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Why strong leaders fail

CYNEFIN framework for decision making developed by David Snowden

David Snowden (not Edward), the man behind the Cynefin framework, had some very useful advice for leaders when dealing with COVID pandemic. In early 2020, he advised that the pandemic represents a Chaotic environment.

His advice at that time was that it would be futile to look for patterns, but a time for stopping the bleeding and establish a semblance of order. This was a time for strong top down leadership. Many countries demonstrated that, even if some of it was very unpopular.

India and Narendra Modi took decisive action and enforced a lockdown, despite massive criticism. The decision did have positive result, India avoided a health crisis in the first wave, though the economy was badly hit.

However, the government didn’t seem to have learned anything from the phase. As Snowden writes, a Chaotic situation once handled effectively leads to a complex environment, that requires a different style of leadership.

Snowden points out that, in a complex environment, unpredictability and flux continue and patterns emerge. In this sort of environment, strong cult leadership doesn’t work; leaders need to abandon command and control systems and embrace collaboration. It calls for experimentation, probe – sense and respond.

Both Trump and Modi failed in this. They continued their strong man command and control leadership. The USA voted out Trump, India is suffering Modi’s leadership style.

Modi’s leadership style received plaudits during the Bhuj earthquake. It was a period of crisis and chaos. His strongman, decisive leadership was the need of the hour. The situation soon became a simple environment where best practices from similar calamities were executed by an empowered bureaucracy. However, the same failed during the subsequent Godhra riots. The strongman tactics failed to solve a complex social problem that required collaboration, empathy and experimentation to find right solutions.

Modi government has shown a consistent inability to adopt anything but a strong centralized leadership style irrespective of the situation they find themselves in. This style doesn’t work. Something Mamta Banerjee should learn in Bengal (she has won because the fear of Modi is bigger than fear of Mamta).

The sad situation is the entire political class in India, doesn’t understand that the mess the nation is in, is a result of inadequate leadership. Replacing the current leader with a different one will not make a difference. The Congress party has had same problem (and continues to rely on the immature leadership of Rahul Gandhi). The alternate of another megalomaniac in Mamta is frightening.

You can read about the work of Snowden on CYNEFIN framework here in HBR

Krishnan Naganathan

Krishnan is a leading innovation consultant and focuses on helping people and organizations innovate and build capabilities for innovation. He brings over 25 years of experience in the industry and consulting. You can reach him by phone / WhatsApp: +919791033967 or email: You can book a free 60 min one on one discussion here:


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