How Do We Lead in Chaotic Times?

Decision making

If one thing is clear in our current global crisis, it’s how little we know. Every day, we are learning more about COVID-19, but it will take years before we fully understand this novel coronavirus. And the need to keep people apart to prevent the spread of the disease has social and economic consequences that are only beginning to become apparent. At this chaotic time, shifting realities and turbulence make it difficult, if not impossible, to rely on our usual leadership practices.

A useful framework for thinking about how our practices need to shift comes from the article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”* The chart below lays out four contexts (simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic) for leadership, how leaders can best manage them, and how to avoid their pitfalls. For more detail, read the full article

Decisions in Multiple Contexts: A Leader's Guide

Chart: A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

For those of us who pursue system change, dealing with complexity is the norm. In chaotic contexts, leaders need to act decisively and immediately to address the crisis, then look for elements of stability they can build upon both to manage the situation and to spot new opportunities. The article and the chart point the way to thinking about how we might adapt our approach in this uncertain time.

*David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

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CCI is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and The California Endowment.

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