If fear is driven by a lack of knowledge and understanding of something or someone, then ignorance is a pretty dangerous state to be in.

In somewhere as complex as the modern world, events on far-flung shores can often have second and third order effects for us at home. Often, the motivations and rationale behind why events occur are beyond our comprehension, so a level of ignorance is inescapable. In complex systems, those closest to the action have the greatest understanding. We can therefore increase our awareness, and reduce our ignorance, by finding ways to get closer to coalface of the complex system.

This isn’t easy for most of us, the investment in time, energy and money would be too much to constantly travel abroad to try to make sense of events that may, or may not, impact on our lives. Instead, we keep ourselves informed through a trusted source, the foreign correspondent.

Foreign correspondents have all the attributes necessary to thrive in complexity. They are curious about the world, wish to seek to understand it and are willing to go out in the field, (often putting themselves in harm’s way), to get as close to the story as possible before sharing what they have learnt with others. They appreciate the need to create empathy and endeavour to report back what they have found in a format that is both understandable and relatable for the reader, or viewer at home.

Jeremy Bowen is one of the most famous foreign correspondents working in the UK, reporting on nearly every major conflict for the BBC for nearly 40 years. In that time, he has come under attack himself and suffered losses of close friends and colleagues in the places from which he has reported.

One of Bowen’s most famous reports demonstrates the absolute necessity of independent journalism, foreign correspondents on the ground, and illustrates why, in complex environments, we must trust the people on the frontline.

At 04:30 on the morning of the 13th February 1991, the US Air Force dropped two laser guided bombs on what it believed was a converted civilian air-raid shelter that was being used as an Iraqi military command and control post, in the suburb of Amiriyah in Baghdad.

The assessment of the intelligence was wrong and 408 civilians, many of them women and children, lost their lives in the bombing.

Jeremy Bowen was one of the first on the scene and witnessed the horror and destruction both there and at the local hospital where many of the casualties were taken, he saw no sign of military casualties and no evidence that this was a military facility. Many reports from local people were that it was women, children and the elderly who were inside.

Bowen reported this back in his nightly piece on both the BBC news in the UK, and NBC news in the USA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZbJpT8UGeQ). The reaction from both the Ministry of Defense and Pentagon was to double down on their assessment and reassert their belief that it was a legitimate military target.

Retelling this story on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs show (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001mly1) Bowen describes his lack of any doubt over his report “I knew I was right, because I had been there and I’d seen it…my journalism was good”. Bowen then goes on to say he met a British General several years later who admits that Bowen was right, and the military got it wrong.

The military were making assessments based on signals intelligence and aerial photos, Jeremy Bowen from what he was able to witness in person, on the ground. He was closer to the action and thus had more pertinent information and a better feel for its implications, than military leaders in London and Washington.

When leading and managing in your own complex environment, you will be further removed from the action, have less information, and less feel for its importance in the context. How easy is it for staff below you to be able to report back, honestly, and openly, what they are seeing and experiencing? How open are you to receiving that information, even if it isn’t palatable to hear?

As leaders in complex environments, we have to accept that the best way to lead isn’t by thinking that you have all of the answers, but rather that those below you often understand more of what is going on, seeking to understand what it is they are seeing and feeling, and taking that on board to help your decision making.

In any complex environment, the best we can do is probe, make sense of what we see and hear and then craft a response. When leading in that environment, others might be better  placed to do the probing for us, we should let them, and be open to what they find.