Complexity Leadership Theory


Complexity theory is the theory that most closely describes and drives educational organizations. Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) state that “ In the new economy, the challenge is to create an environment in which knowledge accumulates and is shared at a low cost.” (p. 300 4/22) They go on to quote McKelvey & Boisot’s Law of Requisite Complexity –  a “ system must possess complexity equal to that of its environment in order to function effectively.” (p. 301 5/22) The result for leadership then, is to move toward looking at organizations as complex adaptive systems, enabling continuous creation and knowledge capture.

Uhl-Bien et al. propose leadership for complex adaptive systems that allows for interdependency and auto-coordination from the nature of systems dynamics. Coordination comes from external actions and internal controls derived from a common sense of purpose. Administrators impose external influences such as cost controls and planning but do not expect to exert control over others in the organization. The administrator’s role is to enable and coordinate. 

Complexity Leadership Theory describes three leadership functions – adaptive leadership – actions that adjust to new conditions, administrative leadership referring to managers and others who ensure that organizational goals are achieved efficiently and enabling leadership which crystallizes the conditions in which adaptive leadership can function. These leadership functions operate in an intertwined manner Uhl-Bien et al. refer to as entanglement.

Complexity leadership theory focuses on the mechanics and context of change.  An understanding of these factors and how they interact with leadership will according to Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) will provide a basis for understanding leadership in the Knowledge Era.



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