Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Complexity Leadership Theory

Organizations are transitioning from a ‘change’ focused culture to a ‘complexity’ impacted culture.  IBM’s UK & Ireland Strategy and Transformation Leader, Howard Tollit, alluded to this in his findings from research of more than 1,500 CEO’s.  Tollit identified, in his significant findings, that “complexity has overtaken change as the main challenge facing CEOs across the globe” (“MT Leadership”, 2010).  Organizations are shifting from the industrial age model where physical assets were being managed, to the knowledge era where knowledge is accumulated and shared at a low cost (Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007).  Smith (2011) identified that organizations today are faced with similar problems: adapting to rapidly changing technology, staying on top of the sheer volume of information, and filtering this vast amount of data for relevant information.  In this complex and interconnected environment, organizational problems cannot be solved using traditional top-down leadership models (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008), or by “a single individual or pre-planned streams of events” (Lichtenstein et al., 2006, p. 3). 
Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) addresses the shortcoming of current leadership models by developing a new leadership model that influences organizational behavior rather than controlling it, and fosters conditions that enable future states rather than dictating them (Marion, & Uhl-Bien, 2001).  CLT comes from Complex Theory, which views complex systems as: “A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution” (Mitchell, 2009, p. 13).  Mitchell (2009) indicated that some systems are self-organizing, with organization occurring without a leader. 
Complexity Leadership Theory expands on the concept of self-organization by utilization of the functions of emergence and autocatalytic interactions.  Emergence refers to nonlinear change in complex systems (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007), often occurring suddenly and unpredictably (Marion, 2008).  Emergence often begins with small groups, called aggregates, which form small networks.  These aggregates connect with other aggregate bodies, forming meta-aggregates (Marion, & Uhl-Bien, 2001) that provide interactions that spur innovation and self-directed change.  Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) argued that emergence, termed “the bottom-up principle” (p. 401), provides “the greatest creativity, productivity, and innovation… out of people who are provided opportunities to innovate and network” (p. 401). 
Autocatalytic interactions refer to the dynamic in which people and departments interact with one another in interdependent networks (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001).  This interaction between people and departments is not directed by, but merely enabled by, leaders (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001).  Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) summarized this dynamic by stating, “autocatalysis is what complex leaders work to enable (catalyze), and it is what complex behavior is all about” (p. 399).
Complex leaders can enable interaction between agents (people) that make up aggregates and between aggregates that make up meta-aggregates.  This is achieved by creating conditions where dynamic processes can emerge: enabling creativity, learning, and adaptability to flourish (Marion, 2008).
Incorporating complexity leadership theory into a system or organization requires a cultural shift in leaders, managers, and employees.  Velsor (2008) encouraged a new organizational culture as one way to foster leadership development.  This new cultural shift could initially be perceived as a limitation to complexity leadership theory.  Leaders and managers may find it difficult to relinquish control over their followers.  Likewise, followers may require time to realize that they have both control and new responsibilities for the course of the organization.   Followers may also be reluctant to accept control of and responsibility for the new course of the organization.
Complexity Leadership Theory would be idea to implement into small businesses or to teams.  However, transforming large corporations would require a large effort and possibly a re-engineering effort.  Incorporating CLT into departments within large corporations would be more manageable.  Beginning with transforming specific departments would be one way to implement CLT into a large corporation.  Building on the successes from one department would encourage implementing CLT theory into other departments until the corporation is operating on the CLT model.
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Lichtenstein, B. 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.  Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 8(4), 2-12.  Retrieved from AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
MT Leadership visions: Capitalising on complexity. (2010, June 07).  Management Today. Retrieved from
Marion, R. (2008).  Complexity theory for organizations and organizational leadership. In Uhl-Bien, M. (Series Ed.), Complexity Leadership: Part I: Conceptual Foundations [Kindle version].
Marion, R. & Uhl-Bien, M. (2001).  Leadership in complex organizations.  The Leadership Quarterly, 12(4), 389-418. journaldescription.cws_home/620221/description#description
Mitchell, M. (2009).  Complexity: A guided tour.  New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, S. (2011).  Information solutions in the age of diffraction.  Online, 35(1), 38-41.  Retrieved from
Uhl-Bien, M. & Marion, R. (2008).  Introduction: Complexity leadership – a framework for leadership in the Twenty-First Century.  In Uhl-Bien, M. (Series Ed.), Complexity Leadership: Part I: Conceptual Foundations [Kindle version].
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007).  Complexity leadership theory: Shifting from the industrial age to the knowledge era.  The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 298-318.  doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.04.002
Velsor, E. V. (2008).  A complexity perspective on leadership development.  In Uhl-Bien, M. (Series Ed.), Complexity Leadership: Part I:    Conceptual Foundations [Kindle version].
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