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  • Toby Sinclair

Leading in Uncertainty with Cynefin – Cognitive Edge

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Cynefin Leading in Uncertainty
Cynefin Leading in Uncertainty

What is the role of leadership in crisis?

Leaders are condition creators

  1. Shape context (environment)

  2. Nurture parts of the context that allow people to flourish.

  3. Create conditions for all leaders within the system to co-create change

  4. Work with the interface of authority

  5. Allow collective leadership to emerge within constraints

  6. Help prepare others for adaptive environments

  7. Help others embrace and understand complexity:

    1. What is complexity?

    2. Emphasise complexity is continuous. It’s not going away

    3. Help increase comfort with complexity. Reduce threat.

  8. Help people recognise complex situations vs ordered situations

Leadership behaviours that don’t work well in complexity

  1. Humans try to respond to uncertainty with order – Build new habits to break these behaviours

  2. More helpful response:

    1. Let’s see what's going on now in the present moment.

    2. I don’t know, I need to pay more attention

  3. Leaders can fall into a reactive trap

  4. Mistake – Leaders rely on the past – we did this ten years ago

  5. Leaders try and overly control and shape the system

  6. Leaders default to an order response and deny the complexity

  7. Fail to seek novel solutions. Rely on what has worked in the past

Adaptive Response

  1. How to enable an adaptive response?

    1. Create an Adaptive space – conflicting and connecting

    2. Engage with emergence with a sense of direction towards an outcome

    3. Opposing forces in tension – push for novelty vs push for stability

    4. Engage the tension – embrace conflicting – amplify diversity

  2. Ordered response we try to remove conflict

  3. Need to start connecting the conflict towards some outcome

  4. Amplify connections towards some agreement

  5. Turn this into new normal(reality) of the system


How to master the art of creating the 'Adaptive Spaces' that ...
Enabling adaptive space
Adaptive Space

Inner-Capability of Leaders to lead others in Complexity

  1. Not knowing is seen as a threat

  2. We physically and emotionally experience the complexity

  3. Shame is important to learning – The potential of shame increases the shame and drives learning

  4. The experience of many today is: Not knowing plus fear of death

  5. Leaders need to work on themselves to be comfortable to embrace this uncertainty.

  6. Allow all voices to be heard: fear, shame, guilt. Embrace diversity. Create collective-intelligence

  7. Learn to embrace the tension between formal (hierarchy) and informal(community) systems

  8. People have a reactive response to complexity, driven by the threat

  9. Questions for leaders:

    1. How do I prepare myself internally to handle the adaptive nature of the system/environment?

    2. How do I deal with all of the things coming at me?

  10. Some leaders are natural complexity thinkers – not everyone will be able to think in this way but they can be trained in behaviours and skills

  11. Leaders need to work at three levels – Myself, my environment, others

Individual v Collective Leadership

  1. A leaders job is to create leadership through the system

  2. A leader should drop the hero complex

  3. Leadership is not a scarce resource

  4. Leadership is meaningless without the followship (and vice-versa)

What is the question that emerges in this complexity?

  1. What is the task of leadership? How might it be forming and reforming?

  2. How do we help all of us handle the complexity of our collective challenges?

  3. How do we build more resilience into our complex systems?


  1. Generative Emergence – Benyamin Lichtenstein

  2. Leadership in emergence

  3. The leadership of emergence – How to run an organisation

  4. The paradox is at the heart of the system

  5. Real change is happening at the micro-local level

  6. Answers are transient and questions remain

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