Leading complexity


Image attribution: www.futureatlas.com

Over the past few weeks I’ve been fortunate to have discussions with passionate people across a few different organisations who are working to re-conceptualise leadership. These people have recognised, as many of us have, that the standard paradigms for many things – leadership being one of them – are no longer suitable or sufficient for understanding the world of flux and change we now inhabit. I spoke to people from quite disparate organisations but they all faced similar challenges where their leaders increasingly operate in complex, interconnected contexts and need new skills and knowledge to be successful. The organisations were increasingly frustrated at their traditional approaches to leadership as not being flexible enough and they were interested in the ideas that complexity approaches can offer in the leadership space. That’s how I came along. Since complexity is my thing, I was asked to think about how we might re-design their strategy and approaches to learning for leaders which are based on complexity approaches.

I hear this from a lot of organisations I work with – the 21st century is complex and we therefore need to look adopt complexity approaches. I think this is true but it is important to unpack what we mean by complexity as it can often confuse as both an adjective (“Our organisation is very complex”) and as a suite of theoretical and analytical tools and approaches (such as complex systems, complex adaptive systems, chaos theory, systems theory, complex adaptive organisations). Here I’ll briefly unpack what I mean by complexity approaches and then go on to discuss how they apply to leadership.

What is complexity?

Complexity, as a term, refers to a very broad church as there are a range of theories and approaches that fall under the banner of “complexity”. It includes areas such as complex systems, complex adaptive systems, cybernetics, chaos theory, and systems theory. There are lots of branches in the complexity family tree but the one that I tend to deal with in my work is a specific type of system called a complex adaptive system. 

A key assumption of complexity approaches is that complex systems adapt. Both the agents and the system change their behaviours to increase their chances of success or survival, usually through learning or adaptation. When a complex system contains agents that seek to adapt, these are called complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems contain agents that respond to external and internal inputs by adapting, forming and changing their strategies for working within systems. From this perspective, it is assumed that these systems learn. In my research work, I’ve developed a framework to better apply the concept of complex adaptive systems in organisations which I term complex adaptive organisations (Lizier, 2017). The framework I developed proposes that there are four key elements of complex adaptive organisations: emergence, adaptation, complex social networks, and agency.

What does that mean for leadership?

If we assume that organisations are complex adaptive organisations, that has interesting implications for leadership. Chief among the questions is: in a complex adaptive organisation why do we need leaders? Why bother leading? In a context which is shifting and changing, where people work through networks dealing with what emerges through the interactions of the system and the people how can one possibly lead? The short answer is…you can’t.

Before you get worked up about the need for strong leadership development in organisations and how wonderful your leadership development programs are, let me explain. Complex adaptive systems are subject not only to emergence but to a phenomenon called self-organisation. This means that the people tend to self-organise towards goals. These might not necessarily be organisational goals, but the tendency is for the system to self-organise overall. In that case, traditional leadership approaches are definitely not the way to go, something that I think most learning practitioners would perhaps admit. We’ve all seen how our traditional, behavioural and situational, approaches to leadership are no longer flexible enough for contemporary organisational contexts (if indeed they ever were). To use complexity as a meaningful approach to leadership requires a significant paradigm shift away from traditional approaches to leadership which take a behavioural approach, towards something different. To date, most leadership training has been behavioural or situational in focus where we look at leaders who were successful and then we train everybody with the same behaviours.

I don’t necessarily have all of  the answers yet but I think that the questions raised are critical for organisations, leaders, and learning practitioners. For many years leadership development has been our bread and butter but…what if we’re…wrong? What if we’ve been doing same-old, same-old for so long that we haven’t really, truly, hand on heart, tried to shake it all up a bit? Are you developing your leaders for working in complex adaptive organisations or training them the same way you always have with a change in terminology and expecting different results? How are you helping your leaders to get out of the way?


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