Evolving Leaders to Navigate Complex & Polarized Issues Affecting the World


As society wakes up to the Age of Denial, Decadence and Destruction in which we are living – a stage that repeats itself through the rise and fall of all civilisations in history – how can we orientate ourselves and lead others through the very tough terrain in front of us?  This is the inquiry at the centre of my work and in this series of blogs.

The perplexing dilemmas affecting civilization have become so complex that they are creating mental demands too high for most leaders.  This means we are repeatedly creating inadequate responses to our modern crises.

As a result, humanity is suffering from a gridlocked web of highly complex issues that are entangled in a downward spiral of vicious competition, vengeful opposition, polarization and conflict.  These problematic situations have wriggled their way into every corner of industry and society.  They have implications for every leader, every citizen.

Some of you get this already. You have gradually developed a way of seeing and acknowledging the painful truths about the severity of issues ahead for humanity.  Some of you see the enormity of the dilemma and will be feeling stuck about where to start. Others have already committed every minute of their waking life to making change happen.

The most ambitious and courageous change makers will know that the work of profound system-wide change is very difficult, if not nearly impossible.  The system is more stuck than we thought.  When breakthroughs do happen for us, they are often only minor and momentary.  We frequently find our successes dismantled soon afterwards; another restructure, another campaign, in the opposite direction.  It is exhausting work that is regularly accompanied with stress, anxiety and frustrating failures.

After spending more than 20 years architecting change, mediating conflicts and developing leaders to address international issues across more than 35 countries, I know just how difficult this terrain has been for thousands of change makers. This series of blogs is for these change makers; the new and experienced.

Whilst there are no easy answers, I believe we have left some powerful ideas and modern tools hiding in the basement that will be immensely helpful.  This is particularly true if you are in just about any type of senior leadership role, or if your job is to educate and develop others (e.g. HR practitioners). 


How to read these blogs…

We will cover provocative territory in these blogs and so you need to be prepared for the journey ahead.  Without an open inquiring mind, your voice of judgment will kick in, your impulse to argue or withdraw will win control, your immunity to change will flare up and you will be out of here before you learn anything new!  Sound familiar?

There will be difficult truths about our current state of affairs, which are painful because if we connect the dots we discover that we all implicated.  There are hidden, self-reinforcing and self-defeating traps lurking beneath the surface of every stuck situation, which we all unwittingly sustain. There are also difficult conversations we need to bring alive in ways that differ from the most familiar habits of listening and talking.

But this journey will be worth it.  It is likely you will learn to see the world differently and you will uncover fresh options for navigating increasingly more complex, polarized and ambiguous environments. Your capacity to lead will leap forward.

Bring your best self forward each time you dive in to these blogs.  I operate with a simple motto of ‘Be calm, be kind and be courageous - for myself, [all] others and the [whole] world - particularly when it feels most difficult.’ Though there is little sense applying this practice only when it feels easy and convenient. I have found enormous learning value in following (rather than avoiding) what feels most strange, awkward and confronting.  Perhaps these practices will also be useful for you.

Other territory in these blogs will be less provocative, but perhaps some concepts will be foreign at first – maybe hard to grasp at times – before they become practical and powerful.  Therefore, these blogs will require your sustained attention and a willingness to wrestle with confusion and uncertainty for a while.  There are no 20 second videos where we are headed.  It will not suit folk who want headlines about quick fixes.

Importantly, please bring a spirit of adventure.  The road might bumpy, tiring and difficult in sections, but some of the new vistas along the way will be worth it.  They have the potential to radically change how we navigate the difficult terrain in front of humanity.


If your work involves leadership development…

If you happen to work in a senior leadership or HR role, then in these blogs you are also going to find a treasure trove of strategies for evolving leaders who are better prepared for navigating the gridlock of highly complex and polarized crises.  There is an enormous gap that remains in the field of leadership development – it needs a major upgrade.

I will explain this gap much further in future blogs, though it will first require building an understanding of the stages of adult development developed by researchers like Robert Kegan (Harvard University) and Bill Torbert (Boston College).

Fewer than 2 percent of leaders are operating at the latest (highest) stages of adult development with the meaning-making capacities that are best suited to the most demanding challenges in industry and society.  In brief, we need to grow more of these leaders and we can grow more of these leaders.  Senior executives and HR must upgrade their approach to leadership development.


Take it forward…

When I am not mentoring or designing leadership programs, I am hosting conversations; breakfasts, lunches, dinners, roundtables, boardrooms, change maker networks and HR networks.  This occupies a large part of what I do.  I encourage you to do the same.

Take these blogs forward by using them to host meaningful, reflective small group conversations across your networks.  By providing a provocative context and some powerful questions for inquiry, it allows others to wrestle with different ways of seeing the world.

It is an opportunity for groups of leaders to uncover new ways of making meaning around the big issues, to discover hidden dynamics that are keeping them stuck, to gradually evolve a stronger sense of ownership and to contemplate alternative ways of navigating through complexity and polarization.

If you aren’t all that confident at hosting conversations and fostering the conditions for deeper reflective learning (rather than the norms of polite monologues or divisive debate), then find someone who is a skillful co-host. 

In future blogs, you will also learn a lot more about hosting difficult and sensitive conversations through the rigorous discipline of dialogic conversation practices.

I hope you join me in taking these strategies from the niche world of experts and into wider circles through your networks.  We need to develop a generation of wise, visionary and effective change makers who can respond more creatively to the modern world of complex and polarised issues.



Michael Hann