Complexity Leadership Theory: Developing Collective Leadership

Complexity Leadership Theory provides a framework to conceptualize leadership in knowledge-producing organizations, whose desired outcomes are learning, adaptability and innovation. Academic units are complex, knowledge-based social systems of interacting and interdependent agents (e.g. students, faculty and staff). Of particular interest is the collective impetus for action and change that emerges from the interplay among the agents of this social network, which produces new patterns of behavior or new modes of operating.

In this framework, there are three types of leadership along the arrow of emergence: entrepreneurial, enabling, and operational leadership (see figure below). Entrepreneurial leadership is the creation and development of novelty (e.g., ideas, innovative solutions, new products or services) in ways that help an organization adapt to pressures or capitalize on opportunities. By linking up diverse agents (e.g., individuals, information, technologies), outcomes emerge that few could have imagined or predicted.

In complexity, leaders embrace the power of the operational system to generate efficiency and produce ongoing results while recognizing that innovation and adaptability are as core to organizational survival as operating results. A key role of operational leaders in the complexity leadership framework is converting emergent ideas into organizational systems and structures that produce innovation and ongoing results.

While operational and entrepreneurial leadership exist in our current leadership lexicon, enabling leadership is a new way of thinking in response to complexity. Enabling leadership operates in the interface between the operational and entrepreneurial system in an organization. It works to nurture and enable adaptive space that feeds and fuels emergence for adaptive responses in a system. Effective enabling leadership helps initiate and amplify support for novelty, innovation, and change. Successful, enabling leaders use complexity thinking to catalyze networked interactions that foster emergence and adaptability in an organization.

Complexity Leadership Model Figure