Simple Leadership in a Complex World

08/27/2010 06:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Terry Newell Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society

"I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Critics of Sarah Palin claim she offers simple solutions and lacks deep thinking. Indeed, she does not seem to handle complexity well. Her speeches are often slogans substituting for thoughts. Her answers to reporters' questions are often long sentences weighed down with clauses that tumble out like a mangled chain. Palin's problem, in Justice Holmes's terms, may be that she is seeking simplicity on this side of complexity. Her simple slogans and convoluted sentences may be testimony to inadequate thinking. Such efforts at simplicity on that side of complexity are, indeed, not worth a fig.

Palin is not alone. Our political space seems to be fertile ground for simplicity on this side of complexity. Want to stimulate the economy? Cut taxes. Want to stop violent crime? Pass better gun control. Want to reduce our carbon footprint? Enact a cap and trade system. Want to strengthen the family? Ban gay marriage. Want to stop illegal immigration? Build fences and hire border patrol agents. Complex problem? Simple solution. Simple solutions on this side of complexity are partial at best and dangerous at worst. They mislead us into thinking they will actually work and breed cynicism when they inevitably fail.

But simplicity on the other side of complexity is valuable and essential. Americans crave it, though they are seeing little of it these days. Clean energy and health care, very tough problems, are two current examples. Clean energy (reducing our carbon footprint) is perhaps the most systemic issue we have ever faced. Its elements and potential solutions are intricately interconnected and global. Health care involves a massively complex system cutting across fifty states and a federal government with varying values, rules, incentives, and approaches.

The result of all this complexity has not led to simplicity on the other side. The health care law is over a thousand pages long and is misunderstood by many. It is also not likely to fix the problem - improving insurance coverage but not reining in cost. As for energy legislation, the Congress gave up, in part for political calculations but in part because a solution on the other side of complexity is just not yet there. An initial House bill that was 159,000 words when introduced grew to 246,000 words by the time it passed. A common criticism even from members of Congress willing to tackle such problems is that they often cannot fully understand the massive bills they are asked to consider.

Are some of our problems beyond our capacity to understand and address? This is a reasonable worry, and it ought to engender a healthy dose of humility when we prefer to grab simple solutions on this side of complexity. But simplicity on the other side of complexity is possible. We rebuilt Europe through the Marshall Plan after World War II. We conquered many diseases and improved longevity. We expanded civil rights to minorities, women, and people with disabilities. We fashioned a financial and health safety net for older Americans. All of these required simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Where we fail in our media-hungry, fix-it-now, impatient world is mistaking simplicity for elegance. That's why slogan solutions so popular in our continuous electoral campaign world are dangerous - and not just in the hands of Sarah Palin. They reflect poor and foreshortened understanding and discourage elegant thinking. Albert Einstein once quipped that "[T]he significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." E=mc2 is testament to thinking at another level, to simplicity on the other side of complexity. The same kind of thinking can be applied to comprehensive immigration reform, to cite one example.

Members of Congress need not be Einsteins, but they should be able to spot (and avoid) simple solutions on this side of complexity. They should demand elegant thinking and create the mechanisms and incentives to foster it. With some political and mental courage, they can demand of us and themselves an approach to complex problems worthy of the problems themselves. They can create the political environment for such thinking and can help deliver simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote Thomas Jefferson a long letter, for which he apologized by saying that "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter one." Brevity and simplicity are hard, because they depend on careful thought. Without the thought, we are left forever on this side of complexity.