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Complexity leadership

  • Complexity leadership applies concepts of complexity theory to the study of leadership.

Complexity leadership responds to the suggestion that many twentieth century models of leadership fail to capture the leadership dynamic of organisations operating in today's knowledge driven economy, having been designed to accommodate more traditional hierarchical structures (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006). Complexity leadership applies the concepts of complexity theory to the study of leadership, and considers leadership within the framework of a complex adaptive system (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). A complex adaptive system is composed of ‘interdependent agents who are bonded in a cooperative dynamic by common goals, outlook, need, etc. They are changeable structures with multiple, overlapping hierarchies, and … are linked with one another in a dynamic, interactive network’ (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007).

Complexity leadership theory explains how complex adaptive systems operate within bureaucratic organisations and identifies three leadership roles to explore: adaptive (e.g., engaging others in brainstorming to overcome a challenge), administrative (e.g., formal planning according to doctrine), and enabling (e.g., minimizing the constraints of an organizational bureaucracy to enhance follower potential) (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). These three leadership functions are intertwined, with the enabling leadership function helping ameliorate the tensions between adaptive and administrative leadership (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). Importantly, complexity leadership theory suggests that effective leadership does not necessarily reside within a leader's actions and proposes that ‘leadership is an emergent event, an outcome of relational interactions among agents’ (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006).

Criticisms and challenges

The challenge for complexity leadership theory is that the level of analysis is different to other leadership thinking. As noted by Avolio, et al ‘one of the core propositions of complexity leadership theory is that “much of leadership thinking has failed to recognize that leadership is not merely the influential act of an individual or individuals but rather is embedded in a complex interplay of numerous interacting forces” (Uhl-Bien et al. 2007, p. 302)’ (2009, p. 431). This complexity makes the study of this form of leadership particularly difficult, and poses challenges for the individual seeking to apply this thinking to their own leadership practice.

Further reading

Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion & Bill McKelvey, (2007). ‘Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era’ in The Leadership Quarterly 18:4.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018