Complexity Leadership Theory: A Framework for Leadership Without Formal Leaders

Location: Jepson 123
Date: Sat, April 27
Time: 12:30 PM - 1:10 PM

Complexity leadership theory maintains that organizational behavior emerges from bottom-up as opposed to top-down interaction and implies organizations exhibit an order for free behaviors; however, there is no guarantee that organizations naturally self-organize to seek greater fitness. While order emerges, it may not be the desired order. In complexity leadership all organization members must embrace the responsibility of an organization's fitness and success; daring to lead when necessary. Organization members lead by enabling other members to share information and ideas, disrupting existing patterns of behavior, encouraging novelty, and making sense of emerging events for others.


Many scholars now conceptualize leadership as a practice of the collective rather than the traits or behaviors of individuals. In a practice-centered approach to leadership, everyone involved in a common endeavor is empowered to contribute to the success of that common endeavor; the leadership dynamic that emerges is akin to complexity science's complex adaptive system. Complexity leadership and related theories draw from complexity science to explain emergent outcomes. Complexity leadership theory development represents a movement in leadership studies from the modern assumption of certainty that underpins traditional leadership views to the postmodern assumption of uncertainty which leads to emergent outcomes. Complexity science is the study of how complicated structures and patterns of interaction can arise from disorder through simple but powerful rules that guide change. The basic unit of analysis in complexity science is the complex adaptive system (CAS). CASs are composed of a diversity of agents, e.g., people, ideas, molecules, ecosystems, that interact with each other, mutually affect each other, and in so doing generate novel behavior for the system. The behaviors of interactive, interdependent agents and CAS produce emergent creativity and learning. Complexity science suggests a different paradigm for leadership- one that frames leadership as a complex interactive dynamic from which adaptive outcomes, e.g., learning, innovation, and adaptability, emerge. Complex leadership involves creating the conditions that enable the interactions through which the behaviors and direction of organizational systems emerge. This presentation explores complexity leadership theory and its potential as a foundation for leading efforts in no-formal authority situations; those that span inter- and intra- organizational boundaries. I will describe how complexity theory can encourage leadership-as-practice in the absence of formal authority.

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