Over the last two decades, there has been a range of 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. Advocates of complexity leadership theory state that the model allows for an understanding of how successful organizations strive in turbulent times. In this CQ Dossier, complexity leadership theory is described and the complexity leadership model is presented. The dossier discusses how to implement complexity leadership in organizations, the strengths and weaknesses of the theory, and the empirical evidence behind complexity leadership theory.
Complexity leadership theory focuses on the whole system and rejects linear causality
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). Complexity theory has been applied in organizational settings to comprehend how effective organizations gain a competitive advantage through leadership strategy and direction (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). Complexity theory rejects linear causality and takes under consideration the whole system instead of just a part of it (Davis & Sumara, 2014).
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 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).
The interactions within a complex environment that is undergoing organizational change can be tense because individuals respond to both external and internal pressures as individuals struggle with interdependency and conflicting restraints (Lichenstein et al., 2006).
Complexity leadership model relies on social interactions
In describing and defining the complexity leadership model, several scholars agree that complexity leadership theory is a form of shared leadership (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 social interactions within a network and so anyone within the workplace can become a leader through their social capital.
For example, a study by Hanson and Ford (2010) that used dynamic network analysis (DNA), a quantitative complexity analysis tool, demonstrated that the core leaders in a hospital laboratory setting were not the formal director or administrators, but rather the workers on the front line – the customer service representatives. The study showed through social network analysis methods 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 can influence dynamics which enable innovation
Moreover, in complexity leadership, any agent involved in collective action can manifest the influence 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 behaviours can result in outcomes from a synergy of social interactions within a complex environment.
Implementing complexity leadership in organizations: Event-level activities produce innovation
Utilizing complexity leadership theory, event-level activities produce innovation and learning within complex adaptive systems and formal structures. Although complexity leadership theory is a systems theory, leadership still plays an important role. An important role of the leader is to facilitate the emergence of organizational processes to attain 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 senior executives enable rather than dictate the processes that enable organizational change. 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).
Evidence behind complexity leadership theory: Innovation, change, adaption, team performance
From a theoretical perspective, the complexity leadership framework is comprised of adaptive, administrative, and enabling leadership (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). the methods used in complexity leadership research are largely computational and involve various analyses of interactions (Dooley & Lichtenstein, 2008). 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). There is additional empirical research to support the scientific foundations of complexity leadership.
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 behaviours performed better than teams that demonstrated command and control characteristics; more complexity characteristics led to better outcomes than those interventions that were more linear.
Strengths and weaknesses of the complexity leadership theory
One of the major strengths of complexity leadership is that it helps enable understanding of how organizations respond to organizational change. It is also a holistic theory in that it focuses on the entire system rather than focusing on separate parts of the organization. Consequently, it is a much broader theory.
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.
In conclusion, complexity leadership theory provides a useful framework and model in understanding how successful organizations manage change within a turbulent environment. The model emphasizes the importance of social interactions within organizations yet also illustrates the key role of the leader in enabling change.
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.
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
Management skills newsletter
Join our monthly newsletter to receive management tips, tricks and insights directly into your inbox!
References & further readings
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.