The Challenges of Leadership

Dec 14, 2020

Like many other leaders in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in the 2000s, as a senior police executive in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the United Nations (UN), I saw the critical importance of leadership in dealing with the various problems, issues and challenges that were present at the time. 

In 2008, as the Deputy Police Commissioner in charge of UN police in Haiti, I dealt with numerous unforeseen events: three weeks of generalized rioting; the passing of four successive tropical storms/hurricanes during a two-week period, killing over a thousand people with thousands more becoming homeless; the collapse of a primary school that killed 93 children; and a backdrop of daily incidents of extreme violence including murders, kidnappings, shootings and multi-fatality vehicle collisions. I returned to Haiti in January 2010 to effect the recovery and repatriation of two RCMP officers who had died in the earthquake that killed upwards of 250,000 people. 

In all these situations, I saw demonstrative leadership and, unfortunately too often, the absence of it. During this three-year period, Haiti provided a snapshot of the changing hazard landscape we live in today. With constant local, national, and international challenges, abetted and accelerated by technology and social media, the cadence of change will only become more pronounced in the future. This, in turn, will lead to greater levels of complexity in our lives, posing a singular challenge to our leadership abilities. 

The reality is that as a competency, traditional leadership is simply not enough to deal with the complexity we face today. This is especially evident in the frontline and first-responder domains which not only include military, police, fire, and ambulance services, but the entire health-care system as we are seeing with the present Covid-19 pandemic. 

Referring to the terrorist threats stemming from Islamic radicalism facing the United Kingdom in the mid-2010s, Andrew Parker, then Director of MI-5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5), stated in October 2013 that such threats were “more diffuse, more complicated and more unpredictable than at any time previously.” 

But in the past 100 years, haven’t we and our predecessors also had to deal with threats and challenges that were more diffuse, more complicated, and more unpredictable than at any other prior time? 

I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a beautiful city that has known its share of tragedies. At the height of the First World War, on 6 December 1917, a munitions ship blew up in the harbour killing 1,963 and injuring over 10,000 people out of a population of 65,000 people. In the years following the explosion, from 1918 to 1920, like many areas across Canada and the world, Halifax was hit with the influenza pandemic, resulting in the deaths of almost 2,000 more people. One can only imagine how diffuse, complicated, and unpredictable the times were for the leaders during that period. 

Because of factors like overpopulation, environmental degradation, political uncertainty, technological advances, and econo­mic disparities, the problems and challenges we are to face in the next 100 years will become even more difficult to manage and resolve. 

Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in his book, The Ingenuity Gap, published a year before the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001, that our inability to deal with this ever-increasing complexity is creating a widening gap as we don’t have the appropriate social and technical ingenuity to keep pace with the complexity of the times. This reflects the constant state of flux, or asymmetry in life today. 

He qualifies the world we live in as being one of “unknown unknowns.” We’re not only ignorant of the various elements of the complex systems surrounding us, but we are unthinkingly ignorant of the things we do not know, which form part of that complex system. 

In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable, in which he qualified a Black Swan event as having three distinct attributes: first, the event lies outside the realm of regular expectations; second, it has an extreme impact; and third, because of our biases, such an event makes us concoct after-the-fact explanations to justify its occurrence in the first place. 
Recent examples of Black Swan events are the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial system meltdown and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. However, according to Taleb, the Covid-19 pandemic is not a Black Swan event because it does not meet the first criteria of being outside the realm of our regular expectations. 

Just looking at recent history, we can list some of the most serious pandemics of the past 100 years: the HIV/AIDS pandemic from 1991 to present, which has been consistently responsible for hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million deaths every year; the 1968 flu pandemic which reportedly resulted in one to four million deaths; the 1957-1958 flu pandemic which killed upwards of 1.1 million people; and the influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1920 which is estimated to have killed between 3 to 5% of the world’s population at the time, some 50 million persons, including 80,000 Canadians. 

Of course this list does not include more localized occurrences such as the 1950s polio epidemic that maimed or killed around 500,000 people, mostly children, or the recent series of Ebola outbreaks that have claimed more than 12,000 lives. In August 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that wild poliovirus had been eradicated from Africa, 40 years after smallpox was eradicated there. Smallpox, alone, was responsible for the deaths of some 300 million people in the 20th century.

Pandemics have been part of human society since time immemorial and have been on the top of various risk registers for decades. They are recognized, albeit irregular, occurrences. Yes, they have a huge impact, and we tend to see them as being obvious in hindsight, but they are not Black Swan events. Instead, some have argued that the correct metaphor for such an event is a “Grey Rhinoceros.” 

American author, Michele Wucker, coined the term “Grey Rhino” to designate those events that are charging toward us with highly probable consequences and huge potential impact. Most importantly, we can see them coming with a certain degree of accuracy and foresight. 

Today’s world contains interconnected complex systems such as the global economy, the environment, human travel and displacement, technology, terrorism and organized crime, as well as broad social movements. To deal successfully with the local and non-local effects generated by these interconnected complex systems, we need to develop a better appreciation of the nature of those interdependent, diverse, and adaptive entities and structures that do exist. 

We know and recognize that such complexity is often unpredictable – capable of producing large, system-wide events that are robust in their adaptation and can produce amazingly novel and emergent phenomena never seen before. 

Critical to this understanding is the recognition that the totality of a complex system behaves in ways that cannot be seen by the behavior of individual components. Just because one car speeds in traffic does not mean that all cars do, or that traffic is flowing improperly. 
This is the challenge we have with today’s ever-increasing complexity: what matters is understanding the importance of the interactions between the individual elements more than the actual nature or origins of those individual elements.

An additional obstacle we are confronted with in understanding complexity is the crush of information we face daily, labelled by some as “infobesity” or “infoxication.” Think of the multiple sources of information in your own life: the work and personal emails, the presentations, the constant meetings and personal interactions, the continuous flow of text and direct messages, the written reports submitted, the social media feeds you follow, the radio, the television, the telephone calls, and other traditional means of communication such as magazines, newspapers and books that gush forth information for you to consider and act upon. 

If you want to quickly establish a barometer of the amount of information that assaults you constantly, try to count the number of different passwords you have for everything you do at home, work, and online. 

That “information overload” results in the shortening of our attention spans, limiting the time available for us to reflect properly on those critical matters in our lives, including those issues affecting our families and our communities. We often end up focusing on the sound bites and the noise instead of the important matters and signals that affect us all. Living in an age of distractions, we are obliged to perpetually choose what will attract and monopolize our attention. 

Because humans are sense-making and rule-making beings, we search for meaning in almost everything we do. If there is an absence of meaning in the information we receive, we tend to fill in the gaps, often with incorrect assumptions. So the noise we are assaulted with through the crush of information becomes a signal, which in turn becomes a story in our life. 

Needing to act quickly on the information (to not lose an opportunity or to deal with a challenge), we then jump to conclusions. Our stories that were based on incorrect assumptions stemming from signals that were filtered from the noise then become our decisions. Our decisions, the same decisions that started out simply as noise, then form our mental models that guide us in this world. 

Actor Danny Kaye (1911-1987) partially summed this up when he spoke of a woman he did not appreciate in these terms: “Her favourite position is beside herself, and her favourite sport is jumping to conclusions.”

Regardless of the type of event, be it a Black Swan or a Gray Rhinoceros, leaders need to prepare for frequent and infrequent high-impact events through a better understanding of complex systems and the gaps in our responses to them. 

This requires a systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely developments including those notions that lie outside the margins of our current thinking and planning exercises. We can ill afford to jump to conclusions in the absence of understanding. 

Contrary to a static environment where the parameters and challenges remain constant and best practices quickly develop, in today’s dynamic environment, best practices quickly become past practices. The goal is to stop driving our leadership car by looking through the rearview mirror at what once was, and instead, drive while looking through the front windshield to what will be. 

Human beings are good at postdiction (justifying things after the fact). In psychology, this is a known as the hindsight bias. After an event, we suddenly see indicators that make us believe we should have seen the event coming in the first place. Although we may be very good at postdiction, the reality is that we are abysmal at prediction. How many times have the experts correctly predicted stock market crashes or bull markets, crime sprees, significant weather events, the next Stanley Cup champions or the winning numbers in the 6/49 Lottery? Not often enough, if at all, in some domains. If they did, we would all be richer, safer, drier, and possibly even happier.

Preparation then, must start with ourselves. Are we mindful, without becoming obsessed, of the threats that abound in our lives? Are we able to appropriately react to, and even benefit from the complex nature of the daily events that shape our lives? 

Do we fall prey to the hubristic trap of believing that because we have some knowledge about something, that we have knowledge about everything? 

Living in an interconnected world, we must recognize that something that occurs elsewhere may influence or impact us, regardless of where we are. In other words, what happens there, anywhere, can matter wherever we are. The recent events in Canada and elsewhere outside of North America following the murder of George Floyd in the United States are a poignantly sad example of this. 

Consequently, it’s critical to distinguish between high-impact, highly improbable crises and high-impact, highly probable crises, like those coming right at us, all the while expecting both to occur one day. 

Regardless of the situation they face, leaders must be able to recognize the context they are dealing with and to adapt their actions to counter that context. 

We do this through intentional preparation by elevating our ability to understand and to deal with complexity, raising this skill to the same level as leadership. We can do this by learning from past events while targeting future scenarios, using various problem-solving tools such as Strategic Foresight, the Cynefin Frame­work or robust environmental horizon scanning while applying intellectual humility in all that we do. 

The key is to understand how to adjust our decision-making processes according to the level of complexity we are facing, making more responsive decisions to the individual challenges. 

Most importantly, we must prepare leaders at all levels of our organizations and our society to do the same. Leadership is no longer enough to ensure success in the 21st century. Effectively understanding and dealing with the complexity that flourishes is just as critical as leadership if we are to deal with the uncertainty of change and the speed at which events become diffused, convoluted, and unexpected.

That is the challenge to leadership in the 21st century. 

Jean-Michel Blais worked 25 years in the RCMP before becoming the Chief of Halifax Regional Police. He retired in 2019 and is currently the principal of EMPIRIC Consultancy Solutions. This article was adapted from a book he is writing entitled Working the Blue Line: Lessons in Life, Leadership and Complexity from Hockey and Policing.