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Editorial introduction to the special issue:

From complexity to leadership and back to complexity


This Special Issue is special for several reasons. The first concerns its content, the application of complexity sciences to the study of leadership. Although ideas and methods from the sciences of complex systems are increasingly being applied to organizational dynamics including leadership, nowhere until now has there been a forum completely dedicated to a rigorous treatment of complexity applied to leadership. Moreover, agreed upon definitions and concepts have not yet emerged and too often it seems that the lessons of complexity don’t manage to go beyond a well-trodden metaphorical value. In contrast, this Special Issue goes in search of the rigorous thinking, the science and the mathematics that are required in the application of complexity research to organizations and leadership.

This issue is also special for the rigor and clarity of thought that have gone into the articles. Although E:CO does not primarily focus on empirically-based research, we made an exception for this Special Issue because of the need for this kind research at this juncture of the field, and also because of the exacting mathematical and computational methods of many of the submissions we were happy to receive. This is an important development, and therefore we selected four of the six articles because they involve a high level of mathematical and computational modeling which are of such vital currency within complexity theory. Also encouraging is that these efforts are interdisciplinary. Contributions to this Special Issue come from a diverse set of researchers whose primary fields of study include: physics, mathematics, computer science, law and education as well as the more traditional areas of psychology, sociology and management.

Many of the articles we received as possible submissions assumed the traditional point of view in which leadership is understood as resting in a particular person or small group of persons who exercise authority and control. Complexity science is then brought in order to gain insight into the leaders’ situation and decision processes. Yet, we were gratified to find that something else is going on as well: a complexity science perspective is beginning to grapple with the issue of just what the individual agency of a leader consists and how leadership can be more understood to emerge out of the complex dynamics of the system. This translates into complexity science understanding leadership more in terms of interaction and not personal attribute.

As editors, we find this development most promising. We have elected to follow this thread in an effort to take it where it leads us. In other words, for this Special Issue we consider leadership to be an emergent phenomenon among agents and events within complex social systems. Leadership thus serves a system level purpose in addition to its role in influencing individual level behaviors. What that purpose is and how leadership relates to individual agents within the system, to groups of agents, and to the system as a whole are the subjects explored by researchers in this Special Issue.

This issue of E:CO is also special because it provides a taste of much more to come in the form of an edited book on complexity and leadership that ISCE Publishing will be producing during 2007. That book will include the articles printed here plus approximately 15-20 additional papers on complexity and leadership.

Overview of contributions

The first paper, “Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems,” authored by Lichtenstein, Uhl-Bien, Marion, Seers, Orton and Schreiber, challenges readers to consider leadership not in terms of individuals operating in isolation as they influence their followers but, instead, as inherently interactive in nature. As such the article takes the perspective that leadership is better seen as an emergent phenomenon that arises from interactions and events. The authors call this adaptive leadership, but they are also aware that it is not enough to say that leadership emerges through interactions in events because each of the agents involved has a history, including memory of prior interactions and prior events.

The next article in the series, “Generative leadership: Nurturing innovation in complex systems” by Surie and Hazy, moves the adaptive leadership discussion forward by looking more deeply at how and under what conditions disparate interactions and seemingly disconnected events result in emergent innovations and adaptation. The authors describe a case study of an Indian automobile manufacturer which illustrates how interactions are key to adaptive leadership, in particular how interactions can build within complex systems to the point where innovation flourishes. Five distinct aspects of agent interactions in organizations are described.

The next four articles use computational models to explore aspects of those interaction processes giving rise to leadership. The first one, “Towards an understanding of membership and leadership in youth organizations: Sudden changes in average participation due to the behavior of one individual,” authored by Phelps and Hubler, employs an agent based simulation to investigate the affect of one person on the rest of a social network, in particular, the issue of how a factor of “benefit” plays a key role. Their model suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that if the average benefits for the group changes gradually, the average participation changes suddenly but with a delay. This delay in turn is dependent on the degree of outside influences. Their model also examines the role of incentives in prompting participation in the social network.

The research strategy of the next article, “The emergence of effective leaders. An experimental and computational approach,” authored by Dal Forno and Merlone, offers a unique twist by first conducting an initial human subject experiment and then using those findings in establishing an agent based computational model. This article explores a number of important factors regarding leadership within a social network, e.g., under what conditions may individuals emerge as effective leaders? What is the affect of individual and group “profits” regarding perceived inequity? What are the characteristics of the “fair” leader.

It is commonly held that simulations, following the general direction of complexity research, should be non-hierarchical in nature, that is, heterarchical and self-organizational. Certainly, a powerful benefit stemming from this assumption has been a needed correction to the traditional top-down, command and control view of leadership. But the real world works in terms of both heterarchy and hierarchy. This is not just a concession to reality - it turns out that hierarchy or centralized control may have a crucial role to play in the well functioning of organization. Such is the perspective of Solow and Szmerekovsky in their article, “The Role of leadership: What management science can give back to the study of complex systems.” Solow and Szmerekovsky explore simulations in which centralized organization is brought about thus enabling leaders to exercise control on other agents’ behavior. The authors point out that research along their lines can shift the typical directionality of research influence from complexity science being applied to organizational theory, to how the study of centralized constraint mechanisms in organizations, and the high levels of performance that may be made possible by such centralized control, can aid the complexity sciences. The authors ask the vastly important question: How much control should be exercised.

In the last paper of this modeling section of E:CO, “Leadership style as an enabler of complex functioning and innovation in a network organization,” the authors, Schreiber and Carley, explore the impact of different behavior patterns on network structure in the case where a formal leader is designated. Using a technique called dynamic network analysis, differences in emergent network structure are observed and measured. Data gathered from an actual work team in the field were used to model the team communication and activities using agent-based techniques. Two different social styles were embedded in the agent occupying the role of formal leader. Different network structures are shown to emerge when only that difference is present. Moreover, the article hints at the nature of the structural attractors that can emerge in socio-technical systems to direct action and decision-making in teams.

In this issue, E:CO’s Complexity and Philosophy section also takes up leadership and complexity, but with a focus on the dialectic between complexity and simplicity. In “Leadership as the promise of simplification,” Harter proposes a critical linkage between leadership and simplification even amid all the usual buzz about the complexity of complex systems. In this manner, Harter’s aim can be understood as following along a similar direction to a previous philosophy paper in E:CO, Cilliers’s “On the importance of a certain slowness,” (Issue 8.3, 2006) which called attention to the need for a “slow down” for better appreciating what’s complex about complex systems and thereby how to more successfully navigate through them. Harter similarly asks how to navigate when various differentiations in the system appear to proliferate without end. The challenge for leaders is how to achieve some measure of requisite simplification while at the same time not reducing that aspect of diversity responsible for change, adaptation, and energy.

For the Classical Paper Section, we believe we are offering our readers a special treat: an excerpt from Chester Barnard’s classic work, The Functions of the Executive. Herbert Simon credited Barnard with pioneering many of the systems concepts that are fundamental to today’s organization science scholarship. We agree, and we also feel that many of his insights, particularly as they relate to leadership, have been neglected. We hope that by reading this short excerpt, many of you will be motivated to dust off your own or your library’s copy, curl up in a comfortable reading chair and dive in again. Much of what needs to be done to move forward with a theory of complex systems leadership is motivated by Barnard’s words, borne as they are from his broad experience and deep intellect. We hope you enjoy it!

Finally, as we put this collection together we had many objectives. To close, however, we would like to focus on just one. We believe that to move this science forward it would be helpful to generate a common lexicon with a certain degree of consistency among terms and constructs. Each of the articles collected in this volume, and, of course, previous ones as well, makes a contribution to this developing lexicon. It is sort of like an emerging Wikipedia of “Complex Systems Leadership Theory (CSLT)”. Indeed, some of us have begun defining terms relating to complex systems leadership theory on and heartily welcome readers to make contributions to this effort.

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