OPINION: Embracing Complexity Politics

by Boting Zhang

As an immigrant from an increasingly oppressive state, make no mistake — I love getting to have elections.

But I sure hate election season.

I used to feel ignorant when pundits confidently dissected policy points. Over time, I grew frustrated as experience showed me that the pundits are often oversimplifying. This year, a new emotion is joining the mix: longing.

What if choosing leaders felt more like the sacred collective experience it could be? Less like patriotic duty and more like a patriotic harvest?

Four years ago, I wrote that we should interview leaders not only about their policies but also specifically about how they lead amidst complexity. Leadership skills are easier for most of us to assess, while the impacts of new policies are harder to predict. Electing skilled leaders would enable us to micromanage them less in office, letting them respond nimbly without getting mired in back-and-forth rhetoric.

I illustrated my thinking with this rough diagram:

A diagram depicting Boting Zhang's thoughts about what matters in political leader with orange section representing leadership philosophy, green initially compelling beliefs, and blue initial experience.
“What Matters in a Political Leader: What I Wrote in 2017” diagram by Boting Zhang.

I still resonate with most of this essay, but one paragraph makes me wince today:

“To expect all voters to develop confident opinions on policy direction is not only unrealistic, but also profoundly disrespectful to policy scholars who’ve devoted generations of careers to understanding the intended and unintended consequences of crafted solutions. We vote as volunteers, not as professionals.”

Since then, I was hired into City Hall. For three years, I’ve been one of those professionals. 

The professionals are pretty confounded too.

You see, policies and ideas alone won’t heal our collective ailments. Not even close. But that also doesn’t mean we’re screwed.

This is how I’d re-draw that same diagram today:

A diagram depicting what Boting Zhang thinks matters in a political leader in 2021 with orange representing leadership skills, green initial beliefs, and blue initial experience.
“What Matters in a Political Leader: What I Now Think in 2021” diagram by Boting Zhang.

Frustration is a pain that points to a deeper knowing: it doesn’t have to be this hard. We aren’t wrong to want to see more motivating results that feel proportionate to our efforts, in time to heal and save our species. This outcome is possible, but it will need us to remember what leadership means — from above, from within, and from the ground.

From Above: Leading Like a Gardener

In The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith writes, “Folk wisdom has it that a poor gardener grows weeds, a good gardener grows vegetables, and a very good gardener grows soil.”

As a political culture, we have long forgotten about the soil.

In City Hall, staff is often directed to plant shiny policies with an urgency that erodes communication and trust. In the ensuing confusion, we overwater seedling efforts with attentive bickering; uproot others entirely before they can establish; or introduce so many sprouts at once that they’re forced to compete for the same head space and nutrient resources.

Our political culture doesn’t tend to reward leaders for the long-term labor of cultivating trust and curiosity. Eager for immediate success, many try to extract brag-worthy results from depleted ground. It often reminds me of the Chinese saying, 拔苗助长 (bá miáo zhù zhǎng) — pulling up plant shoots to help them grow. We end up with more weeds for the effort.

I recently co-wrote an open letter about the challenges of working effectively in City Hall. People tend to remember the part where we called the Mayor dictatorial, but that wasn’t our primary point. My co-writer Ubax Gardheere and I were trying to describe exhausted soil.

Many colleagues reached out afterwards, resonating with our words. We can all see that our efforts aren’t getting us where we’re trying to go fast enough, and yet we are asked to work in ways that even further compact the soil, yielding far less than we know we could.

Colleagues in other cities affirm that this experience isn’t Seattle’s alone. In the barren soil of many governments, even viable ideas have a hard time growing. Only after months or years of circular meetings, hasty compromises, and weary memos does an exhausted idea emerge, a battered husk of the living organism it had once intended to be. We’re hard-working, dependable, and caring gardeners, but the soil is worn out. No wonder we’re all frustrated.

As a political culture, we often cheer on bulldozers: leaders who are better at speaking their mind than at listening to others, who are able to sell their accomplishments by taking credit for everything they’ve been a part of, and who don’t mind hurting a few feelings to get done what they believe is right. Sometimes, we need a good bulldozer. But right now, if you ask me, we need more great gardeners: leaders who listen deeply and bring out the best in others — and who can trust in co-created outcomes that are bigger than what they alone can imagine or steward.

If we want more leaders who replenish the soil, these are the kinds of questions we could be asking in town halls and debates:

  • Leadership skills role play: Find an issue that the audience is split on, with no clear consensus. How would the candidate lead in such a situation? Then ask the audience: Would the outcome that the candidate worked toward stick?
  • Experience: Give an example of a change effort you were part of that didn’t feel like it was happening fast enough. What might you do differently now?
  • Ideas: What do you think is needed to repair trust in government? What has shaped you toward this belief?

From Within: Leaning Into Complexity

We often talk about the political system as if it were a machine with levers and knobs to adjust: X number of buildings with capacity for Y jobs at Z dollars an hour.

But the system, from the ground up, is actually made up of people. This is a key distinction.

In the Cynefin framework, developed by business strategists to make sense of different contexts for leadership, machines are described as “complicated.” There may be many moving parts, but it’s theoretically possible to understand it all on a very large spreadsheet. This is the domain where expertise is necessary and sufficient — what Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer call “Machinebrain.

While a Boeing 737 is complicated, human systems and ecosystems are classified as “complex.” With so many unknown unknowns, experts are insufficient to grasp the whole. Complex phenomena can’t be analyzed, predicted, and controlled as with a merely complicated one. Instead, a successful leader needs to explore, observe patterns, and experiment — what Cynefin calls “emergence” and Liu and Hanauer call “Gardenbrain.”

A common recipe for failure is trying to navigate complex situations as if they were only complicated. While we need Machinebrain to break down an effort into doable pieces with goals and checkpoints, we also need Gardenbrain to navigate the complex whole.

So what does Gardenbrain leadership look like in practice?

To offer an example: The goal of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) is to support an ecosystem of community-grown initiatives that last. What it takes to repair trust in government, to heal past and present harms, and to motivate people across government, philanthropy, finance, development, and grassroots activism to move in a common direction is an ever-shifting landscape. Feelings often clash before they flow together and generate something greater than the parts.

In its Machinebrain anxiety for certainty and control, government often gets in the way of our yearning to thrive.

There were many moments when I craved to simplify a complex crisis, and Ubax, in her leadership position at EDI, would repeatedly counsel me to give it more space. Other times I’d get trapped in my own ideology, creating more turbulence, and she’d push me to be more pragmatic. When we disagreed, she was usually proven right over time.

Describing Gardenbrain is challenging because complexity is too vast in its wholeness to be dissected into finite language. Some people say the right words while being clumsy with real-life complexity. Others surf complexity intuitively without being able to easily describe what they do. Further, systemic complexity is bigger than one person alone, so no single candidate can take all the credit for past group efforts.

With Gardenbrain so hard to pin down, how might we interview candidates for this quality?

In the fractal nature of a complex system, we grow our ability to navigate the whole through our ability to navigate the parts — our selves. My own journey with complexity, for example, accelerated 12 ago with two cancer diagnoses at age 26.

Machinebrain sees that I’m now missing a thyroid and some skin, dependent on a daily pill to live. Gardenbrain sees that I now have greater comfort with loss and better communication with my body. Machinebrain might say I “overcame” cancer, but to Gardenbrain, the experience composted within me. I’ve grown from those nutrients.

While in City Hall, I trained separately in somatic, or body-based, therapy. Few things are more humbling than complaining about what a pain in the ass everyone else is, only to reveal what a pain I am, too. Turn after turn, all of the numbness, stubbornness, obsequiousness, and obfuscation that I railed against proved to be a fight against myself — me replicating what had once been done to me. As I healed these fights within me, I unexpectedly found more love, courage, and openness in myself — compost that, in turn, made me stronger at navigating complexity in the landscape.

Learning to surf our complex selves makes us more fluent with complexity in the world. As adrienne maree brown puts it,

“I am a whole system; we are whole systems … And I can grant others the same level of complexity and contradiction as I am learning to embody — we are all multitudes in process …

“I can already feel the impact in the community of having more organizers who can feel themselves … I believe somatics, in coursework and/or bodywork, is one of the most effective ways to get a group of complex, contradictory humans into alignment with a liberated collective future.”

What’s someone’s relationship with the multitudes and contradictions within themselves? How have they composted their own traumas? These questions can point us to their fluency in their own complexity, a microcosm of systemic fluency that’s harder to fake.

But here’s the thing: Machinebrain evaluates candidates as if they were cracked pottery, less usable with each demerit. In a Machinebrain-dominant political culture, we often select simplicity over complexity.

What does this mean for candidates who wear their complexity on their sleeve? A month after we penned the open letter, Ubax decided to run for King County Council. 

“That incident from my past is going to come up,” she told me then.

Did it ever.

“Hi Bo,” goes one voice mail I received from a Texas area code. “Hope you’re doing well this Fourth of July weekend. I was just curious as to your perspective on — Ooh-Backs Gar-Sheer? [sic] — in regards to the 2010 incident where she boarded a school bus and threatened that she had a bomb and a gun. I was just curious if your team [at the City] was aware of that, um, considering she’s running for Council, and she’s gonna be paid $130,000, probably a good idea to be, you know, aware that she threatened that she had a bomb and a gun …”

Ubax has since written about this incident and what right-wing media is overlooking: that in the decade since, her mental health crisis has been composting into deeper compassion for trauma and further motivation to heal it systemically.

Media from all camps have struggled to grasp the significance of this moment. Our language is entirely insufficient. Even the notion of “mental illness” itself is a Machinebrain construct, suggesting a breakdown in an organ of a single individual, rather than a symptom of imbalance in the ecosystem.

What I appreciate about right-wing media sometimes is that they explicitly say what others imply with their silence. “There are other candidates that didn’t threaten the lives of children with a terrorist act – ever, they never did anything crazy like that,” taunts an email I received. “Why her? Why will you defend her?”

Machinebrain politics doesn’t give us the framework to talk about this.

I wouldn’t rewind the clock to erase my cancer, even while that means I’ll live forever without a thyroid, because I can’t separate that experience from who I evolved into. Similarly, I can’t separate the Ubax who now leads brilliantly in complex domains from the Ubax who had snapped ten years ago from complex traumas. To look back in time and seek perfection is to wish to sterilize the growth edges.

Fortunately, the four-term Republican incumbent, Reagan Dunn, also acknowledges this. In a segment on Fox News, he responded, “I think that one incident, many years ago, may not define how somebody is today … It’s their conduct moving forward that is important.”

Dunn would know. After his public DUI, he became more honest about his own addiction, and his experience seems to have composted into more compassion for addictions in others. The media doesn’t seem to have questioned his suitability for office, and he healed while remaining in office.

This bifurcated media reaction is worth exploring more. Many successful politicians have DUI records, even while a DUI kills someone every 52 minutes. Ubax, meanwhile, had been unarmed. When, and with whom, are we less likely to value the composting of hard experiences? What do we lose when Machinebrain takes over?

It would take a separate essay to fully explore even this one example, but here are a few opportunities we are missing: deeper dialogue about trauma in our society; an exploration of double standards around how it manifests; learning from our expectations and discomfort when a Black, refugee, Muslim woman with complexity runs for office; bringing our wiser selves into our political culture.

Machinebrain is inadequate shorthand for what it really takes to heal a politics constructed on genocide, slavery, majority domination, and alienation. Gardenbrain is needed to surface the wisdom of the whole. When I have information on only a candidate’s ideology and not their complexity skills, I feel stalemated on the ballot.

How might we better vet candidates for Gardenbrain? Here are some ideas.

  • Leadership skills role-play: Invite audience members to share challenging experiences. After the candidates role-play their leadership in such situations, ask the audience if they discovered anything unexpected.
  • Experience: What have you learned about healing trauma in your own life? How has it changed you?
  • Ideas: What do you see as the root causes of our critical crises?

From the Ground: Leading Together

Our Constitution was written by men descended from centuries of top-down monarchy. Despite having been influenced by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (called the Iroquois by the French), they didn’t overcome enough of their biases about “ignorant Savages” to absorb the wisdom of consensus decision-making that they were being exposed to on this continent. Indeed, even the Athenian democracy they explicitly cited might have been based more on a consensus process than once believed.

What we call “democracy” might not be quite how it’s intended to work.

In a true, thriving ecosystem, there is no one leader. The word “ecosystem” itself derives from the Greek oikos, meaning “home,” and systema, a composite of words meaning “together” and “to stand or be stable.” An ecosystem is a home that stands together.

At the root of nearly all spiritual teachings is an understanding that there’s a oneness underlying our diverse parts. As within, so without; as above, so below. We are all leading, and we are all following, all the time. In election season especially, we voters are leading our future elected leaders. I long for us to treat this special time with the reverence it deserves.

The words “consensus” and “consent” derive from the same Latin root words, combined to mean “feeling together.” One might say that a home that feels together, stands together.

In majority-rule democracy, the elected leader often doesn’t have the consent of large swaths of even the voting population. We lead by dissensus, not consensus. Our ecosystem doesn’t stand together.

We don’t need to wait for a complete overhaul of our voting system to start leading more consensually right now. We just need to break from the militaristic doctrine that for someone to win, someone else must lose.

Oh, but come on, you might be thinking. That’s how elections work!

In a sacred election, though, we can strive to bring out the candidates’ most authentic and wise selves, rather than tease out their worst. All can emerge more curious and honest. Knowing them better, we’d trust more of them.

With so many BIPOC candidates running for mayor this year, it feels especially backwards to pit them against each other in politics as usual. Let’s not so quickly forget what we have learned in the collective crisis and care of the pandemic. To expectantly place a leader of color in charge of a barren landscape is to tokenize them, setting them up for burnout at best. If we want different results, we need to consider how we ourselves are tending the soil.

This year, I’ve gotten a closer view of how our election ritual depletes the landscape.

As a friend, I’ve long admired how Colleen Echohawk’s combination of courageous truth-telling and relational diplomacy is successfully keeping homeless Native people alive on this stolen land. “They laughed at us in our first meeting,” recalls a colleague of their relationship with the Office of Housing. Within four short years, the Chief Seattle Club is now a go-to partner with the City in piloting housing solutions at scale.

To paint her efforts at building toward institutional change — in such inhospitable terrain as the Mayor’s Office and the Downtown Seattle Association — as untrustworthy is to pivot her skill in building bridges out of love and compassion into a weakness. KUOW called one such exchange a meaningless Twitter spat, but that’s not taking the significance of these compounding moments seriously enough.

I’m certain that other candidates are also being flattened in ways less visible to me. Are we okay with this? Regardless of who we favor, tending to the soil means supporting and identifying the complex gifts in all candidates.

Will Election Day mark the culmination of the same old ritual? Or will we practice treating the candidates with the same leadership that we ourselves deserve? In a sacred election, we each can infuse our own flavor of leadership into the ecosystem. Here are some questions for ourselves.

  • Leadership skills role play: How do I want a leader to act? How can my daily practice become more congruent with this?
  • Experience: What moments of leadership in my own life am I proud of? What nutrients do I bring to the soil?
  • Ideas: What ideas do I have that feel scary to share? What do I need from others in order to risk the vulnerability to share them?

We’ll be imperfect at this practice, so let’s give each other grace for how hard this is. But let’s keep practicing, so that someday in our lifetimes, we might celebrate a sacred election harvest.

Boting (Bo) Zhang has served for three years as the Real Estate Strategist in the Equitable Development Initiative team, housed in Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development. Currently on leave from her role, she blends her experiences with participatory design, real estate, and somatic therapy to help encourage the systemic shifts needed to heal the root causes of displacement. She also occasionally writes in search of healing truths at The Bramble Project.

📸 Featured image is based on a photo attributed to Windell Oskay and used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY 2.0). Photo editing by Emerald Staff.

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