the moment. Leaders who invest time in personal development are much more likely to lead from a collective higher purpose.
  5. Recognize that there isn’t only one way of doing things because of various levels of complexity. David Snowden’s Cynefin model provides a very useful framework.
  6. Complex challenges are best understood when shown graphically. There are a number of tools and techniques you can use to chart a challenge. The best way is to convene a large group, and collectively create a picture of the situation. This gets everyone on the same page and also helps everyone more deeply see and understand the complexity.
  7. Don’t be old school: In unpredictable circumstances, best practices are often the worst way to proceed. Today’s leaders need both a good business and management toolkit and the ability to innovate.

Why does old school management not work in today’s environment?

John Kotter says it best: Managers cope with complexity, while Leaders cope with change. In order to lead, the best leaders set a clear and compelling vision, are excellent communicators, and are willing to take calculated risks to achieve high performance.

You can follow Dr. Ruben on Twitter at @TangleDoctor and read her blog at

About Marcia Ruben

Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., began teaching full-time at Golden Gate University in 2012 and was appointed to the Chair of the Management Department at GGU in 2014. She was awarded the Judith E. Browning Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2015. She was awarded the 2016-2018 Russell T. Sharpe Research Professorship. In 2017, she was promoted to an Associate Professor. Marcia continues a private executive leadership development practice. Marcia earned the Certified Management Consultant designation from the Institute of Management Consultants USA in 2002. She is also an accredited executive coach and completed a year-long evidence-based coaching certification program. Marcia earned the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation in 2010. Marcia earned her MA and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University, as well as an MS in Counseling from California State University, Hayward. Marcia graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. from University of California, Berkeley. She has co-authored several articles that are recognized as thought-leaders in the change management and coaching industry. Her article, Untangling Conflicting Organizational Agendas: Applying Emotional Regulation, SCARF, and Other Neuroleadership Principles Case Study, was published in the 2015 Neuroleadership Journal.

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