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Complexity Leadership: An Overview and Key Limitations

Barrett C. Brown

Barrett C. Briown

An overview of the complexity leadership literature is provided. This includes a history of
complexity theory and its core concepts, the central propositions of complexity leadership, a
review of six prominent frameworks, and a summary of practitioner guidelines. The article also
discusses two key limitations to complexity theory: the need to supplement it with other
epistemologies and leadership approaches, and the importance of recognizing that its sustained
execution likely requires a developmentally mature meaning-making system. The conclusion is
that complexity leadership offers a fresh and important way of perceiving and engaging in the
management of complex organizational behavior, one which may help leaders to address the
most pressing and complex social, economic, and environmental challenges faced globally today.

Complexity Leadership
Complexity leadership was introduced by Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001). It is based upon the
application of complexity theory to the study of organizational behavior and the practice of
leadership. In the 1990s, researchers drew from complexity theory studies in physics, chemistry,
biology, and computer science to cultivate novel insights about their fields. Such research was
initially focused on the social sciences in general (Goldstein, 1995; Marion, 1999; Nowak, May,
& Sigmund, 1995), but soon thereafter complexity theory was applied to organizational
processes (Anderson, 1999; McKelvey, 1997).
This article offers an overview of the complexity leadership literature. To understand complexity
leadership requires knowledge of the fundamentals of complexity theory. The first section of this
article briefly describes the history and lineage of complexity theory and defines some of the
important concepts from it that are applied in the field of complexity leadership. This if followed
by a summary of the core concepts of complexity leadership and a review of six complexity

leadership frameworks. The article continues with an overview of guidelines for putting
complexity leadership theory into practice, and concludes with a discussion of two key
limitations to its application.

Complexity Theory
The science of complexity theory concerns the study of complexly interacting systems (Marion
& Uhl-Bien, 2001). Complexity theory has been defined the study of behaviour of large
collections ofsimple, interacting units, endowed with the potential to evolve with time
(Coveney, 2003). While the entire theory is more complex than this, this definition is useful as it
encompasses three fundamental characteristics of complex systems: they involve interacting
units, are dynamic, and are adaptive. In essence, complexity theory is about (1) the interaction
dynamics amongst multiple, networked agents, and (2) how emergent events such as creativity,
learning, or adaptability arise from these interactions (Marion, 2008).
Complexity theorists inquire into how such systems engage with each other, adapt, and influence
things like emergence, innovation, and fitness (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). Complexity theory
developed out of myriad sources, many of which arose during World War II. However, nine
main, interrelated research strands form the lineage of its contemporary expression. Each of
these traditions offers core constructs that are essential to the overall theory. Systems
thinking offers the concepts of boundaries and positive and negative feedback loops. Theoretical
biology frames organizations as organic, evolving, whole systems.Nonlinear dynamical systems
theory developed the notions of attractors, bifurcation, and chaos. Connectivity and networks
were developed in the purely mathematical field of graph theory. Complex adaptive systems
theory contributes the idea of evolving, adapting systems of interacting agents. Finally, the
concept of emergence of novel order arose across through work on several
fields/constructs: phase transition, Turings morphogenetic model, synergetics, and far-fromequilibrium thermodynamics(Goldstein, 2008).
A full review of complexity theory is beyond the scope of this article, but the following key
concepts are explained below, as they are instrumental for understanding complexity leadership:
complex vs. complicated; characteristics of a complex system; interaction; dynamic; adaptation;
mechanisms; self-organized criticality; dissipative structures; emergence; and complex adaptive

Complex vs. Complicated

In the complexity sciences, the term complex does not mean the same as complicated. A
system is complicated if each of its individual components or constituents can be described (even
if there is a huge number of them). For example, computers or jumbo jets are complicated
systems. A system is complex if its relationships cannot be explained fully by merely analyzing
its components because they are dynamic and changing. The brain, for example, is a complex
system (Cilliers, 1998 cited in Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009). The term complexity is meant to
impart the sense of deep interconnectedness and dynamic interaction that results in emergence
within and across complex adaptive systems (described below). Complexity generates novel
features, often called emergent properties. Other examples of complex systems that generate

emergent properties due to being richly interactive, nonlinearly dynamic, and unpredictable are
the Brazilian rainforest, natural language, and social systems (Cilliers, 1998; Snowden & Boone,
2007; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009).

Characteristics of a Complex System (Snowden & Boone, 2007)

Complex systems incorporate myriad interacting elements. The interactions between these
elements are nonlinear and minor changes can cascade into large-scale consequences. Such
systems are dynamic, with a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is not possible to impose
solutions or order upon them; rather, such novel forms arise from the circumstances within them
(called emergence discussed below). The elements of complex systems evolve with one
another, integrating their past with the present, and their evolution is irreversible. Due to the
constant fluctuations and changes of external conditions and connected systems, complex
systems are not predictable, although they may seem ordered and predictable in retrospect. As
such, no forecasting or prediction of their behavior can be made. This is due to the fact that
individual elements and the system itself constrain one another over time. Such mutually
constraining behavior is different than in ordered systems in which the system constrains the
elements, or in chaotic systems which have no constraints.

Complexity theorists study the patterns of dynamic mechanisms that emerge from the adaptive
interactions of many agents (Marion, 2008, p. 5). When sentient agents (like humans in an
organization) interact, they change due to the influence of relationships, interdependent
behaviors, and the emergence of subsets of agents that engage one another interdependently. The
structures, dynamic behaviors, and patterns that arise from these complex interactions become
unrecognizable when perceived as linear combinations of the initial actors. These interactive
behaviors and outcomes ultimately create feedback loops with each other, leading to effects
becoming causes and influence arising from extensive chains of effect.

Complexity does not refer to static events. Rather, it concerns a dynamic process that
consistently changes its elements and brings forth new things in a process called emergence
(described below). While there is global stability and resilience within complex systems and
complex behavior, they are fundamentally defined by change.

Adaptation refers to a complex systems ability to strategically change or adjust in response to
individual or systemic pressures. Adaptation arises at two levels, the individual and the
aggregate. Individual adaptation concerns local stimuli and individual preferences. Individual
adaptations amongst agents in a system can interact with each other, resulting in compromises
that simultaneously serve the individual and the collective, thus forming aggregate adaptation.


In general, mechanisms are processes that result in given outcomes (Hdstrom & Swedberg,
1998, as cited in Marion, 2008). There are certain, universal mechanisms that drive complex
dynamics. When change occurs, it is these mechanisms at work. Complex mechanisms are
emergent behavior patterns, universally available, that enable a dynamic mix of causal chains
and agents. An aspect of complexity theory is to identify and describe complex mechanisms and
the patterns that arise from their interaction. There are four key complex mechanisms.
First, correlation arises through the interaction of agents as they share part of themselves
(technically called their resonance, but loosely can be understood as their worldview,
assumptions, beliefs, preferences, etc.). Correlation brings about bonding and aggregation,
which is the second mechanism. Aggregation represents the clustering of multiple agents due to
the development of shared or interdependent resonances. Autocatalytic mechanisms are the third
type. These are emergent structures and beliefs that catalyze or accelerate other mechanisms. For
example, deviant behavior like looting can be autocatalyzed by rioting behavior. The fourth key
mechanism is nonlinear emergence. This mechanism is experienced as a sudden shift in dynamic
states. An extreme example is the demise of the Soviet Union; another would be the transition of
water from liquid to solid. Emergence will be further discussed below.

Self-Organized Criticality
Self-organized criticality (Bak & Tang, 1989; Kan & Bak, 1991) and far-from-equilibrium
dissipation (Prigogine, 1997) are two causative mechanisms that lead to nonlinear emergence.
Self-organized criticality refers to instances in which a minor event can lead to chaos, driving
large interactive systems to a critical state (Kan & Bak, 1991). Within complex, interacting
systems of many agents, it represents sudden, unexpected shifts in structure or behavior. These
emergent shifts are not caused, but rather happen due to the dynamic, random movements
within complex systems. They occur as these complex systems are randomly exploring and come
within range of and fall into a complex attractor. Dramatic shifts in the stock market or the
onset of looting in riots are examples of these attractors that draw in systems that come close
enough to their basins of attraction. Criticality cannot be influenced by external agents, such as
leaders or environmental pressures.

Dissipative Structures
Dissipative structures are the order that emerges from the dissipation of energy. Typically,
dissipation refers to the entropy and deterioration of order that results with the release of energy.
The creation of order is normally associated with increased energy. Prigogine (1997), however
identified dissipative structures that do not result in deterioration, but an increase in order with
the release of energy. An example is when oil is heated slowly. For some time it demonstrates
little change (no new order). Once the oil reaches what Prigogine (1997) called a far-fromequilibrium point in which the energy builds to an unstable level the oil molecules release
energy, break the tension, and shift into a gentle boiling roll. As opposed to criticality, dissipative
structures can be influenced by external agents, like leaders and environmental pressures.


Emergence is a sudden, unpredictable change event produced by the actions of mechanisms

(Marion, 2008, p. 9). It is a type of naturally occurring change and subsequent stabilization into a
new order that is free meaning that it does not require external energy to happen. It can result
in dissipative structures. When complex systems are dynamically interacting, they often generate
many low-intensity emergent changes; occasionally they experience a high-intensity change.
These changes are different than those which arise through steady, step-by-step trajectories from
known beginnings through predictable outcomes. Emergence arises through interaction and
energic pressure as opposed to the actions of any lone individual. It is the dynamic actions of
mechanisms that generate it, rather than the constant, predictable effect of variables.

Complex Adaptive Systems

The complex adaptive system (CAS) is a very important element in both complexity science and
complexity leadership theory. It is the basic unit of analysis in both. According to two prominent
researchers (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009, p. 631), complexity leadership is about leadership
in and ofcomplex adaptive systems, or CAS (Cilliers, 1998; Holland, 1995; Langston, 1986;
Marion, 1999). CAS are open, evolutionary aggregates neural-like networks of interacting,
interdependent agents who are cooperatively bonded by a common goal, purpose, or outlook
(Cilliers, 1998; Holland, 1995; Langston, 1986; Marion, 1999; Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey,
2007). Arising naturally in social systems, CAS learn and adapt rapidly and are capable of
creative problem solving (Carley & Hill, 2001; Carley & Lee, 1998; Goodwin, 1994; Levy,
1992; as cited in Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). Complexity theorists essentially frame organizations as
complex adaptive systems that are composed of heterogeneous agents that interact and affect
each other, and in the process generate novel behavior for the whole system (Marion & UhlBien, 2001).
With this review of the key concepts in complexity theory, I now turn to a review of some of the
key findings and theoretical constructs arising from the research of leadership through the lens of
complexity sciences.

Complexity Leadership: An Overview of Core Concepts and

The field of studying leadership through the perspective of complexity is young (Panzar, 2009).
Nonetheless, over the past decade, a group of researchers have focused on reframing and
advancing the field of leadership through the use of the complexity sciences (Goldstein, Hazy, &
Lichtenstein, 2010; Hazy, Goldstein, & Lichtenstein, 2007; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009;
Lichtenstein, et al., 2006; Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; McKelvey, 2008; McMillan, 2008;
Plowman & Duchon, 2008; Stacey, 1996, 2007, 2010; Stacey, Griffm, & Shaw, 2000; Uhl-Bien
& Marion, 2008). This section will provide additional historical context, review some of key
insights of the field and briefly present six prominent frameworks by these researchers.
Complexity leadership theory emerged in response to perceived limitations in existing leadership
theory. Much leadership theory is based in a bureaucratic framework representational of the
industrial age in which it was developed. This includes the assumption that goals are rationally

conceived and that the achievement of these goals should be done through structured managerial
practices. As a result, much of leadership theory focuses on how leaders, amidst formal and
hierarchical organizational structures, can better influence others toward desired goals. The core
issues within such a leadership paradigm have then become motivating workers regarding task
objectives, ensuring their efficient and effective production, and inspiring their commitment and
alignment to organizational objectives (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Zaccaro & Klimoski, 2001, as
cited in Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007).
Fundamentally, there is a core drive toward top-down alignment and control in this model. The
traditional bureaucratic mindset that has developed as a result of this paradigm has demonstrated
limited effectiveness with the rise of the Knowledge Era and the complexities of the modern
world (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006). The Knowledge Era is characterized by the forces of
globalization, technology, deregulation and democratization collectively creating a new
competitive landscape. In such an environment, learning and innovation are vital for competitive
advantage (Halal & Taylor, 1999; Prusak, 1996, as cited in Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007), and control is
arguably not possible or sustainable. Complexity leadership is proposed as a framework for
leadership in the fast-paced, volatile, and uncertain context of the Knowledge Era (Marion &
Uhl-Bien, 2001). It is, its various proponents contend, a needed upgrade to leadership theory to
reflect our shift out of the Industrial Era (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007).
Rather than focusing on top-down control and alignment, complexity leadership theorists argue
that leaders should temper their attempts to control organizations and futures and instead focus
on developing their ability to influence organizational behavior so as to increase the chances of
productive futures (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). The fundamental concept underlying complexity
leadership is that, under conditions of knowledge production, informal network dynamics should
be enabled and not suppressed or aligned (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001)
contend that leadership success is not dependent upon the charisma, strategic insight, or
individual power of any given leader. Rather, it is attributable to the capacity of the organization
to be productive in mostly unknown, future states. Leaders must therefore foster the conditions
that develop that organizational capacity, focusing on understanding the patterns of complexity
and manipulating the situations of complexity more than results. Specific recommendations are
discussed below for how to do this. In a broad sense, though, leaders should create the conditions
for bottom-up dynamics, leave the system essentially alone so that it can generate positive
emergence, and provide some basic control to keep the system focused (i.e., broader goals and a
vision) (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001).
Lewin and Regine (2003, as cited in Panzar, 2009) agree with this overall description of the new
type of leadership required. For them, leaders need to move beyond setting an organizational
vision and mobilizing around it. Successful long-term strategies are those that emerge from the
continuous, complex interactions among people. As a result, leaders need to stop trying to
control individual outcomes and instead shift their focus to the interactions with the intention to
create the healthy conditions for people to self-organize around relevant issues. To do this
requires leaders to change their perspective to see the organization as a complex adaptive system
that unfolds, fluctuates and emerges. This shifts a leaders attention from trying to direct people
to serving the flourishing of dynamic interactions within the organization.

Complexity leadership has been approached from a variety of directions. Table 1, reproduced
from Panzar (2009), offers a distillation and comparison of six important frameworks for
studying and understanding leadership within a complexity worldview. Table 1 is followed by a
brief overview of each framework.

Table 1: Complexity Leadership Contributions (Reprinted from Panzar, 2009, p. 41)

MacIntosh and MacLean (1999) developed one of the first frameworks for organizational
transformation based upon complexity sciences, specifically grounded in the concept of
dissipative structures. They describe a specific, three-stage sequence of activities that support
effective transformation. First, the organization articulates and reconfigures the rules that
underpin its deep structure, thereby conditioning the outcome of the transformation process.
Second, steps are taken to shift the organization from its current equilibrium. Third, the
organization moves into a period where the dominant focus of management attention is on
positive and negative feedback loops. Their contention is that this management of the
organizations deep structure enables influence over the otherwise unpredictable self-organizing

Hazys (2005, 2007) framework for organizational change is grounded in complexity theory as
well as other disciplines. His approach is process-focused as opposed to MacIntosh and
MacLeans (1999) leadership focus (Panzar, 2009). Hazy strove to identify the general principles
that relate the organizational process of leadership with an organizations sustaining social
processes. Organizational leadership in this case is framed as a meta-capability that modifies or
extrapolates the systems other capabilities. Hazy explicitly inquired into how such a metacapability operates within a social system and its potential impact on performance and adaptation
through various environmental changes. By using system dynamics modeling, he found that
different patterns of leadership either transactional or transformational did emerge depending
on the environment. Out of this research, Hazy developed a leadership and capabilities model
able to test hypotheses about leadership and the relationships between it and the organizations
social processes (cf. Goldstein, et al., 2010; e.g., Hazy, 2008). He has also used this framework
to measure leadership effectiveness within complex socio-technical systems (Hazy, 2006).
A third framework called adaptive leadership was developed by a group of prominent complexity
leadership researchers (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006). With this framework, they shift the traditional
focus from that of leaders operating in isolation to influence their followers to that of being
fundamentally interactivein nature. Leadership from this perspective therefore emerges out of
interactions and events, out of the interactive spaces between people and ideas. Leadership from
this adaptive perspective is framed as a complex dynamic process transcending individual
capacities, drawing from the interaction, tension, and rules that govern changes in perception and
understanding. Each leadership event is an action segment whose meaning is derived from the
dynamic interactions of those who produced it. These researchers also developed a methodology
analyze these leadership events.
Two parallel theoretical streams developed off of the adaptive leadership framework, leading to
two more frameworks. In the first instance, Surie and Hazy (2006) build upon the adaptive
leadership construct (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006) to develop a framework called generative
leadership. This is a leadership approach that creates the context for stimulating innovation in
complex systems. They contend that generative leadership is a process for managing complexity
and institutionalizing innovation that balances connectivity and interaction between individuals
and groups. Generative leaders do not focus on developing individual traits or creativity amongst
those they work with, but rather create the conditions that nurture innovation. The authors
describe five distinct aspects of agent interaction that they claim are leadership mechanisms:
interaction experiencing, interaction aligning, interaction partitioning, interaction leveraging, and
interaction speed. Their work demonstrates how leaders can leverage these mechanisms to
catalyze the environment for innovation to arise.
Hazy has collaborated with Lichtenstein and Goldstein to write two mainstream leadership books
that flesh out the concept of generative leadership and its application (Goldstein, et al., 2010;
Hazy, et al., 2007). In their latest book (Goldstein, et al., 2010), they introduce the term
ecologies of innovation to reflect the system-wide set of processes and interactions within
complex adaptive systems that foster innovation. They then build upon ecological and
complexity sciences to show how leadership can cultivate these ecologies of innovation.

In the second theoretical stream building upon the adaptive leadership framework (Lichtenstein,
et al., 2006), Marion and Uhl-Bien (2007) draw upon it and their earlier work (Marion & UhlBien, 2001) to present a (fifth) framework for the study of complexity leadership theory (CLT).
This framework is also at the core of a business book on complexity leadership (Uhl-Bien &
Marion, 2008). They define complexity leadership theory as a leadership paradigm that focuses
on enabling the learning, creative, and adaptive capacity of complex adaptive systems (CAS)
within a context of knowledge producing organizations (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007, p. 298). CLT is
a change model of leadership that helps leaders to tap into the informal dynamics within an
organization as part of the process of designing robust, dynamically adapting organizations (UhlBien & Marion, 2009).
The framework for CLT is built around three leadership functions: adaptive, administrative, and
enabling.Adaptive leadership refers to actions that emerge as CAS interact and adjust to tension,
such as constraints or disturbances. These actions are not acts of authority, but an informal
emergent dynamic. They can be adaptive, creative or learning in nature, and can occur anywhere
from the boardroom to a workgroup of line workers. Administrative leadership concerns the
actions of those in formal managerial roles to coordinate and plan activities to achieve prescribed
outcomes. This includes vision-building, resource allocation, conflict and crisis management,
and organizational strategy management. Its focus is on alignment and control and is exemplified
by hierarchical and bureaucratic functions. Enabling leadership concerns efforts to catalyze the
conditions in which adaptive leadership can thrive and to manage the entanglementbetween
the bureaucratic (administrative leadership) and emergent (adaptive leadership) functions of the
organization (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007, p. 305). All levels of an organization can engage in this
type of leadership, but its nature varies by hierarchical level and position.
CLT, then, is a framework for studying emergent leadership dynamics via three types of
leadership as they relate to bureaucratic superstructures. It proposes that properly functioning
CAS generate an adaptive capability for an organization while bureaucracy provides a
coordinating and orienting structure. The central challenge of complexity leadership is to
effectively manage the entanglement between the administrative and adaptive structures and
behaviors, so as to ensure optimum organizational flexibility and effectiveness. For CLT,
leadership solely exists in interaction and is a function of it; nonetheless, individual leaders can
play a role in interacting with this dynamic, such as by enabling it.
Stacey, Griffin and Shaw (2000) offer a final, sixth framework, one they contend is different than
existing complexity leadership frameworks. They point out a frequent internal contradiction
within the complexity leadership science. They note that while most researchers focus on the
dynamic interactions between agents, and the influence of relationships, their theories often
collapse to being centered on the individual leader and his or her ability to influence interactions.
Stacey (2007) builds upon this criticism with the contention that leadership theorists
acknowledge the paradoxes generated by complexity theory, but then strive to dissolve them with
a systems view of human organizations in which a rationally informed leader objectively
observes the system and influences relationships (Panzar, 2009). In Staceys (Stacey, 2007, 2010;
Stacey, et al., 2000) textbook-long framing of complexity leadership, he moves away from the
notion of leadership as an individual agent that can control the evolution of a social system. He
presents leadership as a complex response process that is based upon human interactions,

realized through communicative acts, and grounded in the individual agent who has the freedom
to choose amidst a context of enabling and constraining interactions (Panzar, 2009).
This section has reviewed the core concepts of and key frameworks that have been posited for
complexity leadership. Nonetheless, it has only scratched the surface of the literature on
complexity leadership. This field itself is an emergent dynamic, with new frameworks, insights,
and practice guidelines being spawned regularly out of the interactions of the CAS that is
complexity leadership science itself. In the following section I review some of the behavioral
recommendations for positional leaders who want to apply complexity theory in their

Toward a Practice of Complexity Leadership

Various theories of complexity leadership have been in development for over a decade, resulting
in, among other things, the frameworks noted above. There appear to be two general types of
research on the behaviors required to engage in complexity leadership. In the first case, some
researchers (e.g., Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; Plowman & Duchon, 2008; Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007;
Wheatley, 2006) have identified the principles of complexity sciences and then extrapolated
leadership behaviors from them. The second variation consists of researchers (e.g., Goldstein, et
al., 2010; Hazy, 2008; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009) who have longitudinally studied
(sometimes retroactively) organizational and inter-organizational emergence phenomenon, using
the lens of complexity leadership theory, and begun to validate the behaviors predicted by
complexity leadership theory. There has been no longitudinal research done to date that I am
aware of in which leaders intentionally applied complexity leadership theory to their
organizations and overall organizational performance was monitored.[2]
After my review of literature on complexity leadership, there were three sets of practices that I
feel are representative of the field to date. These are not meant to be a comprehensive distillation
of complexity leadership behaviors, but rather a representative sampling. For further details, I
refer readers to the book-length treatises on the topic (Goldstein, et al., 2010; Hazy, et al., 2007;
McMillan, 2008; Stacey, 2007, 2010; Stacey, et al., 2000; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008; Wheatley,
2006). In the subsequent pages I describe those practices, and then offer a summary of
recommendations for my personal practice.
The first of these sets of complexity leadership practices is from Marion and Uhl-Biens (2001)
pioneering work in which they identify guidelines for leading in complex organizations. The
second is from Plowman and Duchons (2008) research on dispelling the myths about traditional
leadership which they call cybernetic leadership in service of the new, enabling behaviors
of emergent leadership based upon complexity sciences. The final set of practice injunctions
comes from Lichtenstein and Plowmans (2009) work to construct a complex systems leadership
theory of emergence at successive organizational levels.
There is some overlap amongst these sets of practices, as the authors are building upon each
others work. However, I feel it is valuable to present each as a separate entity rather than
attempt to consolidate them, as they each take a different perspective on complexity leadership.
Marion and Uhl-Biens (2001) guidelines are more general in nature, for example, than

Lichtenstein and Plowmans (2009) emergent leadership behaviors, as the latter are specifically
focused on actions that create the conditions for new emergent order. Plowman and Duchons
(2008) approach, in contrast, focuses on traditional approaches to leadership and dispels the
myths that arise from them through the application of complexity theory principles.

Guidelines for Leading in Complex Organizations (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001)

Complex leadership is the process of fostering conditions in which the new behaviors and
direction of the organization emerge through regular, dynamic interaction. Rather than trying to
control or exactly direct what happens within the organization, they influence organizational
behavior through the management of networks and interactions. The following five practices
underlie the execution of such leadership.
Foster network construction. Effective leaders learn to cultivate interdependencies through the
management and development of networks within and external to their organization. This
involves forging new connections where none exists, or enriching existing connections. The
development of these networks provides contacts, but more importantly, they form the structure
from which innovation can emerge. A strong network is a source of fitness for an organization, as
it provides fitness to the technologies upon which it is based, as well as to the participating
systems as well.
Catalyze bottom-up network construction. In addition to creating and maintaining networks,
leaders also need to create the supportive environment in which new networks can emerge. By
indirectly fostering network construction, they can catalyze network development. The ways to
be such a catalyst range from delegation, resource allocation, and encouragement, to simply not
interfering in network construction. Work environments can be reorganized to support
interaction, additional decision-making powers and trust can be extended to their staff, and even
new rituals and myths can be constructed that help create a culture of interaction and networking.
Finally, complex leaders can also catalyze network development by avoiding solving problems
for workers, insisting, rather, that they work out their own issues collaboratively.
Become leadership tags. A tag is the flag around which all parties rally, the binding
philosophy that brings people together. Leaders can catalyze network development by becoming
a tag. This does not mean that they control people with respect to a certain philosophy, but rather
that they represent the essence of that philosophy or concept. For example, a school principle
might serve as a tag for institutional excellence and the schools reputation. These leaders rally
people around the ideals of the organization, promoting an idea and an attitude.
Drop seeds of emergence. Complex leaders drop seeds of emergence by identifying,
encouraging, empowering, and fostering connection between knowledge centers within an
organization. Rather than trying to closely control, such leaders let people try new approaches,
and pilot the application of novel ideas, then challenges them to evaluate and adjust their
experiments. One way to do this is to send workers to conferences or other idea-generating
environments in search of new insights and opportunities. The purpose here is to create a space
of organized disorder, that spawns dynamic activity, emergent behavior, and creative surprises at
multiple locations throughout the system.

Think systemically. Systemic thinking (Senge, 1990) is central to complexity leadership. It

challenges leaders to continually be aware of the interactive dynamics at multiple levels of
engagement, from aggregate, through meta-aggregate, to meta-meta-aggregate levels. This is not
an easy thing to do, but it is vital to consistently see the broader pattern of events and understand
the network of events that have caused a problem.

Emergent Leadership Dispelling Myths about Leadership (Plowman & Duchon,

Through the lens of conventional leadership, the world is assumed to be knowable and desired
organizational futures are considered achievable through focused planning and the use of control
mechanisms. Complexity scientists counter that uncertainty is a better starting point. Specifically,
they contend that the world is not knowable, systems are not predictable, and living systems
cannot be forced along a linear trajectory toward a predetermined future. There are four myths of
conventional leadership that are therefore dispelled by the application of complexity sciences:
leaders specify desired futures, leaders direct change, leaders eliminate disorder and the gap
between intentions and reality; and leader influence others to enact desired futures. The
behaviors of emergent leadership, based upon complexity science, which replace these myths,
are summarized below.
Myth 1: Leaders specify desired futures. Conventional leadership worldviews frame leaders as
visionaries, who see the future, chart the destination, and guide their organizations toward that
destination. The repeated prescription is to: clarify the organizations desired future, scan the
external environment, design the requisite actions, and remove any obstacles. Complexity
theorists suggest that organizational unpredictability often comes from within the organization,
through the interactions of its members, which are not controlled by its leader. It is usually
organizational members that develop the ideas that lead to productive futures for the
organization, arguably a more important source of ideas than the vision of the leader at the top of
an organization. Therefore, complex leaders should focus on enabling productive futures rather
than controlling them (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). Thus, the new reality to replace Myth #1 is
that leaders provide linkages to emergent structures by enhancing connections among
organizational members (Plowman & Duchon, 2008, p. 139). This is based upon the complexity
theory principle of emergent self-organization, in which the interaction of individual agents,
exchange of information amongst them, and continuous adaptation of feedback from each other
creates a new system level order.
Myth #2: Leaders direct change. Leadership theorists often contend that the essence of
leadership is to lead change (e.g., Kotter, 1996). One of the principles of complexity theory
concerns sensitivity to initial conditions. It notes that major, unpredictable consequences can
arise out of small fluctuations in initial conditions (Kauffman, 1995). Thus small changes at
anytime, anywhere in the system, can cascade and lead to massive change that may be
inconsistent with the leaders change vision. The new reality to replace this myth, then, is that
leaders try to make sense of patterns in small changes (Plowman & Duchon, 2008, p. 141). By
detecting and labeling patterns in the midst of emergent change, leaders have a greater chance of
helping their organizations to respond effectively.

Myth #3: Leaders eliminate disorder and the gap between intentions and reality. Leaders are
typically seen as needing to influence others to accomplish the tasks required to achieve
organizational objectives. They are also expected to minimize conflict and cultivate harmonious
relationships, such as in the case of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory (Graen & Uhl-Bien,
1995). Complexity theorists contend that organizations are not characterized by stability and
harmony, but rather exist on a continuum between stability and instability (Prigogine, 1997;
Stacey, 1996). As organizations gravitate toward greater instability, due to destabilizing forces,
new, emergent ideas and innovations arise. Therefore, rather than constantly attempting to
stabilize an organization, leaders can at times help their organizations to benefit by being a
source of disorder and destabilization. The new reality to replace Myth #3 is therefore: leaders
are destabilizers who encourage disequilibrium and disrupt existing patterns of behavior
(Plowman & Duchon, 2008, p. 142).
Myth #4: Leaders influence others to enact desired futures. The core of leadership is often
considered to be influence. Two assumptions about influence run counter to a principle of
complexity science. First, influence is often based upon the assumption that a leader knows what
needs to be done and that the leader can subsequently influence those who need it to bring about
a desired future state. These notions are, in turn, grounded in assumptions of linearity: that
changes in one variable lead to anticipated changes in another. Complexity science, though, is
based upon nonlinear interactions, in which multiple agents with varying agendas engage and
influence each others actions. Nonlinear, living systems can learn, though. With such
complexity and uncertainty within organizations, is it impossible for leaders to know and
prescribe to others what to do. Instead, organizational members often help leaders to find
directions out of confusion and uncertainty. As such, the new reality to replace Myth #4 is:
leaders encourage processes that enable emergent order (Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009, p.
143). An example would be for a leader to focus on clarifying processes rather than clarifying
outcomes, and allow the organizational members to determine the relevant outcomes.

The Leadership of Emergence (Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009)

Lichtenstein and Plowman (2009) build upon both of the sets of behaviors discussed above
(Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; Plowman & Duchon, 2008). Their focus is not on complexity
leadership as a whole, but rather specifically on the production of newly emergent orders from
the dynamic interactions between individuals. A newly emergent order arises when the capacity
of a system to achieve its goals increases profoundly, by several orders of magnitude. The
researchers identified four conditions for such emergence: the presence of a dis-equilibrium state,
amplifying actions, recombination/self-organization, and stabilizing feedback. These
conditions can be generated, they contend, through nine specific leadership behaviors, which are
briefly discussed below. Figure 1 shows how these behaviors and conditions integrate to create a
new emergent order.

Figure1. Behaviors that co-generate the conditions for the new emergent order. Reprinted from
Lichtenstein and Plowman (2009, p. 621)
Disrupt existing patterns to generate dis-equilibrium. Two leadership behaviors contribute to this
practice: embracing uncertainty and surfacing conflict to create controversy. Leaders and
organizational members need to embrace uncertainty they face in order to initiate or heighten the
systems state of dis-equilibrium. By honestly assessing the situation, possible choices and
uncertain outcomes, and not simply dictating solutions, leaders and members change the context
in which they are operating, helping to destabilize the system. Additionally, generating
constructive conflict and creating controversy are also key to driving a move toward disequilibrium, as this practice alters the conditions in which members function. In a space of
discomfort and conflict, new ideas and possibilities tend to emerge.
Encourage novelty to amplify actions. Three behaviors serve to encourage novelty that in turn
amplifies actions, helping small changes to cascade, escalate, and quickly move through the
system. The first of these behaviors is to allow experiments and fluctuations, by letting seeds of
potential change be dispersed widely and grow, leaders increase the chances that some will take
root and spread rapidly through the system. The second leadership behavior is to encourage rich
interactions through a culture of relational space. The non-linearity of complex adaptive
systems can lead to rich and meaningful interactions that catalyze unexpected, positive
outcomes. When done within a context of mutual trust, respect and psychological safety a
relational space these rich interactions deepen the interpersonal connections amongst
participants, thereby supporting the amplification of changes as they occur. The final leadership
behavior is to support collective action. While certain individuals are responsible for key actions,
often it is the collective action that creates the coherence and strength of an initiative, and allows

for unexpected connections to arise. By allowing chaotic, collective action, leaders create the
conditions for amplification of initial changes.
Sensemaking and sensegiving for recombination and self-organization. When systems are at their
capacity limits, they either collapse or reorganize. As agents and resources in a system are
recombined in new ways of interacting, system functioning tends to improve. By making and
giving sense to issues within a complex adaptive system (through the following three behaviors),
leaders support development of the conditions in which systems can recombine and selforganize. The first leadership behavior is to create correlation through language and symbols.
Correlation means a shared understanding of a system (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). It can be
created through specific, repeated language that reframes or gives additional meaning to a
phenomenon, or via symbols that cultivate mutual understanding. Secondly, leaders can work to
recombine resources. By uniquely recombining space, capital, capabilities and other vital
resources, emergence can be fostered. These novel combinations alter the context in which
people are working and stimulate new connections. Finally, leaders can accept tags. Tags were
discussed above in the section on guidelines for leading in complex organizations (Marion &
Uhl-Bien, 2001). The researchers contend that when a single, or multiple, individuals accept
becoming a tag for an emergence process, there is greater likelihood for recombination/selforganization.
Stabilizing feedback. Once amplification of change has begun, it sometimes needs to be
dampened so that the emergent change does not spin the system out of control. The key behavior
the researchers identified to enable this condition is to integrate local constraints. This means to
make adjustments to the system based upon localized needs, thereby helping the emergent
change to better adapt to that specific context. An example would be changing the hours of new
operations of an organization to better meet an important group of constituents needs.
In sum, Lichtenstein and Plowman (2009) engaged in longitudinal research on three
organizational and inter-organizational phenomenon that experienced emergence. They identified
nine leadership behaviors that contributed to the development of four conditions vital for the
emergence of new order. This set of practices builds upon previous work Plowman (2008) had
done to dispel key myths of traditional leadership in the light of complexity sciences, as well as
the ground-breaking insights of Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) on complexity leadership in
general. Multiple books (Goldstein, et al., 2010; Hazy, et al., 2007; McMillan, 2008; Stacey,
2007, 2010; Stacey, et al., 2000; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008; Wheatley, 2006), have extended
these recommendations for practice, and are replete with examples. Nonetheless, I believe that
the heart of complexity leadership in practice is represented in these three reviews.
As I venture forward as a leadership practitioner, based upon these readings, I have synthesized
my understanding of what to do in practice in the following statement on complexity leadership.

A Memo to Myself on Practicing Complexity Leadership

Strive to create emergent conditions in the complex adaptive systems in which I engage and
those which I serve. In such situations, the capacity of the system can dramatically increase, by
orders of multiple magnitudes. The conditions for doing so include a state of dis-equilibrium,

actions that amplify throughout the system, recombination or self-organization, and feedback that
stabilizes the system from spinning out of control.
Strive to think systemically as much as possible, paying attention to multiple causal loops, the
impact of small fluctuations, and consistently scanning for broad patterns at the micro, meso, and
macro levels. To support emergence, there will need to be many networks within and external
to the organization. As such I can build them directly and support their development by others. I
can plant seeds for emergence by strengthening knowledge centers within organizations and
encouraging and enhancing the connections between those that are internal as well as with those
that are external. Along the way, I need to be willing to become, or encourage a group of
colleagues to become, a leadership tag in which we represent the essence of a philosophy or
concept central to the emergence process.
Remember that I dont need to see the future and chart a linear path to get there. While I can
create broad brush strokes for where we might consider going, my greatest impact will be in
strengthening the connections among organizational members, thereby linking them to emergent
structures. It is through them that most if not all of the innovations and novel ideas will arise.
Therefore, my role is to enable productive futures, rather than controlling them, by enriching
these connections. Rather than trying to direct change in a methodical manner, look instead to
understand emerging patterns in small changes, so that I can feed that meaning-making into the
learning, living system that makes up the organization I serve. These small changes can create
unpredictable large scale impact, so my energy is better spent looking to identify them rather
than trying to manage a linear change process over the long term. Thus, change leadership
becomes more of an improvisational dance with the system, listening to how it is responding and
adapting quickly in accordance.
Do not feel that I need to keep the organization and its systems in a state of constant harmony or
equilibrium. Remember that innovative ideas and novel structures emerge not out of stability and
balance, but from a state of dis-equilibrium and destabilization. Thus, be willing to allow for and
even foster destabilization as I sense appropriate; go ahead and disrupt even healthy patterns of
behavior if necessary. Dont pretend that I know what to do and how to get there in a linear way.
Remember that these are complex adaptive systems that operate with nonlinear behavior and
therefore focus instead on strengthening and clarifying the processes that lead to emergent
behavior rather than cutting down the obstacles in the way of the long-term vision.
Regularly encourage novelty, experimentation, pilots and prototypes. Small successes can
become a form of positive deviance that rapidly scales across the system; the key is to create
healthy conditions for those experiments to take place, trusting that the successes will emerge.
Engage with others, and support the development of, relational spaces arenas of deep trust,
mutuality, respect and psychological safety in which the connections among members of the
organization can be enriched and expanded. Use my abilities to see patterns and generate
metaphors to help make and give sense to the phenomenon arising throughout this work. I can
also use symbols to help create a mutual understanding. Above all, though, work to create this
mutual understanding as it supports the process of self-organization when needed.

Remember that I will occasionally need to stabilize changes that are emerging, so that they dont
spin a system out of control. This can be done by adapting the change process and its effects such
that they honor local constraints and are therefore more easily embedded within the local
context. Above all, have fun, dont get stuck in trying to logically figure this all out, and trust that
within my network exist all of the resources required to support development of a newly
emergent order in the systems I serve.

Two Limitations to the Practice of Complexity Leadership

This section briefly discusses two of the key limitations I see to the practice of complexity
leadership: the need to supplement it with other epistemologies and leadership approaches; and
no acknowledgement of the potentially insufficient capacity that people with conventional
meaning-making systems may encounter in attempting to engage with it.

The Need for Other Perspectives to Enhance the Complexity Leadership

While complexity leadership is maturing as a field unto itself, it is important to remember that it
should be held in relationship to other leadership practices. In one of the first academic inquiries
into complexity leadership, Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) explicitly link complexity leadership to
other trends that were emerging in the leadership literature (e.g., social capital, transformational
leadership, self-leadership/empowerment, followership, and charismatic leadership). It is
transformational leadership that holds the strongest link in their opinion. Bass (Bass & Avolio,
1990; Bass & Riggio, 2006), the leading scholar in transformational leadership agrees. In
the Bass Handbook of Leadership (Bass & Bass, 2008), he describes complexity leadership as a
field that enlarges transformational leadership to include catalyzing organization from the
bottom up through fostering of microdynamics of interaction among ensembles (pp. 624-5).
Thus, an individual should not venture into the realm of leadership with complexity leadership
alone; other leadership theories and practices are likely needed to accomplish his or her
One way to frame the limitations of complexity leadership and the need to consider other
leadership perspectives is to consider it within the context of integral methodological pluralism
(IMP) (Wilber, 2006). A full explanation of IMP and its application is best left to other articles
(e.g., Brown, 2010). Yet, essentially, IMP is a meta-epistemology that integrates all of the major
epistemological methodologies. It is summarized in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The eight major methodologies of integral methodological pluralism Source: Wilber
(2006). Courtesy Integral Institute.
Each of these methodologies enable us to reliably reveal knowledge about the different aspects
of a phenomenon. These eight major methodologies help us to understand and explain the
intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social forces that affect any given phenomenon, such as a
leadership initiative. The more aware we are of all major forces at play, the greater chance we
have of responding appropriately and succeeding in bringing about our objectives. The eight
major methodologies
are: phenomenology,structuralism, autopoiesis, empiricism, hermeneutics, ethnomethodology, so
cial autopoiesis, and systemstheory (Wilber, 2006). The usage of these terms here differs slightly
from their use in other contexts.[3] The eight methodologies represent the main families of
research methods available to scholar-practitioners. Certainly there are other research
approaches, but these are some of the more historically significant (Wilber, 2003a). Each is a
unique culture of inquiry which reveals a perspective and data that the others cannot. The
practice of using as many of these methodologies as is practically possible, to gain a
comprehensive understanding of any phenomena, is called integral methodological pluralism
(Wilber, 2006).

Complexity theory is based in two of the eight methodologies of IMP: it is mostly grounded in
systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1968; Laszlo, 1972a, 1972b) and somewhat draws upon social
autopoiesis (Capra, 1996, 2002; Luhmann, 1984, 1990). Complexity theory has been explained
as an expansion of systems theory by some leading researchers (Stacey, et al., 2000). Thus, while
it can offer very powerful insights about leadership, it still holds an epistemological bias that
filters out other equally valid data concerning leadership. As such, the practice of complexity
leadership should be supplemented with other types of leadership that draw upon different
epistemologies, thereby helping leaders to see a broader picture than that offered by complexity
leadership alone.
Uhl-Bien and Marion (2007) strive to do this in their article on complexity leadership theory. Not
only did they mention the linkages to transformational leadership and other leadership
approaches in their earlier writings, their framework for complexity leadership includes adaptive
leadership, administrative leadership, and enabling leadership. In my opinion, this is primarily
done to acknowledge that not all leadership activities require or are served by a complexity
leadership approach. In some cases, such an approach is unnecessarily complex and not useful
when traditional managerial and leadership practices are sufficient (such as in administrative
leadership). Thus, when combined with transformational leadership and even other leadership
practices, a leader begins to draw upon multiple epistemologies that enable him or her to see a
more comprehensive picture.
However, it should be noted that even this combination complexity leadership theory plus
transformational leadership theory and adaptive, administrative, and enabling leadership will
still leave out several of the key epistemologies that provide important data on any leadership
situation. Missing but often highly relevant perspectives include phenomenology (Idhe, 1986),
hermeneutics (Howard, 1982), ethnomethodology (e.g., cultural anthropology, ethnography,
discourse analysis), and psychological structuralism (Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kohlberg, 1981, 1984;
Loevinger, 1976).
In my review of the complexity leadership literature, particularly salient for me was how
strongly it de-centers the subject.[4] The complexity sciences upon which this field is based are
grounded in objective, third-person epistemologies such as empiricism and systems theory. These
perspectives, as traditionally defined, do not incorporate the subjective viewpoint of the observer
or participant. This appears to be a profound limitation for the complexity leadership literature
because it does not acknowledge, much less attempt to tap into as a source for creative insight,
the subjective reality and internal experience of leaders themselves. Humans are not merely
rational, objective beings, and, as such, subjective forces, dynamics and influences are
present during any leadership moment. To not even acknowledge the entire subjective reality
experienced by leaders and draw upon it as part of the complexity leadership process seems to be
doing a disservice to both the field and the leaders that engage with it. A complexity leadership
theorist might say that such subjective experiences and influences are indeed incorporated into
the approach as they are considered as potential small perturbations to the complex adaptive
system that can cause large-scale change. However, this response still demonstrates an
objectification of subjectivity, for which empiricism has long been criticized.

Fundamentally, despite the critical viewpoint I have offered, I believe that efforts to encourage
complexity leadership to incorporate the subjective sciences and other epistemologies are not
likely succeed. Such a strategy seems short sighted. Rather, complexity leadership should be
embraced for the valuable perspectives it provides and encouraged to develop its approaches to
leading through that epistemology. Yet it should also be held within a larger context and broader
leadership approach that incorporates other types of epistemological inquiry. What we need is
not to force different epistemologies and leadership approaches to change so as to be inclusive of
all others, but instead to adapt a meta-epistemological framework and ultimately a metaleadership framework that embraces each of them for their unique perspective while also
recognizing their inherent limits. Integral methodological pluralism offers one such metaepistemological framework, and a leadership framework based upon it may offer a pathway
through this theoretical entanglement.

Meaning-Making Systems and Complexity Leadership

The second potential limitation I see to complexity leadership concerns the degree of meaningmaking maturity that may be required to effectively engage with it. My proposition is that
leaders with more mature meaning-making systems may be more capable of engaging the
practices of complexity leadership. Conversely, those with conventional meaning-making
systems may not be able to fully adapt to the fundamental changes in leadership perspective
called for by complexity leadership.
Complexity leadership calls for a letting go of the notion of control and knowing what to do,
acknowledgement that the future cannot be predicted, and a recognition that organizations and
groups are not able to move in a linear path toward a pre-defined objective. Traditional
leadership is largely decentralized in this approach, and those with positional power are asked to
think in systems, tend to the conditions that support emergence, and focus on process rather than
outcome. The literature challenges leaders to manage the polarity between equilibrium and disequilibrium between stability and chaos and that they foster conflict and dissonance in the
system regularly. Complexity leaders are also called to see multiple causal loops, recognize
patterns within complex processes from the micro to the macro, and engage in improvisational
dance with complex adaptive systems listening closely and responding in an instant. Finally,
they also need to remember to stabilize things when too much emergence occurs too fast so the
entire system does not gyrate out of control (Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009; Uhl-Bien &
Marion, 2008).
These leadership behaviors would seem to require not only considerable cognitive complexity,
but also a very mature self-identity and ability to make meaning. The meaning-making systems
of the majority of managers and leaders may not be sufficient to sustainably engage without
regular support in these behaviors. To clarify this point, I offer below a brief review of the
studies that have estimated the distribution of leaders and managers across the spectrum of
meaning-making systems, from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional.
The constructive-developmental frameworks of Kegan (1982, 1994) and Loevinger/Torbert
(Loevinger, 1966, 1976; Merron, Fisher, & Torbert, 1987; Torbert, et al., 2004) have most
frequently been used to study the intersection of leadership and meaning-making. In a large-scale

(n = 535) study of managers and consultants in the UK (Cook-Greuter, 2005), approximately

43% held a post-conventional stage of meaning making. These are the most mature stages
[Individualist, Strategist, Alchemist and Unitary/Ironist in Torberts action logics framework
(Torbert, et al., 2004)]. In a study (n = 497) of US managers and supervisors
(consultants not included), only 7% were assessed with post-conventional meaning-making, and
in the general adult US population (n = 4510), about 18% have developed to this level of
maturity (Cook-Greuter, 2004, 2005). Rooke and Torbert (2005), drawing upon some of the same
data sets, claim that 15% of leaders hold these post-conventional stages. While there is no precise
data available on this topic, it is fair to say that a large majority (65-85%) of leaders and
managers in developed countries hold a conventional meaning-making system.[5]
I propose that the qualities of conventional meaning-making systems limit the ability of those
with them to engage effectively in complexity leadership. This is because complexity leadership
seems to require a strong comfort with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing. Other
requirements seem to be: enter deeply into multiple frames of reference and take many
perspectives [such as to manage the entanglement between adaptive and administrative structures
(Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007)] ; recognize mutual causality in human interactions; deal with conflicting
needs and duties; and consciously allow others to make mistakes. Research suggests that these
qualities arise with the development of postconventional meaning-making (Cook-Greuter, 1999,
2000; Joiner & Josephs, 2007; Nicolaides, 2008).
Thus, those with later stages of meaning-making may be able to adeptly handle the challenges of
complexity leadership. Leaders with a conventional stage of meaning-making (Diplomats,
Experts, Achievers in Torberts action logics framework) would seem to have less of a chance of
being successful. This is because, for example, the main focus of the expert action logic is
expertise, procedure and efficiency (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Experts tend to be immersed in the
logic of their own craft and regard it as the only valid way of thinking. They are often reactive
problem solvers and make decisions based on incontrovertible facts (Joiner & Josephs, 2007).
These qualities of the Expert meaning-making system do not seem to align with the demands of
complexity leadership. Achievers face a similar struggle, although they may have better chances.
For them, the main focus is on delivery of results, effectiveness, achieving goals and being
successful within the system (Cook-Greuter, 2004). They tend to emphasize reason, analysis,
measurement and prediction (Cook-Greuter, 1999). It is not until the first of the postconventional
action logics the Individualist that one really begins to understand complexity, systemic
connections and unintended effects of actions. Additionally, Individualists can play different
roles in varying contexts and are able to adjust their behavior to the context (Torbert, et al.,
2004). These qualities, and the others previously mentioned that develop in the postconventional
action logics, seem to more accurately fit the needs of complexity leadership.
In sum, while complexity leadership theory and its various approaches offer considerable
potential improving leadership, the training of it should probably be reserved for leaders who
have demonstrated advanced (i.e., postconventional) meaning-making capacity. It does not seem
realistic to expect leaders with a conventional action logic to learn and sustainably engage with it
over an extended duration.


The application of complexity theory to leadership has generated a novel field and important
perspective that facilitates the understanding of complex organizational behavior. It reveals
dynamics and forces present within and across organizations that no other approach to leadership
offers. When combined with other leadership approaches that complement its epistemological
bias toward systems theory, complexity leadership can be a powerful tool for any individual to
support organizational change.
For me, personally, the study of complexity leadership theory and practice has provided a fresh
and powerful leadership lens. My engagement with this literature has dislodged several notions I
previously held about leadership and has inspired new ways to think about and act in the face of
complexity. My biggest change is a commitment toward supporting the conditions for the
emergence of novel order within complex adaptive systems. By focusing on creating fertile
ground for innovation and insight to sprout within and across systems, I feel that I do have some
degree of influence over the otherwise uncontrollable reality of organizational behavior.
The field of complexity leadership theory and practice is still young and will require
considerable research to substantiate its claims and realize its full potential. Complexity
leadership is not a panacea for our leadership problems, and never will be in my opinion. No
matter how much research backs its findings, it will continue to require supplemental
perspectives to fully map the leadership terrain. Nonetheless, I feel that it offers one of the most
important ways to reflect upon and engage in leadership. Our organizational environments are
becoming increasingly complex, and the complexity leadership approach is grounded in decades
of research in how to work with complex systems. Fundamentally, its insights and guidelines
provides me with additional hope and inspiration that we will, collectively, learn how to handle
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[1] The explanations for all of these elements, except complex vs. complicated,
characteristics of a complex system, and complex adaptive systems, are from Marion (2008).
[2] This lack of research on conscious long-term application of a leadership theory seems to
frequently be the case with leadership theories (e.g., Bass & Riggio, 2006; Goleman, 1995;
Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). In my experience, leadership researchers often first identify
a leadership phenomenon and then find examples of leaders who were intuitively or
unconsciously enacting that leadership approach; or, they identify a leadership approach through
the study of exemplary leaders and create a leadership theory to explain it. I have yet to see
research in which leaders intentionally followed a given leadership approach for years and their
performance was evaluated. Given that the human brain is a complex adaptive system, this
makes sense, as new ways of responding to leadership challenges emerge within a leaders brain
as they mature and face different conditions that drive their own innovation.
[3] For full explanation of the technical use of these terms, consult Wilber (2003a, 2003b,
2003c, 2003d)

[4] I am grateful to my colleague Darcy Riddell who first pointed this out to me.