You can take the leader out of the system…(no really, you can)

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In the past few weeks there have been a number of high profile leadership moves in the Australian business world. Last week the CEO of Blackmores resigned with the board flagging the need for “transformational change” from his replacement while media veteran Ita Buttrose has been made chairperson of the ABC. What is perhaps most interesting about this, to me anyway, is that the media coverage and assumptions underpinning these moves highlight an outdated view of leadership and leading. Let me explain. First, a short trip through the history of leadership theory.

For much of human history leaders have been thought of in terms of heredity. Think Kings and other inherited titles. Over time this was expanded to military power (often also drawn from the elites) and the power of the church. Looking at leadership through this lens is what is often called trait theory which posits that leaders are born and not made. If leadership is a trait or set of traits then they cannot be taught and so one is born to lead. This made a lot of sense when one was indeed born to rule based on who one’s parents were. Onwards into the industrial revolution and first world war however and people began recognising a need for more and better leaders and so a theoretical shift occurred towards behavioural theory. Behavioural approaches to leadership argue that leadership is a set of behaviours that can be taught but that some people might be naturally better at than others. You may recognise this approach if you have ever gone on a leadership training program. Leaders need to be visionaries, good communicators, etc. Over time there has been a greater recognition that leadership can be influenced by context (situational approaches) and also the personality of the leader (charismatic and transformational approaches). All of these approaches to leadership focus on the leader as central to business and government. Not only is this unfair to the individuals who can’t be all things to all people, it fails to take into account a more nuanced view of organisations taken from complexity approaches.

Anyone who has read this blog before knows that I am an unashamed advocate for the insights that complexity approaches offer for understanding organisations and so it will come as no surprise that I think it applies to leading and leadership too. I’ve had the chance to think through these issues as a long-time L&D person but also in teaching the subject Leading Learning at UTS where we explore contemporary approaches to leading. I’ve written on this topic before here and here where I questioned whether our traditional ways of developing leaders were appropriate in complex organisational contexts.

In this post, I want to introduce the idea that leaders should not be positioned as central to organisational success. What I mean by that is that if you look at contemporary approaches to leading – such as complexity, practice theory or postmodern approaches – they take a systemic view of organisations. If we accept that organisations are systems then you also need to accept the premise that placing so much expectation on one person to be the visionary, the model citizen, the strategist, and everything else expected of “the leader” is pointless as it is the interactions within the system between people/people, people/things, people/spaces, etc. which shape the system. This is why, I strongly suspect, attempts at culture and procedural change are often very difficult to shift even with a change of leader. A leader may be a public figurehead for an organisation but in reality has little control over how the organisation runs and the practices which hold behaviours and attitudes in place. Indeed, I have seen research using social network analysis which has shown that CEOs are often some of the worst connected, most isolated people in the social networks of organisations.

Emergence and unpredictability are core elements of complex adaptive organisations yet we continue to approach management and leadership in the same mechanistic way as we have since the days of the industrial revolution. Leaders are a part, and a product, of the overlapping organisational systems that they are a part of. Leaders therefore need to be treated and developed to have a systems mindset, a commitment to flexibility and adaptability, and a sense of their interdependent place in the whole rather than as a “first among equals”.

Operationalising complexity for leading

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In my last blog post, I noted that, if we take a complex systems view of leading, then much of what we currently offer for leadership development may be obsolete. I closed that post with some questions:

  • 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?

This post builds on the previous one by proposing answers to these questions.

The slippery nature of adopting complexity approaches for leadership was brought home powerfully to me a few weeks ago by a student in my Leading Learning class. This student kept asking me again and again “But what do we DO with all of this?”. I can’t blame him. He has spent his career working in large corporations and was frustrated at the lack of concrete answers he was getting. He wanted to know exactly which skills his leaders needed and how to deliver the training. I can appreciate his perspective and he’s not the first student to ask me to operationalise these concepts. For most of my career that’s how I’ve approached leadership development programs too. A set of skills or “leadership behaviours” that we train. We might use some innovative teaching and learning methods to be sure, but it’s still a behavioural approach to leadership development.

Adopting a complexity approach asks us to move away from behavioural approaches as a set of static leadership behaviours is insufficient to deal with the flux and change of the contemporary workplace. But what do we do if we don’t train leaders how to be leaders?

After much reflection and reading on the topic, my answer is this – leaders don’t need skills. They need a mindset shift accompanied by theoretical and analytical tools. What if complexity was not adopted merely as part of a “traditional” leadership program but was a instead taught to leaders as a set of theoretical and analytical tools which they could use to gather data about their context and make more effective decisions.

In my (as yet) imaginary program, leaders would be encouraged to read and reflect. They would be challenged with discussions about the nature of their work and how a leader is just a part of a far larger system. The leaders would be encouraged to see themselves as part of something bigger and their traditional western notions of the “leader as saviour” would be challenged. In short, they would be given tools to look at their own practice and situate it more broadly within a system. Leaders would learn as opposed to be trained. The “leader” would be decentralised from their rarified spot at the centre of the process and discussions of “leadership” as something static that can be learned would be sidelined in favour of reflection on leader’s day-to-day practices and those of the people whom they “lead”. Taking a complexity approach requires that leading is a continuous process which adapts to emergence and operates within multiple highly networked and overlapping contexts. Leaders need a mindset shift to see themselves as part of multiple systems, contexts, and relationships rather than as responsible for planning and controlling from on high. Leaders need to be shown how to get out of the way and encouraged to think of themselves as part of the action rather than overseeing it.

Leading complexity


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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?

Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.


Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

What is Personal Knowledge Management?

I’ve always banged on about the fact that we all need to be effective learners in the modern world but I never really had one good framework to help contextualise this discussion. There were all the learning in the workplace reports from various consulting companies and research institutes, there is the metacognition literature, systems thinking, complexity…all of it relevant but segmented. I think I may have found something that will help me out of my bind. It’s early days yet since I just stumbled across Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) but I really like it. I came across it on the blog of Harold Jarche from the Internet Time Alliance. I’ve been interested in the informal learning work from Jay Cross for a while now as well as Jane Hart’s social learning work and I came across Harold’s work recently.

PKM is basically a framework that helps us take control of our professional development and make sense of information and experience. It offers a nice way to better incorporate reflection-on-action in to our day-to-day without it feeling like we’re writing a journal that no-one will read and that we lose interest in after a few entries (mia culpa). Harold Jarche defines PKM as:

‘A set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society’

You can read more about Harold’s views on PKM here.  Harold is starting to move away from the term PKM and use Networked Learning more. While I like the idea of networks in learning I think I really like the actual term PKM as a descriptive term that is easy for the non-initiated to get their heads around.

The things that I really like about PKM are:

  • I already do a lot of these practices and feel very clever and smug about that (just being honest)
  • PKM is about personalising experiences and information in a world where we are bombarded with information 24/7. PKM is about sense-making not collating
  • PKM builds reflection into our learning and working thereby helping us to change and adapt more effectively as well as develop critical thinking skills (things very close to my heart)
  • “Knowledge” is an emergent property of the process
  • PKM is about people taking control of theirlearning, something that we do not often consciously do unless you’re a learning geek like me. It’s the development of conscious, regular activities from which can emerge new knowledge and insights

I love finding new things that inspire me and help explain the world.

Leadership lessons from rioters?

Only having one english TV channel here in Germany can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I am more aware than ever of current events thanks to the tireless work of BBC World. On the other hand one can hear too much bad news in the world. One story that I’m sure everyone is aware of lately is the riots in London. A lot has been written and reported about this already and I have no intention of being yet another amateur pundit but I have some thoughts on the nature of leadership and crowds.

The behaviour of groups is something close to my heart in my area of complexity research. In nature ants build colonies, bees swarm and birds flock. In human social systems similar mechanisms also apply. People can come together rapidly for a common purpose and disband just as rapidly. Such was the case in the London riots. Many people were surprised at the ability of so many people to organise so quickly to do such terrible things. The internet has indeed opened a Pandora’s box or organising. The London riots are an example of social networking used for “evil” as it were. The so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is an example of social networking being used for “good” to organised against oppressive governments.

The things that these groups have in common is no real central leadership. This is interesting from an organisational point of view. In organisations we make a lot of noise about leadership and how it is demonstrated and experienced within the organisation but do we need it? Assuming that we still need it (and I think there is still a place for some styles of leadership) how does it need to change to take into account the tendency of humans to self-organise and build networks?

Current theories of leadership often fail to take this into account. Many theories of leadership, and indeed leadership education in general, still take the old-fashioned mechanistic view of an organisation with its quasi-military hierarchy. For all the talk of flattening organisations we haven’t really come far in real terms. The events of the past year in the world show how people from very disparate backgrounds can organise themselves for a common goal using physical and technological networks. This happens in organisations every day but if often missed by the powers-that-be. The question is, how can we harness this to be more effective as leaders and as organisations? I wish I had the answer!

Workplace learning versus learning

As usual, it’s been a while between posts. The main reason for this is a major relocation on my part. I’ve moved to Germany for my husband’s work. In theory it should also allow me more time to work on my PhD…in practice so far it’s given me the chance to catch up on my reading and DVD watching while sitting inside avoiding the snow. Now that 2011 is upon us I feel ready to resume my work and that has led me down some interesting paths.

I was reading an excellent article by Tara Fenwick entitled Rethinking the “thing” (2010, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol.22, Issue 1/2). Among a number of good points made in the article one really stood out for me. Is it possible to separate “workplace learning” from learning more generally in an individual’s life? I find this an interesting question in the course of my professional practice as well as my research as my focus has always been on workplace and organisational learning. The point here is a good one, even at work we are still dealing with whole people who have lives and interests outside of work. The emotional intelligence movement o er the past 10-15 years has been very good at pointing out that people do not become mindless automatons when they enter the workplace and adult learning theories have always talked about the fact that adults bring their own experiences and values with them to the learning context. Why then do we try to only look at learning at work?

I think one of the main reasons is that it is far easier to compartmentalise this way, also, is it really the role of the organisational learning team to help people learn or to learn what they need for work? This is a complicated question and one that I can’t possibly answer here but an interesting question nonetheless. Given that my research uses complexity theory as a framework I obviously have a bias here which I am happy to declare. In a complex system there is no way to separate out the different “parts” – that’s the point. I have always argued that the role of organisational learning should be to shift from “traditional” content-based training approaches towards more of an informal learning approach that actually helps develop people as learners rather than trying to impart knowledge. Perhaps in trying to label learning as “for work” and “not for work” we are missing out on an opportunity to really make a difference to learners, not just at work, but in all aspects of their lives.