Leadership in Complexity

In organizing for diversity and complexity, I discussed structural changes that are needed in our institutions. Kevin Wheeler has a great slide presentation on leadership in complexity that looks at what is required in such a diverse and complex work world. In the future of leadership development, Kevin describes some new core leadership skill sets (Slides 17-21):

  • Dealing with Ambiguity
  • Dealing with Complexity
  • Dealing with Interdependencies
  • Fostering Creativity
  • Challenging Assumptions

Two shifts are driving the need for a new type of leadership: 1) networks are giving workers the freedom to act and cooperate and 2) the optimal control structure for complex environments is loose hierarchies and strong networks. Leadership, and organizational support functions, need to move from command & control to enable & encourage.

Kevin’s presentation aligns with several of the ideas I’ve been working on. Using terms from his presentation, I would say that a transparent, flexible and open organizational model is necessary so that leaders can listen to and analyze what is happening in real time. In turn, leaders can help set context and build consensus. This is 21st century leadership.


12 Responses to “Leadership in Complexity”

  1. Ken Otter

    I beg to differ, 21st century is less about what designated leaders do, whether it is about listening, analyzing, setting context or building context, but what all stakeholders do in service of the important work that needs to do be done, whether they are in formal leader roles or not.

    I have been seeing for some time a radical re-visioning of what learning and work should be in your writings for some time, but do not see it applied to the theory and practice of leadership. I wish you would apply it there. Then I think you could better contribute to the transformation of our understanding and practice of organizing, learning and working. With out this shift in conceptualizing and languaging leadership, then I am afraid the extend of the change will not be as significant as it could be.

    Again, people exercise leadership, and sometimes they do so in their roles of authority or expertise. But there is a lot more potential in unleashing the capacity of people for meaningful change in the systems to which they belong, if leadership is viewed as a property of the enterprise and a dynamic that all stakeholders exercise.

    Thanks for listening.

    • Harold Jarche

      I had mentioned “Leadership, and organizational support functions” in this post, but to take Ken’s point, I think it’s worth expanding upon. While leadership may be an emergent property there are times when someone is held accountable. These people have to be more focused on things like deliverables, milestones, regulatory compliance, etc. As the title of the graphic says, we need to move to “Loose Hierarchies & Strong Networks” not “No Hierarchies”. Achieving this balance will be a most interesting challenge for 21st century organizational design and to ensure that unmanagement does not lead to chaos.

  2. Jon Husband

    Harold and I have been working on unmanagement concepts

    Heh .. I cited the two of you yesterday in Aachen at IMO as leading protagonists of ‘unlearning in order to learn’ whilst building the case for a comment about the coming ‘certainty of unmanagement’.

    Honest .. I did not telepathically overhear either of you.

  3. Mike Myatt

    Thanks for this post. The landscape of leadership is always changing, but more so today than in recent history. The essence of true leadership is found in adaptive behavior. Why some in leadership roles (note I didn’t say leaders) want to place people in a box, rather than free them from a box is beyond me. t have been on the “unlearning” soap-box for quite sometime. You might be interested in the following post: http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2011/09/20/the-impact-of-unlearning-on-leadership

  4. Ken Otter

    Jay wrote, “Ken, I don’t see where Harold says “designated leaders” are the only ones the new mindset applies to.” This is true, but he did not say who else this new mindset applies to either. And that is my point. If we are going to expand our understanding and practice of leadership to be something responsive to and reflective of networks, and not always conflated with management and the exercise of authority, then I believe we need to be more explicit and precise in our language. I am suggesting that there is a whole new way of thinking about and practicing leadership which is aligned by much of what Harold thinks and writes about and I assume practices. I am asking for language to reflect this.

    Regarding the point that “while leadership may be an emergent property there are times when someone is held accountable. These people have to be more focused on things like deliverables, milestones, regulatory compliance, etc.” To me leadership and management, reflect networks and organizational hierarchy respectively. So by making a distinction between the two dimensions of organizational life is beneficial. Both are necessary and deserving of attention, development, and the terminology that makes relevant distinctions which in my experience improves practice.

    Appreciating the dialogue that goes on here, as always.


    • Harold Jarche

      This article (via Johnnie Moore) http://uninews.unimelb.edu.au/news/2502/ on “Managing without Leadership” reinforces the idea that leadership is not all it’s cracked up to be:

      Our everyday experience tells us that organisational life is messy and complex and that those in positions of leadership are neither omniscient nor infallible. Why, then, do we quite readily believe that there is a causal link between organisational functioning and leadership? Why do we not believe our own experience that how things work in organisations is much more complicated?

      Where do we get the idea that ‘leadership’ is the right explanation for the organisational phenomena we encounter? There is a discrepancy between the ways in which members believe that their work places operate and how theories of leadership account for organisational functioning.

      If I had to nominate one overarching objective for this project, it would be the development of a causal, bottom-up account of organisational practice, in place of top–down theories of leadership that are incapable of accounting for the specificities of individual experience, because these are always generated and bound by the nature and conditions of their contexts.

  5. Ken Otter

    I particular like the premise that top-down role based conceptions of leadership are not relevant to making sense of the complex social processes of organizational life.

    Given this, Rather than try to do away with it, I am in favor of redefining the construct of leadership, away from what Rost (1991) calls an industrial paradigm definition iof leadership, to one that is reflective of and responsive to 21st century world we live in. Leadership then becomes a complex a dynamic in which people participate in rather than what people in roles of authority possess. If terms like fatherhood, citizenship, learning,etc can evolve in meaning through time and across cultures, then I think leadership can as well. In short, just like loving is not just what lovers do, leadership does not have to be about just what “designated leaders” do.

  6. Victor MacGill

    I am exploring acephalous groups ie one’s without a structured leadership. So it is moving from a leader to the process of leading.I am looking at organisations where leading is distributed, transient, situational, and self selecting. When a need is realised anyone can step forward and offer leadership, which the group may or may not go with. When the need is met the person steps back to allow the space for anyone else to move forward. The group I am researching is called Convergence. It is a loose network of alternative lifestylers in the South Island of New Zealand hat meet for 5-6 days each new year. 3-400 people with nobody in charge, no one to complain to who will fix things. It has been operating for nearly 30 years.


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