Comfort in Complexity

This article was co-authored by John Atkinson and David Nabarro. It was first published on 20 January 2019 on

Where we begin

There are many models for how systems are supposed to work. Each has at its core a philosophy, sometimes explicitly understood and described, often less so. Most define a route towards an answer, via a prescribed methodology, resulting in seemingly inevitable success. Our experiences have been more varied.

The reality is that leadership through large, complex and politically contested issues can be very tough on the people involved. It challenges our perception as to what is for the best, and how best to achieve it. And it challenges how we can find connection with all those who need to be involved.

We find that as systems leaders focus on complex global challenges they cannot just rely on neat and ordered, often mechanical, approaches to problem-solving like Gantt charts, root cause analysis and logical frameworks.  They need an altogether different set of characteristics, some of which are not easily learnt in the seminar room.

There are some important basic competences that should not be neglected:

  • An ability to encourage groups of people with similar core values to come together around a shared purpose.
  • To nurture co-creation of the future by wide groups of stakeholders.
  • To convene design-focused workshops full of diverse participants and to make records of decisions made, incorporating them in business plans.

All of these things really matter. We organize sessions that help develop the competence to do this: we participate in them, enjoy them and sense that colleagues benefit from them greatly.

However, it is our belief and experience that the essence of systems leadership goes beyond acquiring this basic competence. It calls for qualities of thought and action that are unique to effective systems leadership. It involves being able to feel what might be possible, how quickly and with whom. It also means living with the pain, discord and conflict that are inherent in getting divergent groups to work effectively together. The emotional core can be dark at times. Systems leaders must be confident that they can preserve their ability to lead in a difficult environment, through being resilient and functioning effectively in messy situations. It also means being capable of helping colleagues find the way along a path ahead, a path that is rarely clear and often needs creating as we go.

As new connections between groups and individuals form, new patterns arise and from that something novel becomes possible. At the same time something is collapsing. The existing ways of finding coherence are challenged. The fulfilling relationships and certainty as to who we are and where we fit are beginning to crumble. Job roles, departments, even whole organisations may play no part in the new future. This is invariably a political space. It can be deeply painful. People will contest the things that need to happen and in doing so they overtly or covertly fight for the continuation of the present. At such moments, all the doubt, insecurity and anger can be focused on you.

Three areas in which being confident helps

To be effective in this realm means being confident in working with the politics of living systems, dealing with uncertainty, and coping with adversity.


The politics of living systems are important whenever complex problems are being addressed, whether on a local or global scale. Decisions must be made about who gets what. The stakes are high, and different options can seem equally unpalatable. There are constant contests about who will win, and who might lose out; who will do what and when; who will pay, and how. So much depends on where the power to make things happen lies, and how that power is used. The real source of power is not always obvious.

Systems leaders must be confident when working with those who seek to accumulate and then use power, and they must be comfortable operating within this deeply political realm. This applies to the ‘big P’ Politics of local, national and international governance as well as the small ‘p’ of power relations within and between organizations.

Systems leaders appreciate the need to understand how power is being gained and the influences over its use within all manner of political processes. They take account of the multiplicity of power plays under way, with constant competition over scarce resources and much appearing to depend on the outcome of seemingly minor decisions. At the same time, there is a conundrum. It sometimes seems that politics are undermining efforts to get vital tasks done. This all means that an ability to work with the politics of living systems is an essential, but sometimes frustrating, aspect of a systems leader’s professional journey. The political processes are neither good nor bad, quite simply they are a part of the job. You have to be confident about working with them.


Systems leaders must be comfortable with, and manage, uncertainty at all times. It is a given that there is uncertainty in the environment. If the future direction was clear and agreed you would have no work to do. What we are referring to is your own uncertainty; how you manage yourself. Here are two of the doubts we have felt in ourselves.

First, “how do I know whether my contribution is meaningful?” The uncertainty experienced by a system undergoing change can challenge both the systems leader’s existing sense of coherence as well as her or his ability to maintain it.

When any series of systems are undergoing change, those involved start to doubt their relationships and question who they are and where they fit in. Some familiar things seem to crumble and this causes a fear of collapse.

This leads to anxiety and pain with many people holding on to the past, fighting to continue the present and disagreeing that change is needed. When we find ourselves in these moments, what is our escape valve? For both of us, John and David, being able to cope with uncertainty starts with knowing who we are, warts and all, and finding comfort with that.

Second, “how do I know whether I am being successful?” Most systems leaders sense that there is real progress when the systems themselves begin to grow strongly. Fresh and intriguing connections are made and new patterns start to arise. More effective ways to get things done are emerging. But things will not necessarily be better for everyone, at least in the short term.

That is why the systems leadership role means thinking through what happens to the less desirable parts of any system as well as those which we seek to enhance. None of us can make the difficult parts just vanish. Collapse and emergence walk hand-in-hand. The role of the systems leader is to accompany both, helping different actors work out what to resolve for themselves and what they need to resolve together. Then we devise ways in which it might be helpful to work with people, enabling them to develop the means for resolving the challenges they face.


Systems leaders encourage connections between living systems in ways that enable them to make better collective sense of what is going on. Helping to make connections among people with a whole raft of pain and hurt is far from pleasant. In these circumstances, getting better connected can be personally challenging and some people will become hostile towards you. The systems leader can become the personification of a new and unwanted direction and is likely to be on the receiving end of hurt and anger. It is important to remember that whatever is conveyed in gestures, words or feelings is likely to be an expression of something deeper. The leader has to be resilient in the face of adversity and must try to avoid taking personal responsibility for the difficulties within systems.

In summary, when our egos cry out for recognition and reward it is a danger signal that should be heeded. If you want too much for yourself in any outcome (a new role, enhanced reputation or influence), you will invariably fail. Both pain and success are not, and cannot be, about you. If you are prepared to sink without trace in the final outcome, almost perversely you become more influential.

Three areas in which it helps to be capable

We have also seen that there are three key capabilities that are of the essence when systems leadership is applied to complex global challenges: being able to scope, evolve, and strop, jointly with those with whom we work.


It is sometimes said that the pursuit of ambitious targets is the key to making things happen, but strong allegiance to targeting can have unintended consequences. It leads to wholesale shifts in organizational priorities or operations, and a focus on what is delivered, rather than what is experienced by those for whom services are provided. The negotiations involved in agreeing common milestones can take precious resources away from creativity and innovation and can even be used to block progress.

What is important is to maintain the sense of a meaningful direction that appeals to many, scoping on behalf of all. The direction and destination do not need to be described precisely or entirely. But they do need to draw on different elements that reflect the interests of the various groups of stakeholders. This lets people see how what they want can be achieved if they decide to play along (or at least appear to).

Both of us have experienced working with small groups that rapidly grew and grew by making sure that, while their purpose was clear, the means for getting there was necessarily vague, as well as being open and available. This attracted others who cared about the work to join the effort. This form of constructive ambiguity is a valuable attribute in systems leadership.


In our experience there are important ways in which complex organizations influence what their associates do. One way is to use tightly defined purpose statements, project plans and outcome measures. This can stifle the kind of creativity that enables organizations to grow through adaptation. It is prioritizing the relentless pursuit of a pre-determined strategy, together with its milestones, over the gradual build-up of a strong momentum.

We have found that leaders appreciate that allowing for detailed plans and outcome measures to become apparent as the work progresses, allows for more effective ways to tackle complex issues.

It seems to us that being comfortable with this kind of progressive evolution is at the heart of systems leadership. Though it is welcome to many of those with whom we work, some will still struggle to find ways for combining progressive evolution with operational control and accountability.


We appreciate that systems leaders will always prefer to work with whole systems – to “get all the system in the room”. What we find in practice is that this strategy is often realized later rather than earlier in the process. We’ve noticed how at first a small group sense that something disturbs the status quo and seem to coalesce. Slowly others who think like them are drawn into their conversations.

And we are also aware that if things shift significantly, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that the right groups are engaged, especially those with much to lose in any change. They often have quieter voices and less capacity than the groups who tend to be already at the table.

This is an example of stropping, pursuing strategy through opportunity. It is letting the strategy find its own place and pace through the opportunities that appear in the journey of change.

Five qualities – of thought and action – that are also helpful

As we encourage colleagues to develop their capabilities as systems leaders we see how their abilities are influenced by their experiences, presence and personalities. The way in which they do that in any given setting really does depend on who they are. From our perspective, David, as a qualified medical practitioner, can take positions in some groups that John simply cannot.

At the same time, we have come to appreciate the several different qualities of thought and action that help systems leaders as they navigate complexity and ambiguity. As before, we recognize that the ways in which these qualities are applied will be highly contextual and highly personal. We are interested to know how others use them as they lead efforts for systems change. We share five of them now:

1          Hold competing perspectives simultaneously

The nature of living systems is that they look different to everyone depending on where we sit in them. People can therefore hold competing views that are in contradiction to each other, and both can still both  true. In the systems leadership role we need to be able to hold multiple competing perspectives simultaneously and give up striving for an objective truth. It isn’t there to be found.

2          See the whole system differently to its separate parts

We don’t arrive at a truth as to how the system works by studying its separate elements. So we shouldn’t do it. There are characteristics of any living system that are a function of that system as a whole and not found in any of its parts. We must focus on how the elements do and don’t relate, and what happens when they act together.

3          Feel into the pace, rhythm and readiness

It doesn’t matter what external timescale or plan is in place, a living system will move at a pace driven by its internal relationships and its relationship with its environment. As systems leaders we need to become adept at feeling into the pace of change that can be handled, the rhythm that underpins that pace and when things are ready, or not ready to move. If it’s not ready, we don’t try to move it. When it is ready to move fast, we don’t slow it down.

4          See the system in relationship to its environment

Living human systems evolve in symbiosis with their environment. An internal focus on the workings of the system tells us only a part of the story. The new stuff is invariably occurring around the points where the system and its environment are in closest contact. We must go and take a look there and reflect on what we’re seeing.

5          Meet people right where they really are

The way people show up is the way they show up. We can’t force them into a different place. We can’t make them move faster than they are prepared to go. So we see them, hear them and engage with them right there, not from where we feel they should be going. Then we’ll find the potential that exists, however great that is or otherwise.

One step at a time with the direction in mind

We constantly remind ourselves that systems leadership is both art and science. It is the artist and scientist in each of us that determines how we respond to what we uncover through our practice of systems leadership.

We hold the key to being good at being ourselves. As each situation unfolds we interpret what we find through our own experiences and emotions. Many of us find that being honest about our real motives, as well as our reactions to what is happening around us, helps us feel our way into the next step. And that, for us, is the beating heart of this art.

We take each situation one step at a time, always enhancing the quality of our thoughts and actions. We become confident within the politics, uncertainty and adversity. We scope, evolve and strop, always together, always trying to remain aware of the direction in which our steps might be leading.

We can’t tell you how to be you. We hope that by sharing our experience of this work it points you at how you might be you a little better. And how, in evolving your capacity to draw on all that you have within, you might make your world a little better too.


Download a summary of this article as printable PDF.

During a 4SD Webinar on Comfort in Complexity, participants explored how working in this way can be valuable and what it really feels like. This process was captured in a Learning Review (PDF).

About the authors

Photo of David Nabarro and John Atkinson

John is a curator at Heart of the Art and was the Founding Director of the Phillips Kay Partnership. He has designed, instigated and led whole systems change approaches at the global, national and local level for the UN, Governments and Cities as well as for multi-national corporations.

David is the Strategic Director of 4SD. He has previously worked for several years in senior roles within the UN system and as civil servant of the United Kingdom.

About this series

In their work together, John and David are exploring what systems leadership means, what working with living systems really looks like and how that plays out for real when you have a central role within loosely-organised human systems that are trying to address complex issues.