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Complexity Leadership

Key Idea

What does the world of bees and ants have to do with leadership? Quite a lot, according to the idea of complexity leadership. The natural world abounds with examples of “collective intelligence” where the colony selects the best option even though no one bee or ant grasps the whole picture. Thus, the complex leader embraces the idea of bottom-up, emergent outcomes; largely by dissipating power and control rather than accumulating it, and certainly by building an organizational culture that fosters uncertainty, nonlinearity, and the importance of chaos for growth and innovation.

Book to Read

Complexity Leadership 
edited by Mary-Uhl Bien and Russ Marion (2008)

Quick Take from the Book

Complexity leadership theorists (see Plowman and Duchon) seek to dispel several common myths about the role of a leader:

  • Leaders are the sole catalysts for change (rather than making linkages and enhancing connections that lead to emergent change).
  • Leaders create the blueprints for change (rather than working with others to create new processes that may enable a new vision to emerge).
  • Leaders focus on big changes only (rather than focusing on small changes that can have a rippling effect).
  • Leaders establish a new equilibrium (rather than encouraging the importance of ongoing disequilibrium).

Quote of Note

"Complexity dynamics represent a new way of thinking for leadership theory. Swarm theory would seem to suggest that complexity finds leadership unimportant, but human systems are quite a bit different than ant colonies – humans are intelligent, volitional, capable of anticipating, and so on. Leadership offers a competitive advantage to human systems, one that is not needed in ant colonies. The question we pose, then, is: Can human organizations take advantage of the swarm, or complex dynamic, phenomenon? If so, then what does that mean for leadership?" — Mary Uhl-Bien and Russ Marion 

Related Styles: Adaptive Leadership, Agile Leadership

Return to List of Leadership Styles