Complexity theory: the changing role of leadership

Keene, Angelique (2000),”Complexity theory: the changing role of leadership”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 32 Iss: 1 pp. 15 – 18

Businesses and the leaders of these businesses, are increasingly being bombarded with change at all levels. The pace of change relentlessly increases as those trying to shorten the product lifecycle ever shorter can testify. Change is seen as necessary merely to survive; transformation is required to thrive and a constant need for reinvention is needed to secure long-term success. Leaders face the constant challenge of continuous creativity and innovation.

The successful leader recognises the importance of relationships in achieving success.

There is no checklist to follow as to what constitutes the characteristics of a successful leader; leadership is multifaceted.

Current paradigms

The dominant organisational paradigm remains wedded to scientific management theories which reflect a philosophy that remains committed to a need for control and prediction.

Contrary to this notion, complexity theory tells us that the desired order we seek through control is in fact the very outcome of change and uncertainty and will come to pass irrespective of our efforts to control and direct.

The very act of control may prevent the creativity and innovation we seek.

Complexity theory

The key message of the theory of complexity is that our world is not only subjective, but it is the result of our interactions with each other and with our environment.

The connection of the elements, as well as their diversity, is a critical parameter of a  complex adaptive system.

The study of complexity reveals that we are in dynamic reaction with our environment and are very much part of the process that creates that environment.

The study of complexity further reveals that complexity is in fact the result of simplicity. A complex system is governed by only a few rules.

Leadership should also be allowed to develop at different parts of the organisation at different times to meet the needs of different situations.

Leadership in a complex world

The role of leadership will, therefore, be one of creating and determining the purpose of the organisation.

The role of leadership will be that of torch bearer, constantly scanning the environment for the information needed by the elements within the system to create the emergent reality within the guidance of the vision.

Leading in this way becomes one of serving and relies on the power of trust and stewardship.

Leadership in an environment of complexity will be that person who facilitates and creates an environment which makes it possible for the elements within the system to interact and create new forms of reality, guided by the overarching vision and rules.

The start of this process is to value people and to express confidence in their ability to be all that they are capable of being. Such confidence will be reflected in the confidence people will have in themselves.

The role of training and development

Skills needed in the nurturing and building of relationships includes the ability to listen, communicate and participate in dialogue which allows groups to surface and understand their assumptions about each other and their notion of reality as opposed to that of others.

Training will include the ability to cooperate rather than compete.

Accompanying the notion of co-creation is that of accountability. If we are co-creators of our reality we are also co-responsible and accountable.

Further reading

  • Block, P. (1993), Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.
  • Jaworski, J. (1996), Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.
  • Kauffman, S. (1993), The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
  • Kauffman, S. (1995), At Home in the Universe, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
  • Lewin, R. (1993), Complexity: Life on the Edge of Chaos, Phoenix, London.
  • Stacey, R.D. (1996), Complexity and Creativity in Organizations, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.
  • Waldrop, M.M. (1992), The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
  • Wheatley, M.J. (1992), Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.
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