Leadership to Unlock Potential

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Robert Townsend, former chairman of Avis Rent-A-Car, penned the popular book, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. While building on the popular “We Try Harder” campaign at Avis, Townsend utilized the processes for taming complexity that we advocate.

Nelson Andrews, our Center’s namesake, adopted Townsend’s measure of leaders. Nelson, a popular speaker on leadership, always ended his speeches with this insight from Townsend:

As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear. The next, the people hate. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say we did it ourselves.

Nelson sought integrity, courage, and humility in leaders. Yes, good leaders are humble, but why would they prefer a low profile?

Because they prefer power to be pushed to the front lines where those engaged know most about the situation, the best leaders welcome obscurity. Indeed, Avis tries harder—its people are free to innovate to serve the customer.

Certainly, we need leaders who lead more and control less. We need wise leaders who realize leadership should pass to people at their moment-of-knowing what needs to be done. We need leaders who prize connection over compliance.

Alfredo del Valle pleads for leaders who enable, not leaders who dominate.

Leaders must learn about processes that engage high complexity—just as Robert Townsend did at Avis. MG Taylor’s DesignShop and Alfredo del Valle’s Participatory Innovation has established track records for improving the performance of complex living systems.

But other technologies also align with our goal. Consider three examples:

  1. Zappos’ Holacracy management process empowers employees to such an extent they do not even have job descriptions. In a vote of trust, they are free to work on whatever they believe advances the best interests of the company. Refined rules of engagement organically create order.

  2. Open source efforts such as Linux and Wikipedia employ guidelines for engagement that result in extremely complex, sophisticated products.

  3. Global DesignShop leader Brandon Klein has developed artificial intelligence software that changes network organization from gut-based hunches to data-based, scientific connections. These networks optimize connections among people.

Simply stated, today’s leaders must continue learning how to lead in high complexity.

They must embrace emerging technologies that support large-scale collaboration—tools that help leaders accomplish their visions for systemic change.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.

Carter AndrewsComment