How Leaders Complicate Matters

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One thing you need to be a truly great leader is the ability to simplify. Followers want you to cut through the daily chaos and confusion to help them focus on core issues. They need you to help them cast aside all the distractions so they can focus their attention on a central or foundational problem. This ability, along with the ability to create and cast vision, is one thing that sets truly great leaders apart from average leaders.

Late last year, I wrote an article, “One Thing You Need To Be A Great Leader,” in which I discussed the need for leaders to simplify problems. Each problem you encounter is accompanied by a myriad of factors: technical, process, legal, timing, financial, people and more. We often talk about the need for leaders to provide vision and hope for the future to help followers deal with these complex problems. However, I pointed out in that article, if vision and hope is all that the leader provides, there is still a high risk of failure because there are just too many issues to deal with. I explained that, “Great leaders also help followers deal with the reality of complexity and change by simplifying.”

Great leaders help followers simplify problems in three ways:

  • They tune attention to the proper signals and avoid the noise.
  • They focus attention on the organization’s mission and values.
  • They distinguish between heart issues and head issues.

Read my previous article to learn more about each of those points.

My purpose here is not merely to summarize what I wrote a few months back. Rather, I have seen this issue of simplifying come up recently in a few organizations, but not by witnessing great leaders simplifying problems. Instead, what I’ve witnessed is how leaders have done the opposite—they have complicated matters. I’ve observed three different ways leaders have complicated problems for their organization.

Trying To Solve Too Many Problems

Let’s be honest. There is no shortage of problems in any organization, and therefore one of the easiest ways for leaders to complicate matters (and fail at simplifying) is solving too many problems. Trying to solve too many problems creates a number of complicating secondary problems: spreads resources too thin, draws attention to the wrong issues, confuses followers about what is really important, and more. Here’s the truth: less than 5% of your identifiable problems need to be solved. Less than 5%! Probably only 2% or 3%.

No, I’m not crazy. Solving too many problems is the opposite of simplifying. Leaders who simplify are those who tune and focus attention on the right problems and distinguish between heart and head issues. Leaders who are good at simplifying only need to solve less than 5% of the problems. What about the other 95%? They’re irrelevant in the long run.

Trying To Please Too Many People

Whether yours is an organization of 10 or 10,000 people there is a great temptation to please as many people as possible. It is natural to want to make people happy (and therefore to like you!). In the short run, avoiding conflict is easier than dealing with it head on, and thus leaders tend to try making people happy.

This is a dangerous game to play because no two people are going to want the same thing out of a situation. Trying to make all of them happy complicates matters by making compromises that undermine strategic goals. Attempting to make everyone happy also sets dangerous precedents of entitlement and performance for the future that are unrealistic and complicate future problems.

Trying To Seize Or Wield Power They Don’t Have

Perhaps the most insidious way to complicate problems is leaders who try to seize or wield power they shouldn’t or don’t have. This particular way of complicating problems can be very subtle, and sometimes followers or fellow leaders don’t realize it has happened until it is too late. Here is an example of how subtle this can be: I once worked for a man who furnished his office in a way that he sat in a high desk chair and the only place for others to sit was in a low-slung couch. He was always looking down at us in his office. This complicated problems because it did not build trust or community among his team (among other things).

A not-so-subtle form of this is a leader who manipulates organizational structures to centralize power in his office. Another example is a leader who revises the history of events and relationships to make himself more powerful. These actions complicate problems because they, too, do not build trust or community.

Do you a simplify or complicate? Do you tune and focus attention and distinguish between heart and head issues? Or, are you a “too” leader—too many problems, too many people to please, too much power?

Take time this week to ask five people, “Do I tend to simplify problems or complicate them?” Wait for their answer and then thank them for their honesty. Move on to the next person. What you learn from your survey will help you discern whether you need to follow up and ask about how you simplify or how you complicate problems.

If you’re a leader, you tend to do one or the other. Which is it?


Photo by Paul Schubert. Available at

3 thoughts on “How Leaders Complicate Matters

  1. Great topic, Dr. Yorkovich. I agree that a reductionist approach to complicated problems can help team productivity, especially in the short term, and when the final outcome or goal can be well-defined. I think, though, that this concept can be taken too far, and when members of a team aren’t part of the problem solving process, as leaders, we risk missing out on great ideas by creating a work environment that focuses too heavily on specific tasks and stifles creativity and the emergence of knowledge at a system level. Finding a balance between clearing away detritus so others don’t have to deal with it, and allowing room for discovery, learning and shared knowledge creation is tricky, but I think it is one of the key skills leaders will need as our economy continues to change.

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