For Complex Development Problems: We Need Bridging Leaders

This afternoon I saw in CNN how residents in Fargo, North Dakota pulled themselves together to protect their town against rising floodwaters by piling sandbags over threatened dikes.

Knowledge management (KM) is about achieving effective group action. During crisis situations — when a common threat is publicly visible and cause-and-effect relationships are known to everyone — effective group action follows easily. In complex development contexts, effective group action can happen if there is a leader who can see (better than most people can) and lead through three kinds of complexity:

  • Dynamic complexity: when causes and effects are far apart in space and time, and therefore less publicly visible;
  • Generative complexity: when the future is difficult for most to predict, or is likely to be unfamiliar or different; and
  • Social complexity: when people who are affected or who should take action do not share similar assumptions, beliefs and interests.
    (Source: Adam Kahane’s book “Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities,” Berrett-Koehler, 2004)This type of leader is called a bridging leader.

    Bridging leadership is about creating or enhancing bridging social capital. Bridging leaders are those who can understand, engage and lead groups of people with diverse interests to effective group action to solve problems or achieve goals under conditions of complexity. Bridging leaders fight against social exclusions. To pull the inhabitants of Planet Earth through the difficult 21st century problems of poverty, environmental collapse, ethnic-religious wars and threat of nuclear war, we NEED more bridging leaders — a critical issue I have written about in my previous blogs.

    Only a bridging leader can comfortably lead a “team of rivals” the way President Barack Obama does. President Obama borrowed the phrase “team of rivals” from President Abraham Lincoln who he admires.

    Bridging leadership is another core of human capital I wrote about in my last blog post, the skill to work effectively in the intersection of relationship capital and motivational factors. Following the expanded KM framework:


    Two days ago I received a phone call from a niece Ms. Aisa Villanueva, asking for assistance. She is co-founder and officer of a non-government organization — Bridging Leaders into Successful Societies. I was so impressed that young people fresh from college are inspired to work for the social good. I am properly reminded: there is hope for our Planet. Serendipity!

    This month, another serendipity occurred: our NGO — CCLFI — started working with the Asian Institute of Management TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Societal Divides (CBSD). We are co-producing an e-manual on Post-Project Knowledge Capture that will be useful to development workers. We intend to give away the e-manual for free, and invite others to use and contribute to its enrichment.

    There is a new and significant discourse a-forming around the new field of bridging leadership. For example, please check out the AIM TeaM Energy CBSD website and that of their Bridging Leadership Fellows Program. You can also check out the Bridging Leadership Resource Center of Synergos.

    (Note that there are embedded links in this blog post. They show up as colored underlined text. While pressing “Ctrl” click on any link to create a new tab to reach the websites pointed to.)

  • 7 Responses

    1. Just a few thoughts and questions Serafin:

      In what way do you think KM is about ‘achieving effective group action’. Are there not forms of knowledge, reflexive knowledge for example, which are simply about better self-understanding. Better self understanding, whether individual or group, might lead us not to take action.

      I find it hard to distinguish between the three types of complexity that you describe – I think I would probably argue that all three conditions pertain in social development all of the time. Moreover, crisis situations seem to me to be exactly the kinds of events, when many different actors are trying to intervene, that cause and effect relationships are at their most difficult to ascertain and understand rather than being clear to everyone, as you state. It is clear that a flood will cause damage, but exactly how that will affect people, how they will respond, how the intentions of the different agencies who intervene to alleviate suffering will cross-pattern will only emerge over time.

      I think it is probably early days to assess whether Obama is actually capable of leading a team of rivals or not. What I do find interesting about Lincoln, and perhaps Obama, is their interest in encouraging and embracing dissent. So, the current management orthodoxy seems to be about ‘aligning our values’: contrary to this the idea of working with people who disagree with you is about recognising and embracing otherness without necessarily aligning. Obama writes interestingly about this in The Audacity of Hope. I think this has interesting consequences for thinking about what we might mean by ‘effective leadership’.

      I looked up some of your references to the idea of bridging leadership and found them quite interesting, particularly the studies that try to explain what leaders actually do. They seem to be suggesting that leadership is a social process and not just about what ‘great men’ (sic) do. Where I begin to have reservations, however, is when this turns into an undertaking to promote a particular form of leadership as being the next ‘must have’ or perhaps in this instance ‘must be’. I worry about the attempt to turn phronetic human experiences into rules and formulas which can be taught on management courses. I remain sceptical of your statement that ‘only a bridging leader can comfortably lead a team of rivals’ . It seems to me that there is nothing comfortable about leadership and that leaders emerge in social movements who have never been near a training institute. The attempt to induct them into training programmes unwittingly schools them in a particular way of seeing the world.

      I am interested that you never seem to mention power in your posts. So, one reductive way of understanding what you have written is that going on a bridging leadership course will equip leaders with all the skills they need to lead a group of diverse people effectively. This seems to leave out the messy, dirty, difficult, two steps forward, one step back nature of daily politics and compromise that the process of leadership involves.No matter how powerful they are, even if they are the President of the USA, they are hedged around by constraints which prevent them being effective. These constraints include their own ignorance and taken for granted ways of seeing the world, which can never be ‘surfaced in a mental model’ as you state in other posts. I would argue, along with Wittgenstein and Bourdieu amongst others, that we can never stand outside ourselves. There is no Archimedean point from where we can objectively decide what our assumptions and limitations are and how we might overcome them.

      That’s probably enough for now.


    2. Hi Chris,

      I adopt the KM practitioners’ meaning of the term “knowledge” – namely, capacity for effective (individual or group) action. I wrote about this operational definition of “knowledge” among KM practitioners in my blog post F5- A Proposed KM Framework.

      What I like with the classification of complexity proposed by Kahane, is the rather neat operational implication of the 3 categories. As Kahane suggested, an appropriate solution to dynamic complexity is systems thinking; for generative complexity it is sensing the emergent; and for social complexity it is participatory processes.

      Yes, it is too early to say how far Obama’s style of leadersip works in the real world, or how what he wrote in his book is applied or made to work in the context of Washington DC politics. I am basically an academic but I was also lucky to have experienced a decade in the “political snakepit” as a government executive in the Philippines working under former President Fidel Ramos (1988-1998) and I can say how different are these two worlds. The world of concepts and the real world of power and action are so far apart. There are many things I cannot yet publicly reveal about this episode in my professional career but I wrote in our NGO website a glimpse of my learnings of what works, under the innocuous term “change management”.

      I agree with you: there are many factors that constrain the power of even the President of a country. It is also among the best places to be for someone who sincerely wants to make a difference.

      In my Q Series of blogs, I have scheduled myself to write on KM and political power (Q24 in the series). In that coming blog post I will explain why I think debate is unproductive and why I think it is more productive to ask “where am I coming from?” and “what works better?”

      The Center for Bridging Societal Divides of the Asian Institute of Management is a young institution. I am interested to find out whether their training course for mayors and governors really works. I want to see the “proof of the pudding.” Mayors are mayors because they have proven their skills in getting votes, but once elected into office, developing the town and getting its constituencies to work effectively together require a different set of competencies. What is the solution(s) to this gap? A training course? I don’t know. I want to watch and see what works in actual practice. I like KM because in the end it is what works – or what works better – that matters in KM.

      Thanks for your comments Chris. They helped me see different ways of seeing what I am looking at.

      Please do continue to browse my blog site and make comments as you see fit.

      (That’s my Tagalog nickname for my Spanish given name “Serafin”)

      I embedded links in this comment that can be clicked to jump to the websites pointed to.

    3. Apin,
      On the definition of knowledge as effective action all of the people you quote on your blog come from a particular, and I would argue narrow, perspective of understanding organisations. I guess the term one might use to describe them is instrumentalists or managerialists. In other words, they take up management as an unproblematic activity very much within an economic frame of reference based in systems theory. This is why criteria of effectiveness or efficiency tend to dominate.

      My difficulty with Kahane’s categorising of types of complexity is that it has a tendency to water down what i consider to be the radical implications of complexity theory. It suggests that you can still control it with ‘if-then’ causality: i.e. if it’s this sort of complexity then do this, and if it’s another type of complexity then do something else. I have written about different ways of understanding complexity theory on my blog . Kahane’s way of understanding it fits very much within the first school, ie an instrumentalist understanding, that we simply treat complexity like we do everything else, with tools and frameworks.

      Looking forward to your posting on power.

      In KM, as in most things, the question ‘what works?’ depends on who is asking the question and from what perspective.


    4. Hi Chris,

      I “ditto” your last statement. In fact, I started my Q Series of blogs with the questions: What works for Al Qaeda? What works for the Pentagon? KM is for whom?

      However, instead of being drawn and trapped into a debate about concepts and labels, and quick judgments arising therefrom, allow me to tell you two stories about what worked in terms of real-world achievements, one I personally observed and participated, and the other I only read admiringly from a book.

      1 – About Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos

      Around 1993, President Ramos was chairing a meeting of “Cluster E” about how to proceed with the peace process with one of the Philippine insurgent groups (the Philippines had to grapple with four insurgencies/separatist groups at that time). Cluster E consists of Secretaries or Undersecretaries from the departments of defense, local governments and interior (police), foreign affairs and the National Security Council (where I served then). The task was complex enough, but the executives around the table were displaying biases that seem to cloud their perceptions and therefore their capacity to creatively come up with workable options. At one point in the meeting the President reminded everyone, referring to the leader of the insurgent group: “Some may see him as an SOB, but we want to make him OUR SOB!”

      This remark revealed the inclusivity in the mindset of President Ramos, an example of a bridging leader. To make the long story short, the peace process was eventually concluded successfully, and the rebel leader eventually became an elected governor. President Ramos, despite his “managerialist” perspective towards this complex problem (the President of any country HAS to be a “managerialist”) was able to defuse years of armed conflict, stem further bloodshed and resume development in the region. It worked.

      President Ramos’ first state visit abroad was to erstwhile Philippine “enemy” during the cold war, Vietnam. This was followed by a Manila conference, in which Vietnam participated, to discuss the option of Vietnam joining ASEAN. Next, a Manila meeting of top political advisers to ASEAN presidents or prime ministers crafted a recommendation for ASEAN to be expanded from 6 to 10 countries, to include Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. This recommendation was subsequently adopted in the Bangkok Summit of ASEAN heads of state in following year. Afterwards, I was sent as part of an ASEAN advisory team to help the four countries through the process of joining ASEAN. ASEAN 10 has become a vibrant regional grouping of countries that were “enemies” 2-3 decades ago. Now, that shows the exceptional quality of bridging leadership in President Fidel V. Ramos! It worked.

      2 – About Adam Kahane

      Kahane, in his book “Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities,” narrates how he was requested by the University of the Western Cape in 1991 (when apartheid was still reigning in the country) to facilitate a series of three dialogue-workshops among warring political leaders – black as well as white – in South Africa to explore various future scenarios for their country. The dialogue came up with an illustrative metaphor to describe each scenario: “Ostrich”, “Lame Duck”, “Icarus” and “Flight of the Flamingoes”. The metaphors conveyed clearly the major political choices in an otherwise bewildering and complex national context. These unusual dialogues proved fateful; subsequent events used the metaphors to generate national awareness and discussion on strategic political choices facing all South Africans, and eventually paving the way to the historic end of apartheid and the rise of Nelson Mandela. It worked.

      Kahane may have indeed “watered down…the radical implications of complexity theory” but he and his approach to generative dialogue contributed to producing dramatic and radical results in South Africa that most everyone in the world, and especially in the African continent, have been celebrating.

      My blog on “KM and political power: constant bedfellows” will be the third from the last one I posted yesterday, so it will be out a little over a week from today. In this blog post, I will present a simple framework which makes it easy to appreciate why explaining where one is coming from (understanding how the experiences of a person led to his present beliefs) and looking at what works (operational outcomes of actions sponsored by the beliefs) — which is what I am trying to illustrate in this entire comment — is preferable to debate (e.g. judging someone else’s statements on the basis of your own beliefs and values).



    5. Sorry if I am causing offence with my comments Apin. No offence is intended: I am just trying to engage with what you are writing, labels or no labels.

      I am not in a position to comment on Fidel Ramos since I know nothing of the history of the Philippines. He is/was clearly a remarkable man.

      However, I do know a little bit about the history of S Africa and a little bit about complexity theory, or perhaps calling them theories is more accurate. So let’s take one of the best known examples from discussions of complexity that a butterfly flapping its wings over Manila can cause a storm over New York as a way of contextualising Kahane’s work. The idea, then, is that phenomena are so inter-related that our conventional understanding of if-then causality informed by the natural sciences breaks down. We cannot see exactly what leads to what. To extend this to the social field would mean accepting that the emergence of social phenomena, the beginning of apartheid, the collapse of apartheid, arise in ways which are unpredictable, even if it were remotely possible to ‘get all the facts in the room’ so to speak.

      Since I have not read the book I am not sure whether Kahane is making radical claims for his method or whether you are making them on his behalf. However, if one were to draw an analogy of the butterfly effect to S Africa the claim that what he was doing produced ‘dramatic and radical results’ seems to me to be rather a grand one. He may well have made a signficant contribution at an important time: however for me it would demand a quantum leap to deduce the causal significance that you do. His method may have much to recommend it, and I admire anyone who is going to put themselves in the way of danger as he did and does. But even when all the history books have been written I guess we will never know for sure what led to what.

      I am not quite sure I understand your last paragraph and why you have a difficulty with debate. I think I am with Wittgenstein on this one, that it is impossible to climb out of one’s own skin and not judge on the basis of our beliefs. To do otherwise is to try and stand outside yourself. As one makes one way through life one is continuously called upon to make judgement, choosing this and not that. And I still think that ‘what works’ is a little more problematic than you seem to be acknowleding.

      As I said previously, Apin, I look forward to your posting on power and continue to engage in the spirit of academic enquiry.

      With best wishes,

    6. Hi Chris,

      No offence taken and no offence meant, Chris. Maybe I come across too strong because I feel strongly about some experiences that I value – and it comes across when I write about them.

      Anyway, from one academic to another, it looks like we both love to engage in inquiry.



    7. Hi Chris,

      My blog post on “12 Types of Learning” explains why debate and criticism tend to be less productive modes of learning compared to studying results of an action or statement, and examining the mindsets/past experiences that led to the action or statement.

      I wrote about my views on KM and power in the next blog post on “Q24- KM and Power: Constant Bed Fellows.”


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