"The Purposeful Leader"


Didier Marlier

April 18, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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When confronted to complexity, humans tend to respond by increasing control, micro-management and closing. The recent crisis provided a strong although well intentioned illustration of this: Some CEO’s were requesting daily cash flow statements of their people as a way to feel “in control”, showing concern and seeking to grow a necessary sense of urgency in the ranks. However, thinking of the energy that such a measure has wasted internally, I am not sure its benefits outweighed the inconvenients.

Always well intentioned, another story comes to mind: a few years ago, I was invited to accompany a large culture and strategy change in a multinational. In the middle of the reflection upon engagement, one of the Board members “parachuted” a communication consulting firm which took us through three painful hours of powerpoints on crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s about the next vision statement. It was fascinating to see how obsession for details completely obscured the much more needed big picture…

The response to complexity is rather counter-intuitive. It is about co-creating clarity and inspiration around a strong sense of purpose; then, as we saw last week, letting go of control. In another clip, Lt. General Van Riper explains why a powerful sense of Purpose is more important than anything else in times of crisis and urgency.

If you still have doubts try to play the amazing simulation one of our colleagues, Tony Page, brought back from a seminar he followed, dedicated to Complex Adaptive Systems:

– Explain to the participants that they all have one individual objective: “To identify two people in the group and to go and stand at equal distance between them”… This seems like a pretty simple task at first glance. However, participants rapidly realize this must be an impossible one to complete (especially if they are 250 people taking part as I ran this simulation once on a football pitch)… “If I choose x as a reference point and she chooses y who, in turn, has chosen me, it will be a vicious, endless circle”, everybody starts to think

– There are a few constraints: 1) Do not change the two reference people during the action, they should always stay the same, 2) stay on the agreed playing field (just to ensure people don’t walk too far which would simply delay the ending slightly), 3) no running (to avoid people colliding), 4) You can’t show in any manner who your two reference people are and 5) do not try to organize this by talking. Any discussion relating to organizing this apparent mess is prohibited.

If you are not sure, why not try in your next alumni or family reunion? In my humble experience (more than a hundred times) it never takes more than three minutes for people to self-organize and find a solution.

Try to think now how this would work, should you order a “Command & control” micro manager to take charge here? It would just be messy and chaotic even though the leader would try to go for exactly the opposite: order (and progress for the Brazilians;)…

At the time of engaging into new and ambitious strategy and culture change projects, may the wisdom of retired General Van Riper inspire us all.

Still two bedrooms in our home available for those of you stranded nearby Switzerland! My flights to Germany and Helsinki canceled… Will reach Zurich and Paris by car… Courage to you all



  1. Ivo Knottnerus

    Hi Didier,

    Thanks again for your inspiring blog. When I was reading through it about complexity and being in control I was reminded immediately about a documentary I was watching the other day on BBC2. It is called ‘Welcome to Lagos’ and plays on April 22, and 29 at 21.00 pm CET for the remaining two episodes.

    Talking about a complex environment, the series starts with the scavengers who pick over piles of fetid rubbish at the 100-acre Olusosun dump to find scraps of anything that can be recycled and sold. The dump has generated a self-contained community, providing a livelihood to 5,000 people, with its own cinemas, barber shops, bars and restaurants. It is an incredibly complex environment with no visible rules, codes of conduct or penalties. It seems everyone is on their own trying to survive. There is no increasing control, micro-management and closing.

    However if you look a bit better, the reality is completely different, it is highly ordered and managed by an elected chairman – a sort of CEO, and elected not appointed by a selection committee – who metes out discipline to anyone who breaches the mutual trust on which the community’s many businesses depend. There are no rules really, all is based on mutual trust, and the scavengers just leave their harvest of the day unattended until the next morning. Nobody steals. If there are no breaches the chairman let’s the scavengers deal with their own problems and does not interfere.

    It is not that the series underplays the precarious situation in which these people live. In the background is the threat of state intervention by auth¬orities who are clearing slums and trying to instil civic pride. To them, these micro-entrepreneurs with their capacity to spread into any available space are obstacles to a more grandiose future in which Lagos could be Africa’s answer to Singapore.

    The thesis of the documentary, though, is that the scavengers are the future and their ingenuity has something to teach companies, governments and developed countries as cities everywhere become more crowded and resour¬ces dwindle.

    Have a good week, and I hope air traffic will go back to normal very soon. I am looking forward to going to Istanbul again.



  2. Bob Devlin

    Hi Didier – thanks for these great posts – very rich and insightful. “In command and out of control” what a great title – it articulates the dilemma of leading in these times very powerfully. We are doing a year long training with the US Army and the Lt Gen van Riper segment is right on point. We plan to use it in conjunction with Tony’s self organizing simulation in the coming months – maybe we’ll even get a general or two to play. All best, Bob


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