Over the last two decades, there has been a range of leadership theories to identify and understand behaviors that drive organizational effectiveness. Most recently, the model of complexity leadership has been proposed as an antidote to rigid, leadership theories that conform to the status quo.
Complexity leadership theory allows you for an understanding of how successful organizations thrive in turbulent times. It doesn’t focus on the leader as the only driving force for success. Instead, it puts an emphasis on the whole system of an organization including its social interactions and ways how to manage complexity.
Complexity leadership theory (CLT) focuses on emergent processes within complex systems and suggests that leadership needs to operate at all levels in a process-oriented, contextual, and interactive fashion (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). The model emphasizes the importance of social interactions within organizations yet also illustrates the key role of the leader in enabling change.Complexity theory rejects linear causality and takes under consideration the whole system instead of just a part of it (Davis & Sumara, 2014). It has been applied in organizational settings to comprehend how effective organizations can gain a competitive advantage through leadership strategy and direction (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001).
How does complexity leadership work?
Complexity leadership theory recognizes the dynamic interactions that take place within organizations as they change, create innovation, and evolve with a focus on complex relationships and network interaction rather than controlling, standardizing, and autocracy (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009).
Complexity leadership relies on social interactions
The interactions within a complex environment that is undergoing organizational change can be tense because individuals respond to both external and internal pressures as they struggle with interdependency and conflicting restraints (Lichenstein et al., 2006).
Complexity leadership theory proposes that adaptability occurs in the everyday interactions of individuals responding to triggers in the work environment (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009). These interactions connect to produce strong emergent phenomena (Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009).
Complexity leadership model is a form of shared leadership
Several scholars agree that complexity leadership theory is a form of shared leadership in which the leadership position is not concentrated in one person, but shared among many (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007; Ensley, Hmieleski, & Pearce, 2006).
In classical leadership theory, most of the discussion arises on the relationship between the leader and the follower. However, complexity leadership illustrates that the focus is on the many and constantly recurring social interactions within a network. Therefore, anyone within the workplace can become a leader through their social capital.
For example, a study by Hanson and Ford (2010) found that the core leaders in a hospital laboratory setting in were not the formal director or administrators, but rather the workers on the front line – the customer service representatives. The study showed that the customer service core played an important role in conducting information flow to all others in the lab and had heavy influence among other lab sections.
In complexity leadership any agent involved influences the dynamics
Moreover, in complexity leadership, any agent involved in collective action can manifest and influence those dynamics which enable innovation. These dynamics are orchestrations of interaction, interdependence, tension and resonance among heterogeneous agents (Lichtenstein et al., 2006).
Lichenstein and Plowman (2009) provide other examples of complexity leadership theory as a model of practice. Here are two examples:
Three high potential technology-oriented ventures “took off” and emerged in directions not envisioned by their founders because of unexpected triggers, including in one case an unexpected comment made by an industry expert that led to a radical transformation of the young start-up (Lichenstein & Plowman, 2009, p617).
An urban church that had been declining for 50 years resisted every change effort from its leaders, but experienced identity change and internal renewal due to a small idea that emerged from interactions among its members and amplified into something radical. (Lichenstein & Plowman, 2009, p617).
These examples demonstrate how complexity leadership behaviors can result in outcomes from a synergy of social interactions within a complex environment.
What are the benefits of using complexity leadership?
Particularly in an economic era not rooted in industry but rather in knowledge and fast-paced change (VUCA), the ability to acknowledge complexity and to derive the best results from it is vital for long-term success and growth (see Uhl-Bien, Marion & McKelvey, 2007).
Complexity leadership is beneficial to organizational change and innovation
Complexity leadership involves the study of social interactions at multiple levels and their effects on innovation and emergent outcomes. One area in which complexity leadership has shown scientific evidence for successful organizational change is in innovation (Lichtenstein, Uhl-Bien, Marion, Seers, Orton & Schreiber, 2006; Hazy, Goldstein, & Lichtenstein, 2007).
A series of research studies conducted from 2007 to 2015 across 30 complex organizations found evidence that these pressures within a system create innovation and adaptation, which are important when organizations are going through change (Arena & Uhl-Bien, 2016).
Complexity leadership benefits team performance and outcomes
Complexity leadership behaviours have also been shown to improve team performance, increase the ability of the organization to adapt and innovate, and promote quality outcomes (Losada 1999; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009; Shipton, Armstrong, West, & Dawson, 2008).
Losada (1999) found that teams displaying complexity leadership behaviors performed better than teams that demonstrated command and control characteristics; more complexity characteristics led to better outcomes than those interventions that were more linear.
How to implement complexity leadership in an organization?
Using complexity leadership means giving room to change and innovation, and harnessing the results of the natural interactions that take place in organizations.
Although complexity leadership theory is a systems theory, the leadership component itself still plays an important role: whenever an event takes place and people react and adapt to it, innovation and creativity can take place. In order for this to be facilitated, leaders must nonetheless enable this environment within a complex system and a formal structure.
Embrace and increase organized complexity
Most organizations work hard to decrease complexity. As a systems theory, complexity leadership theory takes another stance towards complexity. It asks you to increase organized complexity to improve competitiveness in a VUCA environment. This process is called system differentiation and points towards the following three action areas (Luhmann 2013):
Formal or informal subsystems
Roles and responsibilities
Planning and standardizing
Enable rather than dictate organizational change
Although leadership effects can never be certain because they are always affected by changes and constraints in the social environment (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009), it is important that professional enable rather than dictate the processes that enable organizational change.
Foster autonomy and self-responsibility
In complexity leadership, linear and top-down only interventions are not sufficient to reach a high performance or simply don`t work. Instead complexity leadership theory points towards social networks as the driving force behind performance and change. This requires you to foster autonomy and self-responsibility in your team or organization
Overall, complexity leadership is effective and directed more towards organizations that are open to emergent or innovative outcomes. In addition, complexity leadership is appropriate for higher levels in the hierarchy including those that are responsible for innovation in the organization (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001).
Strengths and weaknesses of complexity leadership theory
Overall and as a holistic theory, complexity leadership theory provides a useful framework and model in understanding how successful organizations manage change within a turbulent environment.
Complexity leadership theory helps understand organizations
One of the major strengths of complexity leadership is that it helps enable an understanding of how organizations respond to organizational change. It is also a holistic and broader theory in that it focuses on the entire system rather than focusing on separate parts of the organization.
There is little empirical evidence for the success of complexity leadership
The main weakness in complexity leadership theory is the paucity of empirical research on the dimensions underlying the model. Most of the evidence for the effectiveness of the model is illustrated in computation modelling and case studies. More rigorous methodological approaches are needed to determine the full effectiveness of complexity leadership theory.
Critical appraisal of complexity leadership theory: Solidity Level 3
Based on the empirical evidence for the body of evidence for complexity leadership theory, this CQ Dossier is assigned a level 3 rating (based on a 1- 5 measurement scale). A level 3 is the third highest rating for a dossier and the evidence provided on the efficacy of a construct – in this case complexity leadership theory.
The theoretical framework is useful for organizations operating in a turbulent environment and so far the research has supported the central tenets of the model. However, the lower rating for this construct is due to the reliance on computational modelling and case studies to support the theory. More empirical quantitative research is needed to support the validity of CLT.
Key recommendations for professionals
Complexity leadership theory (CLT) focuses on emergent processes within complex systems
Leadership needs to operate at all levels in a process-oriented, contextual, and interactive fashion
Complexity leadership theory emphasizes social interactions within a network
It is important that senior executives enable rather than dictate the processes that enable organizational change
Complexity leadership behaviors improve team performance, increase the ability of the organisation to adapt and innovate, and promote quality outcomes
More rigorous research is needed to test the propositions contained within complexity leadership theory
References & further reading
Arena, M. J., and Uhl-Bien, M. (2016). Complexity leadership Theory: Shifting from human capital to social capital. People & Strategy, 39, 2, 22-27.
Carson, J. B., Tesluk, P. E., and Marrone, J. A. (2007). Shared leadership in teams: an investigation of antecedent conditions and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 5, -1234.
Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2014). Complexity and Education. New York: Routledge.
Ensley, M. D., Hmieleski, K. M., and Pearce, C. L. (2006). The importance of vertical and shared leadership within new venture top management teams: Implications for the performance of startups. Leadership Quarterly, 17(3), pp217-231.
Hanson, W. R., and Ford, R. (2010). Complexity leadership in healthcare: Leader network awareness. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2, 6587-6596.
Lichtenstein, B. B., and Plowman, D. A. (2009). The leadership of emergence: A Hanson, W. R., and Ford, R. (2010). Complexity leadership in healthcare: Leader network awareness. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2, 6587-6596.
Lichtenstein, B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Orton, J. D., & Schreiber, C. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. Management Department Faculty Publications
Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modeling, 30,9, 179-192.
Marion, R. & Uhl-Bien, M. (2001). Leadership in complex organizations, Leadership Quarterly, 12, 389–418.
Shipton, H., Armstrong, C., West, M., and Dawson, J. (2008). The impact of leadership and quality climate on hospital performance. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 20, 6, 439-445.
Uhl-Bien, M., and Marion, R. (2009). Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organizing: A meso model. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 631–650.
Annette was born in England and now lives in the United States. She has a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and has taught at several institutions. Annette has published in several journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, and Organizational Research Methods. She worked in the public and private sector for many years, primarily as a management trainer.