Our brains are complex things, but not great at handling complexity. We need a few key leadership principles to help us make sense of the fast paced hot mess that is our current leadership context.

Principle 1. We need to de-stimulate our brain. It’s capable of absorbing a lot. But if we are going to make use of its ability to make connections, we need to let the stimulus settle, like the flakes in a snowglobe. So make space for no-thing. That means let your eyes rest on nature instead of a screen for a few minutes at least each day. Let your senses do their thing while you do nothing. Don’t try to focus or not focus. Just be.

Principle 2. We can map complexity. No map is a perfect replica of reality. Otherwise it would be reality! Yet maps are a good snapshot of what is going on. In the work that I do with leaders, I show them many different kinds of maps they can use to make use of complexity:

  • Maps of human behaviour, like the Four Devils of People Stuff (in my latest book, People Stuff)
  • Maps of problems, like the problem tree (also in People Stuff)
  • Maps of possible futures like scenario planning (you guessed it, also in People Stuff)

Pay attention to your emotional responses. They are information too.

Principle 3. We can ask better questions. In speaking to a client yesterday, he was asking the question, “Am I too gentle?” He was concerned he was getting pushed around too much – by the Board, by staff, by clients and suppliers. In the conversation we discover that being gentle was one of his core values, so asking him to change that was never going to work. So we asked better questions, like these ones:

  • What result do I want?
  • What emotional responses am I having in these situations and are they working for me?
  • What are the patterns of behaviour and systems that are contributing to these situations?
  • What could I have changed about my approach that addresses systemic problems, and not just symptoms?

Complexity is part of the leadership journey. There will be no clear paths.

Becoming an Amplifier, a leader who can lead though complexity and ambiguity while making the world a better place, means becoming ok with not knowing. We say goodbye to certainty of outcomes, and say hello to certainty of courage. We may not know the exact direction, or if the next steps will be the right ones, but we know that taking courageous action is a step forward that may lead to a clearing in the fog.

How comfortable are you with uncertainty and complexity? What leadership principle can you experiment with? 


Related articles on leadership principles

A leadership principle I keep re-learning

How to create a personal leadership manifesto

How to avoid getting derailed in a difficult conversation



  • Zoë Routh

    Australia's Leadership Expert, Author of Book of the Year "People Stuff" l Speaker l Mentor l Strategist

    Zoë Routh is one of Australia’s leading experts on people stuff - the stuff that gets in our way of producing results, and the stuff that lights us up. She works with the growers, makers, builders to make people stuff fun and practical.

    Zoë is the author of four books: Composure - How centered leaders make the biggest impact,  Moments - Leadership when it matters most, Loyalty - Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and build lifelong advocates, and People Stuff - Beyond Personalities: An advanced handbook for leadership. People Stuff was awarded Book of the Year 2020 by the Smart WFM Australian Business Book Awards.

    Zoë is also the producer of The Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast.