Leading in complexity

12 June 2024

Crawford School Executive Education met with Dr Gary Saliba, convenor of the upcoming Emergent leadership series to learn more about a VUCA world and its continued relevance to leaders in the Australian Public Service (APS).
While the concept of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world has been around for three decades, many organisations have still been operating on ‘business as usual’. With COVID, threats of climate change, and other major disruptive influences at our doorstep, now is a crucial time to learn and apply relevant leadership skills and tools to navigate challenges in the current and future leadership landscape.

1. Has the concept of ‘leadership’ changed in the recent years? In what way?

Some writers make the distinction in the concept of leadership prior and post COVID. Such distinctions create an artificial construct of the concept of leadership. Fundamentally, leadership is about understanding self and the sense of identity a person has about themself as a leader no matter the context. It is about the ability to establish relationships with others so that they are able to be the best they can be in the context they are operating within.

Different contexts have different meanings, requiring leaders to adapt to the needs of that context. How that is facilitated can be highly varied depending on the context of operations. When the context is highly chaotic, a leader will need to be highly directive whereas in a context where a knowable problem is to be solved, they need to adopt an identity state of a facilitator/guide/mentor. The concept of leadership is still the same. what is different is the style of leading that is required to address the context.

Post COVID, the world has changed and the role of the leader is to assist others to make sense of the growing uncertainty and complexity. In this context, the leader will need to support people to make sense of the uncertainty and complexity, ensure that they can develop a sense of purpose and achievement in a world that is rapidly changing due to a range of uncontrollable influences.

2. What skills do public servants in their role of policy development, implementation and evaluation need to develop to be effective leaders in their organisation?

Public servants operate in a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous political environment. To be effective leaders in such an environment they need to have skills to:

  • be aware of the sensory responses of their bodies to the stresses of the job and be able to respond to those signals so that they can be effective in their role
  • obtain access to data and information to make sense of the operating landscape and develop narratives that enables their followers to also make sense of the operating landscape
  • identify patterns in the operating landscape, make sense of them and develop options that inform policy design, implementation and evaluation
  • reflect on their beliefs/assumptions about the policy landscape, the current policies and of stakeholders to be ready to refine/upgrade their beliefs and assumptions to inform effective policy design, implementation and evaluation to enable higher efficacy of policies
  • be comfortable with uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and volatility and know how to lead others and effectively navigate their role
  • know how to manage themselves, their teams, their supervisors, Ministers and other stakeholders when they do not have the answers and are able to work with their teams and others to develop a way forward-especially during times of high degrees of uncertainty volatility
  • be able to lead the media in ways that they will support policy development and implementation

3. In your experience consulting for various organisations, what are the top challenges that organisations are facing?

There are many challenges that organisations are facing and it depends on the lens that you look through. Some major challenges include:

  • Having people who are genuine leaders throughout the organisation that are working together to support teams to respond to organisational challenges and deliver on the purpose of the organisation
  • Having a culture that has critical thinking skills to develop innovative options in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world
  • Being able to have the continuity of a complement of skilled staff to undertake the work
  • Having a culture that can effectively operate in a VUCA world

4. There are three courses under your ‘Emergent leadership series’. How do these courses work together if taking all the courses (as a series)?

Each course is designed as a stand-alone course to suit the area you are targeting. When taken as a series, they are designed to build on each other.

Adaptive thinking for complex policy development awakens participants to understanding the policy and operating landscape from a Complex Adaptive Systems perspective. It provides an alternate view on how to understand the operating landscape and how to design, implement and evaluate policy.

Foresighting skills to design and implement adaptive practices challenges participants to their beliefs about how the operating landscape works. It provides techniques to collect large volumes of information, identify patterns, and assist people to make sense of ambiguous information to assist policy formulation and implementation. The aim of the course is to help people respond to uncertainty and complexity by developing a suite of informed options to better inform policy.

Strategic thinking and planning in a complex and uncertain world provides a range of frameworks and models that equip participants to inform their capacity for strategic thinking and providing options on how to respond in a VUCA world given their understanding of the landscape and the impact of the beliefs and assumptions.

5. Who should attend these courses? People from private and public sector organisations who are wanting:

  • to provide thought leadership
  • to be more effective in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating landscape
  • new ways of thinking and working because their current ways are no longer giving them the results that they need
  • to enhance their capacity and capability for leading
  • to develop their skills and capabilities that will give them more options in their life and at work
  • to make their mark and obtain extraordinary results

The Emergent leadership series starts on 30 July 2024. Save an additional $300 when you register for the series before 30 June 2024.

Group discounts are available. Contact for more information.

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Updated:  23 July 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team