New leadership skills required to thrive in constant disruption, complexity and ambiguity

Adrienne Tan

By Terri Soller, Managing Director, Conversus Leaders.

With Google showing three billion hits for the term “leadership”, why do we find this so interesting?

I was sitting in an airport lounge googling “leadership”, surrounded by suited-up business leaders all doing important work in the world. Work that impacts many people, often beyond their direct line of sight. Work that requires challenging and often conflict producing decision making. Work that relies on engaging and collaborating with others, especially those who disagree or hold opposing opinions. Work that often requires disappointing people so you can stay true to purpose. Work that requires ongoing learning and unlearning all the assumption and stories that have gotten you to this point. Work that means using the power you have to step out of the way. Work that means mobilising people to collectively explore the challenges and opportunities facing them. Work that needs you to say “I don’t know” rather than falsely leading people in a direction that has little impact.

I couldn’t help wondering, when given the opportunity to practice leadership, whether they had the courage to lead in the truest sense of the word, or were they merely maintaining the status quo?

Leadership is hard, complex and messy

Leadership is not yours to take by virtue of your role, but is an ongoing activity – a verb, not a noun. Leadership is hard work which you choose to do. It requires practice, which necessitates some failing too.

The practice of leadership is focused on moving beyond the known and familiar to challenging the status quo to work with what is emerging. True leadership is future-oriented, looking towards something that is less certain, less concrete. It is the space of possibility rather than probability. It relies on the past, by utilising its wisdom, without getting stuck in the habits and patterns of behaviour that are not enabling progress.

Leadership is something we learn, continuously. There is very little written (regardless of the three billion Google hits), that give you the ‘right’ steps to take in practicing leadership in all contexts at all times. It is a continual process of experimenting. Keeping your eyes, ears and even your heart wide open, observing, diagnosing, hypothesising, and testing.

Leadership is often the space of ‘not knowing’ – remaining open and willing to engage with others, especially with those who don’t see things your way.

The practice of leadership is not an individual pursuit. The more you think it’s about yourself, the less effective your leadership becomes.

The practice of leadership is not an individual pursuit. The more you think it’s about yourself, the less effective your leadership becomes. Click To Tweet

The work of leadership is done on behalf of the broader system and requires seeing the whole, rather than getting stuck in the smallness of the role and team you represent. The more you step away to see the system, the more complex it becomes, with a range of interconnected parts that require attention. Working with complexity requires thinking systemically, which is a practice of leadership.

Complexity has no toolkit

When faced with complex challenges or uncertain outcomes, many leaders believe that if they’re smart enough, work hard enough, or have a toolkit, they will be able to find the right answer and predict and plan for the future. When faced with complexity, we need to work counter-intuitively, let go of control and think about the skills that help us come ‘unstuck’, collaborate meaningfully, and use our collective creativity for strategic purpose.

Adaptive leadership is the practice of leadership that supports deep change, adaptability and resilience to thrive in complex, competitive and challenging environments. It helps all of us, regardless of role and profession, to navigate the unknown and truly practice leadership.

Our technical skills aren’t enough when we’re faced with complexity and ambiguity. This is when we most need the attitudes and skills to become more nimble, respond with agility, and support those around us to thrive even as the goalposts change.
Adaptive leadership requires both self- and systems-awareness as well as the courage to take action based on an honest assessment of both.

We need to be able to:

  • Increase influence so you can increase your capacity to work with multiple stakeholders to get things done,
  • Manage transformation by immersing yourself in the messiness of adaptation with awareness of both the system and the human condition
  • Work with purpose to negotiate and get clear on an orientating purpose that enables the system’s success and;
  • Build resilience so that you’re able to face new challenges with strength and confidence.


resilience leadership

Brainmates are always exploring new and better ways to excel as leaders, both for our own practice, and to support our clients.

About the author

Terri Soller is Managing Director of Conversus Leaders


Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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