leadership for a complex and changing world

A study of the characteristics of chaos & complexity science suggests ways in which leadership could be made even more effective & potentially less stressful. It is an interesting & potentially far-reaching proposition.

There is little doubt that the climate in which so many organisations operate is complex, uncertain & liable to sudden unexpected changes.

Looking back over recent decades, the rate of change has increased exponentially in so many areas: communications, technology, warfare etc.

Yet leadership & leadership thinking has not necessarily kept up.

The leadership mindset still holds onto the pre-eminence of leadership ‘of the many by the few’. While the need to be alert, engaged and ready to adapt is critical, leadership still wrestles with notions of control. Gary Hamel in his latest article in the Harvard Business Review speaks of getting rid of managers and while this is an extreme it points to some important principles that could be helpful to those in positions of leadership today.

complex adaptive systems

Organisations are complex systems and those that flourish are those that learn to adapt. So what are the characteristics of complex adaptive systems? To what extent are they relevant? What are the implications for leadership?


Complex, chaotic & uncertain systems have been the subject of academic study for years and the results are being applied widely beyond the sciences to areas such as economics, marketing & the organisational disciplines. Despite their apparent randomness, complex systems have similar characteristics.

  • There are often simple rules that lie behind them (see the early Conway ‘Game of Life’ that created complexity from a simple set or rules).
  • They emerge as a function of the way individual parts interact rather being pre-meditated.
  • They exhibit a tendency to self-organise & may centre around a particular state (an ‘attractor’) unless this is disturbed by a new event.
  • Small actions may have far-reaching implications (sometimes referred to as the ‘butterfly’ effect, the idea that a butterfly beating its wings in South America can cause a tornado in the Caribbean).

is this relevant?

The answer is that it has to have a bearing. These characteristics are also present in many of the more changeable environments & complex organisations. If ‘complex adaptive systems’ are emergent rather than planned , how must leaders and influencers themselves adapt to help get the best outcomes?

The answer is probably not to continue to try to control or force the wave too far from its natural course.

Ironically, in the face of complexity it may be in simplicity that leaders will find the best solutions.

‘leadership is a verb not a role’; the implications for leadership

If organisations adapt as a result of the way the parts interact – and leaders are one of those parts – then the focus of leadership needs to be as much about influencing the way parts interact around them as high-profile ‘leading the organisation’. As one thinker puts it, leadership ‘happens in the spaces between’ the parts.

If complex systems embody simple rules, then over reliance on complex leadership & control systems may get in the way of adaptation. Leadership based on simple rules, clear unambiguous feedback & tolerance of ambiguity may be the way.

If complex organisations tend to self-organise, then a pre-meditated organisation may not be the best solution. Allowing greater freedom – albeit bounded as mentioned – will allow other parts to organise to best fit with the situation they face.

If small actions can have far-reaching impact, then leaders need to search out the small, significant actions they can take (or influence) that will impact the ways other parts interact. These could be as simple as deciding not to attend key meetings yet still expecting these to take place & holding the attendees to account for resulting decisions & outcomes.

how will this benefit today’s leaders?

Rapid change, uncertainty & complexity can create stress. Stress consumes mental & emotional energy, energies that could be devoted to more productive activities.

With the right mind-set, skills & ideas, leaders could free up significant percentages of their time & efforts. Think what more could be done with this? Devote more time & attention to important external stakeholders or to the strategic direction of the organisation. Focus on areas of real need where investment of time & energy will yield more results than spending too much time on operational details. The opportunities are endless.

It is an attractive proposition.