Measuring leadership for complexity

Tomorrow’s toolkit can’t be quantified in a classroom.

Humans have a predilection for simplicity. As leaders we are taught to deliver clear, simple messages to our teams. When diagnosing a problem or analyzing a trend, we are urged to reduce it to the most elementary analysis. When proposing a strategy, the recommended approach is to distill the plan into well-defined tenets that are easily communicated and understood.

Such appeals to simplicity are prudent, provided they aren’t excessive. It was Einstein who warned: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” As the global business landscape becomes exponentially more complex, leaders must avoid seeking strategies that understate that complexity. Instead, leaders must lean into it, augmenting the classic skills of reductive deduction with a new set of tools honed for a multifarious world.

I have identified four leadership behaviors that equip leaders for this new paradigm: curiosity, empathy, grit and resilience, and generative leadership.


An explorative mindset is key to leading in complexity. The natural human tendency to ‘take things as we find them’ must be overcome. In a changing world, leaders must be inquisitive, scratch well beneath the surface and discover the shifts and patterns that are fueling complexity. Rather than seeing change as a problem, leaders must embrace it as an opportunity.


The need for leaders to show empathy towards their teams or suppliers is nothing new. What is novel is the need for leaders to direct similar empathy towards themselves – recognizing that leading in times of maximum complexity and uncertainty is difficult. Without consummate self-care, leaders will be ill-equipped to face the era of rapid change.

Grit and resilience

Mental toughness comes in two forms. Resilience is our ability to recover from acute setbacks, which are inevitable in a chaotic, complex world. Grit is an enduring capacity: the passion, commitment and perseverance leaders need to hold firm, and deliver upon, their long-term goals. They are different, but leaders should bracket them together, as each directly contributes to and enhances the other.

Generative leadership

The ability to withstand the future comes from a new type of leadership. Generative leadership is a credo under which leaders lead for commercial success coupled with environmental, social and governmental (ESG) enhancement. They understand that commercial success and ESG improvement are not trade-offs, but symbiotic. They lead by developing strategies that are pro profit, people and planet. “Generative leaders strive to leave the world a better place than they found it,” says the Boston Consulting Group.

In-team testing

These four crucial leadership behaviors – which are validated by real-world acts, not written or verbal testimonies – cannot be measured by conventional tests. As such, the assessment of such capacities must be done on intact, working teams – not in a classroom or via discrete examinations.

We must develop a responsive organizational tool that can quantify leaders’ capacity for curiosity, empathy, grit and resilience, and generative leadership while they are conducting their daily work. Only when we have diagnosed the current capacities of our leadership teams can we work to develop them.
The US journalist HL Mencken once warned: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” The measurement of tomorrow’s leadership behaviors is possible and deeply necessary. Yet it demands an assessment standard commensurate with the complex set of behaviors it is assessing: an on-the-job eye into the real-world behaviors of tomorrow’s leadership teams in an increasingly complicated world.

Vishal Patel is president of global markets at Duke Corporate Education.