Exploring the enabling function of complexity leadership, with a theoretical/praxis-based partnership ... down on the farm

Ali Sumner
Curtin University, AUS

Toby Whittington
CEO Green World Revolution Ltd., AUS


This paper focuses on the operationalizing of enabling leadership, a theoretical construct drawn from Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT). It presents a case study that explores the practical application of this construct by co-founders of a not-for-profit organization based in Western Australia. The case study considers a pattern of interrelated co-actions between the two founders of Green World Revolution (GWR) over a period of six years as they strived to develop an enterprising social innovation idea into a sustainable not-for-profit organization. It is proposed these co-actions constituted enabling leadership behaviors that significantly contributed to the development of GWR from a concept envisioned by its founders in 2012 to becoming a registered charity in 2018 capable of providing jobs for long-term unemployed Australians with commercial urban farming and horticultural-based initiatives. In conclusion, this paper proposes that consideration of the enabling leadership behaviors of the kind presented in this paper could catalyze further research into the functions of enabling leadership within the context of social innovation.


This paper presents a lived-experience case study of how Green World Revolution (GWR) developed over a six-year period with its co-founders operationalizing enabling leadership, a theoretical construct drawn from Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) to develop GWR as a social enterprise. It describes the development of GWR as a Western Australian not-for-profit organization from a concept envisaged by its co-founders in 2012 to stabilization of GWR as a registered charity in 2018.

The authors of this paper are also the co-founders of GWR, therefore for easier understanding of both the theoretical constructs and real-time issues covered in this paper the authors are referred to as F1 and F2. Furthermore, the growth of GWR over a six-year period was informed by theoretical constructs drawn from work conducted by F2 as a PhD candidate. These constructs also informed the theoretical development of this paper. In addition, the case study presented in this paper was informed by the lived experience of F1 and F2 consciously making an effort to adopt a complexity leadership approach with their work as CEO (F1) and Chairperson (F2) of GWR since its inception in 2012.

This paper will firstly provide an explanation of Generative Emergence (GE) and CLT. Secondly, using the analytical frame provided by the five phases of GE (Lichtenstein, 2014; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009), it will explore the development of GWR over a six-year period. Thirdly the paper will provide practice-based accounts of co-actions undertaken by F1 and F2 over a sustained period and propose these co-actions constitute enabling leadership behaviors, enabling leadership being one of the three leadership functions promulgated by CLT as being more appropriate for 21st Century organizations than traditional leadership constructs (Hazy & Uhl-Bien, 2013; Marion & Uhl Bien, 2011; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2007).

The paper will close with a discussion that proposes the inter-related co-actions of the two founders of GWR, operationalized enabling leadership over a six-year period in a way that significantly helped GWR survive and thrive as an innovative social enterprise, through phases of GE during its formative years.

Generative emergence

Litchtenstein (2014: 1) maintains emergence is the "creation of order" and therefore a primary characteristic of a human organization as a complex adaptive system (CAS), 'order' being the formation of new properties and structures. Whilst an organization is perceived as a distinct entity recognizable by such things as its logo or the effect of its activities, Lichtenstein (2014: 2) proposes 'organization' is an emergent property that does not exist in its employees and founders because "it arises as a whole system out of the combined interactions and relationships of elements, while not existing in any one of these elements". Emergence is a becoming of organization that was not there before parts of the system became interdependent (Lichtenstein 2014: 5) and GE specifically, is considered to be a process of five phases that will happen at any time given the right conditions, these phases being: Disequilibrium Organizing, Stress and Experiments, Amplification and Critical Events, New Order Through Recombinations and Stabilizing Feedback (Lichtenstein, 2008; 2014; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009).

Generative emergence phase one: Disequilibrium organizing

Within the context of organizational creation GE commences when a founder experiences opportunity tension, this being a founder's internal drive; personal intention in conjunction with their perception of a business opportunity, plus their aspiration and the tension that comes when their aspiration is far from current reality. (Lichtenstein, 2014: 24). Disequilibrium organizing is a "notable movement away from stability and toward dis-equilibrium which sparks emergent change processes", with a founder's intentional actions operationalized into a set of organizing activities such as becoming a legal entity (Lichtenstein, 2014; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009).

Generative emergence phase two: Stress and experiments

Stress (personal or fiscal) occurs when the system is pushed into a state of high pressure and uncertainty. With this comes experiments, new ideas, spontaneous actions and unique behaviors to reduce the stress and take advantage of the opportunity, with one of these becoming "the seed of new order" and the "basic frame around which a new system can emerge" (Lichtenstein, 2014: 24).

Generative emergence phase three: Amplification and critical events

Because the system seeks to retain its current structure stress and experiments will be 'dampened' by the system. Beyond a certain threshold however these fluctuations will be amplified, taking the entire system to a "critical event" which is something that usually becomes clear after the fact and with "retrospective sensemaking" about the dramatic decisions that totally altered the system (Litchtenstein, 2014: 25).

Generative emergence phase four: New order through recombinations

The result of a critical event is new order where something emerges or everything "dissipates into failure". When successful however, a rapid shift with "punctuated change" occurs through a recombination of all the elements that are already "in the system" and the addition of new resources acquired from "across the social ecology" (Lichtenstein, 2014: 25).

Generative emergence phase five: Stabilizing feedback

Stabilizing feedback occurs when things happen that re-enforce the new order such as new routines being adopted and strengthened, formal ties being made with new stakeholders or critical goals being achieved. This stabilizing feedback retains the new order that has emerged. However, if a system responds to an emergent new order with destabilizing feedback this can push the system back into a critical mode (Lichtenstein, 2014: 321).

Complexity leadership

Since the turn of the 21st Century complexity researchers have been focusing on non-traditional notions of organizational leadership. This has resulted in the study of leadership being completely reframed from focusing on the 'leader' to focusing on what constitutes 'leadership' as a dynamic organizationally integrated process. (Geer-Frazier 2014; Goldstein et al., 2010; Lichtenstein et al., 2006; Lotrecchiano, 2010; McCellan, 2010).

Unlike traditional leadership constructs complexity leadership is conceived as the on-going simultaneous and unpredictable interactions between heterogeneous agents, where agents recognize the meaning of a given exchange and adjust their behavior in response, resulting in the system itself changing as it becomes 'fitter' through learning, innovation and adaptation (Hazy et al., 2007; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009, Uhl-Bien et al., 2007).

Specifically, the rationale provided by CLT for re-framing leadership is firstly that an organization is a CAS and traditional leadership models do not account for this. Secondly an organization as a CAS needs to be fit, 'fitness' being the capacity to thrive through change and adaptivity when required (Osborn & Marion, 2009, Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009). CLT also provides a theoretical "framework" of organizational-based leadership by describing complexity leadership as being relative to three organizational-based functions, these being adaptive leadership, administrative leadership and enabling leadership functions (Hazy & Uhl-Bien, 2013; Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2011; Uhl-Bien et al, 2007).

Adaptive leadership function of complexity leadership

Rather than an act of 'leading', adaptive leadership is an 'event' that occurs when heterogeneous agents constantly interact through thoughts, language and actions (Lichtenstein et al., 2006; Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). Intentional acts of interdependent individuals or groups coupled with CAS dynamics and enabling conditions result in system characteristics of adaptability; learning and creativity. These characteristics being a requirement for an organization as a CAS to survive within the context of its ever-changing environment (Geer-Frazier, 2014; Lichtenstein et al., 2006; Lichtenstein & Plowman, 2009; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009; Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). Adaptive leadership is therefore considered to be a generative dynamic that is not residing in the behavior of an individual but in the intentional interactive acts of many interdependent individuals. In contrast to this dynamic, the administrative and enabling dimensions of complexity leadership are formal behaviors (roles) that can be specifically adopted by an individual (Lichtenstein et al., 2007; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009).

Administrative leadership function of complexity leadership

Administrative leadership behaviors instigate alignment and control. For example encouraging or insisting on people operating in alignment with policies, specific strategies or general 'ways of doing things' within an organization. This type of behavior provides the necessary constraining conditions for novel structures made possible by adaptive leadership to emerge. (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007; Goldstein et al., 2010).

Enabling leadership function of complexity leadership

Enabling leadership is often associated with formal managerial positions and consists of behaviors that are effective for managing the entanglement between bureaucratic constraints of administrative leadership and the emergent functions of adaptive leadership, with the aim of keeping an organization 'fit' rather than 'leading' others in the traditional sense of the leader-follower dynamic (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2011: 366). This ensures sufficient constraints for an organization to be organized enough to respond to threats from its environment, but not so many constraints it loses its capacity to be adaptive in response to constant change (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007: 305).

Generative emergence down on the farm

This paper will now explore the development of GWR over a six-year period by applying the analytical frame of GE. It will then focus on a set of co-actions F1 and F2 operated with throughout this period and which this paper proposes constitute enabling leadership behaviors.

GWR generative emergence phase one: Disequilibrium organizing

Lichtenstein (2014: 179) distinguishes two dimensions of disequilibrium organizing that entrepreneurs can engage in. The first being characterized by opportunity tension that comes from an initial motivation to pursue a business opportunity. The second being characterized by undertaking actions that "shakes up the order of things", thereby creating disequilibrium to take a company to a new level of capacity. This paper identifies the founding of GWR in 2012 as being within the first dimension of disequilibrium organizing that is associated with pursuing a business opportunity.

For almost 20 years prior to co-founding GWR, F1 was a small business proprietor firstly in the arts industry and then in the fashion industry. Committed to environmental sustainability from an early age by 2012 he was actively planting 'gorilla gardens' on non-vegetated areas throughout his local community. With insights gained from reading about urban farming in cities outside Australia, F1 believed there was an opportunity to grow and sell fresh produce to restaurants in a way that would environmentally improve Western Australia's capital city, while at the same time creating jobs. He shared his passion and 'business hunch' in several conversations with F2 who had been involved with the development of not-for-profit organizations for over 30 years.

Soon after these conversations the Western Australian Government announced a one-off Social Innovation Fund (SEF) for not-for-profit organizations. Recognizing this as a rare opportunity F2 proposed that she and F1 could establish a not-for-profit social enterprise; apply for funding and pilot the development of an urban farm. In mid-2012 Green World Revolution became a not-for-profit Limited by Guarantee Company with F2 as the Chair of a Board of Directors and F1 as a Director and GWR's founding CEO. By the end of 2012 GRW had AU$50,000 from SEF to pilot the development of an urban farm. With no experience or qualifications in any form of farming F1 had mixed feelings about this opportunity. Whilst he was passionate about urban farming from an environmental perspective and further to this committed to growing jobs for people who didn't have any, once GWR became a legal entity F1 was faced with the decision to wind up his long-term fashion business designing bespoke outfits for private clients for at least AU$6000 each, to build an urban farm somewhere in Western Australia's capital city with no guarantee of a regular income.

I felt absolutely like I didn't know what I was doing, I just felt nervous, like what have I got myself into, really nervous but excited at the same time, lots of mixed emotions, I felt under a lot of pressure not knowing if I could do it all, but I had to give it a go, I had a give it a go attitude, just see how it goes.

Similarly, F2 had mixed feelings having helped persuade several people to be members of the GWR founding Board of Directors and therefore be legally responsible for the development of GWR, when realistically the only thing that existed was a concept for a pilot project written in a funding application.

I was feeling very excited because we had obtained the finance to get started and what we wanted to do was such a great thing both environmentally and from a social impact perspective, I was very motivated to help make it work but I didn't know what was going to happen, whether we could, whether we couldn't, but just went ahead and believed we could.

GWR generative emergence phase two: Stress and experiments

By January 2013 GWR had six months before running out of SEF funding to make a pilot farm commercially viable on a vacant lot that F1 had persuaded a local business owner to 'loan' to GWR for the duration of the pilot. Unexpectedly, a month before completing the pilot project GWR was offered an opportunity by another not-for-profit organization to manage its inner-city complex. By August 2013 GWR had entered a 15-month contract with another organization, becoming responsible for the management of a large complex; several Australian Government funded Work-For-The-Dole (WFTD)1 programs involving up to 40 unemployed people every day for four days a week; a weekly farmers' market and a 1000 square meter community garden growing produce for sale at the market.

At the same time, after successfully completing the pilot project GWR obtained a long-term lease on a 400 square meter property in East Perth only 10 minutes from the Perth CBD and started commercially supplying produce to Perth restaurants with deliveries on an electric bike. By late 2013 with FI as its only full-time staff member GWR was therefore running its own urban farm and on behalf of another organization managing eight staff, 10 volunteers and dozens of WFTD participants. Personal and fiscal stress was becoming apparent. By February 2014 this stress was greatly exacerbated when the Board of the other organization were voted out at the organization's Annual General Meeting, instigating a bitter deterioration in the alliance between the two organizations and GWR making a quick exit from this relationship at the end of the management contact in late 2014. This phase of stress and experiments is summarized by F2:

We were inventing everything we were doing, we were like pioneers, there was no-one to follow or to tell us how to do it. Then as well as this for almost two years so many of our conversations both between me and F1 and with our Board were about solving another organization's problems while we were trying to make our own urban farm financially sustainable. Our small nascent organization was greatly stressed trying to make urban farming work, going through a huge learning curve with running WFTD programs and with a focus more on managing another organization's operations, our own farming operations were suffering with part-time employees and volunteers making all kinds of decisions that weren't the best for GWR. Oh ... plus F1 as CEO was also going through a marriage breakup at the time and subsequently a divorce. Yes, we were definitely becoming a stressed system!

However, by the end of 2014 GWR had worked with over 300 unemployed people and with much experimentation had developed processes for successfully inducting and helping long-term unemployed adults gain job ready skills within the context of the Government's highly restrictive WFTD program. Therefore, by March 2015 GWR became an official 'Job Host' contracted by an Australian Government Job Service Provider to develop WFTD programs on its own urban farm in East Perth, the rationale being WFTD programs provided one of the few ways GRW could make consistent and extensive contact with unemployed people. Delivering WFTD programs also provided GWR with a significant income from the fees the Government provided to deliver WFTD activities.

To accommodate these programs there was no respite however in experimenting, trialing and re-inventing a plethora of processes. GWR had to develop its first WFTD program for up to 20 long-term unemployed adults coming full-time four days a week to its small all-weather urban farm with only a construction site toilet, outdoor staff facilities and no 'office'. In addition most WFTD participants knew very little about any form of gardening and none of them knew anything about urban farming.

Simultaneously, each week GWR was delivering to over 30 restaurants throughout Perth and constantly experimenting in urban farm production to accommodate the unpredictable needs of these wholesale clients. By this stage GWR was trying to grow its presence with the Western Australian hospitality industry, focusing on the production of gourmet-priced micro-greens and small leaf produce suitable for urban farming on small sections of land, in competition with well-established broad-acre farming corporations supplying low-priced traditional green-leaf produce and root vegetables. GWR urban farming activities in 2015 is shown in Photo 1.


Photo 1: GWR urban farming activities in 2015

The tension between the reality of only have one small urban farm and envisioning many employment opportunities by scaling up to many urban farms while operating competitively against well-resourced, well established suppliers was palpable, as expressed by F1:

We were working with long-term unemployed people and experiencing real positive change in their attitudes, feelings and sense of well-being, so many of them kept telling us their WFTD experience with us was the best they'd had and at the same time I couldn't escape the alarming fact we were still struggling to make even one farm work from a commercial perspective, all our resources were stretched to the limit trying to deal with this paradox.

GWR generative emergence phase three: Amplification and critical events

Given the financial support from the Australian Government to run WFTD programs and the consistently positive feedback from at least 95% of WFTD participants involved with GWR, at the beginning of 2015 the GWR Board were confident becoming a Job Host for WFTD programs was the right choice for GWR as a not-for-profit social enterprise. However, as F1 explains, amplification of stress was guaranteed:

For over two years we battled all the restrictions associated with the WFTD scheme that impacted on our ability to help unemployed people, meanwhile absolutely every aspect of GWR's operations kept changing to make everything work better, not just to become more cost effective while growing the number of restaurants we supplied and then keeping them as satisfied customers but so we could up-skill long-term unemployed people and at the same time support them to more effectively handle the multiple issues they were grappling with, like being homeless or almost illiterate, or just not having enough money to even get to our urban farm to fulfil their WFTD requirements.

By October 2016 GWR was operating a second farm also within 10 minutes of the Perth CBD; had worked with over 400 long-term unemployed adults; successfully provided some form of paid work for 15 previously unemployed people and was supplying between 30-40 restaurants. However, with these expanded operations organizational stress continued to build, as expressed by F2:

Gradually by de-fault we had become dependent on WFTD funding, with a great deal of effort placed into making our WFTD programs work with F1 providing intensive mentoring and me as Chair engaged in weekly inductions and going to the farms to help up-skill WFTD participants when needed. Meanwhile we had become less and less capable of building our income streams from other sources, F1 as our CEO had become a WFTD supervisor more than anything else so expanding our customer base which was crucial for us to be a successful social enterprise was stagnating, we found ourselves in the project-dependent state that many not-for-profits fall into, this was very frustrating and actually, alarming.

In April 2017 a radical decision was made by F1 to stop GWR's management of WFTD programs, albeit by this time being funded to deliver these programs was GWR's main income stream rather than sales from urban farm produce. This decision, endorsed by F2 and then accepted by the GWR Board, immediately impacted on GWR's cash flow, greatly exacerbated fiscal tension and created an atmosphere of organizational gloom, described by F1 as:

A sense of disappointed and alarm. How could we help or even get in contact with long-term unemployed people to be able to help them get jobs with GWR or anyone else if we dropped our involvement with the WFTD scheme?

Whilst the decision to cease delivering WFTD programs seemed counter-intuitive both F1 and F2 agree it was a 'critical event' from which a new-type of GWR eventually emerged, as explained by F1:

Pulling back from the WFTD was frightening. The drop in our income was immediate and big so we had no choice but to make a huge effort to re-focus on making our urban farming activities profitable, this was a big turning point, it forced us to stop playing around with the idea of 'doing some good in the world' and work out how to become a sustainable commercially focused enterprise to make this actually happen.

At the same time GWR was enacting this major decision the local economy started to suffer from a severe downturn in the Western Australian mining industry. Exiting the WFTD system therefore took GWR to what could be loosely described as the 'edge of chaos'. Within two months staff who had previously suffered from long-term unemployment prior to working with GWR had their hours of work significantly reduced. To maintain consistent supply of fresh produce to GWR's wholesale customers F1 also had to work on urban farming operational tasks with a reduced salary and then a fluctuating salary in accordance with fluctuating sales with restaurants. The outcome of these structural changes was FI becoming more and more aware that GWR was operating inefficiently, making GWR particularly vulnerable in a highly competitive marketplace. Simultaneously, for various personal reasons 50% of GWR's Directors indicated they intended to resign from the Board.

GWR generative emergence phase four: New order through recombinations

F1 recalls the change occurring with GWR by the end of 2017, as follows:

Because we'd taken the drastic step of not seeking income associated with WFTD, GWR was starting to look and feel different because out of necessity we were changing how we operated and we were also changing because of who we were negotiating with and the kinds of connections we were making in the broader environment outside our urban farming wholesaling network.

With a significant recombination of resources, operations and personnel to deal with GWR's decision to stop generating income from the delivery of WFTD programs, by the beginning of 2018 GWR had avoided dissipating into failure. These recombinations included F1 starting to restructure GWR's urban farming processes to include higher yield intensive indoor farming as well as ground-based farming and GWR applying for and then obtaining charity status with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) and Deductable Gift Recipient status with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). F1 and F2 also sourced new GWR Directors with more extensive corporate networking connections, changing once again the interactions and relationships at the Board level.

GWR generative emergence phase five: Stabilizing feedback

By the end of 2018 GWR had obtained a significant donation from a private sector donor that covered the cost of GWR's research and development associated with restructuring its operations into intensive indoor farming in addition to ground-based farming, this included establishing a new line of produce after successfully researching and developing mushroom farming. New horticultural-based services had been developed and long-term contracts signed with two organizations to deliver these services; F1's salary increased to CEO level and GWR had also increased hours of work for its employees as well as providing more work for other long-term unemployed people. It had also gained considerable media attention which had helped stabilize its position as an innovative Western Australian social enterprise. The GWR Board was strategizing with F1 and F2 to develop a sustainable plan for attracting corporate and private donors; F1 and F2 were attracting sponsors and donations after pro-actively connecting with new networks; GWR was negotiating the long-term lease of new premises to fit-out sea containers as small urban farms. GWR's urban farm produce was also re-branded as Eat Good. Do Good. Be Good™, branding that reflected GWR's commitment to providing fresh nutritious produce, grow jobs for unemployed people and be environmentally sustainable in its operations. Reflecting on these actions and snowballing stabilizing feedback, F1 summarizes GWR's position in late 2018:

It felt like we had come to a plateau that was stable with steady growth assured, gaining support from donors and sponsors gave me a lot of breathing space, F2 and I plus our newish Board now had the time and space to concentrate on strategically positioning GWR in readiness for scaling up our operations, we had a new business model developed for 2019-22 that for the first time incorporated how we could successfully deliver WFTD programs to transition previously unemployed people into our new style of urban farms, new branding ready for expansion and our piloting of indoor farming operations almost complete.

Complexity leadership down on the farm

Prior to co-founding GWR, both F1 and F2 were familiar with CLT and had often discussed concepts and propositions associated with this theory. F2 had first encountered CLT through academic work as a PhD candidate and had designed and delivered an action learning program to help Western Australian women in managerial positions to operationalize Complexity Leadership constructs. Both co-founders were also familiar with complexity science constructs, including the characteristics of a CAS and both where very disposed to acknowledging complexity and developing a 21st Century organization that operated within this context; they understood the difference between emergence and emergents and when they co-founded GWR deliberately tried to apply the functions of enabling leadership.

Therefore, F1 and F2 have identified four co-actions they have consistently operated with as co-Founders of GWR that they consider to be enabling leadership behaviours, describing them as: hearing the system, responding adaptively, disposition-based relating and focused cognition. 'Actions' being defined by this paper as a combination of purposeful ways of doing things; ways of perceiving and responding to situations and events. 'Co-actions' being defined as actions undertaken in unison by two or more people. The co-actions developed by F1 and F2 will now be explained and then discussed in relation to the enabling leadership function of complexity leadership and the GE phases of GWR as it developed over the period 2012-18.

Hearing the system

When GWR co-Founders experience various unexpected situations that seem to be positive, negative or just interesting, they make a deliberate effort to discuss with each other what might be happening from a complexity perspective by focusing on perceiving incidents and 'emergents' systemically and conceptually rather than fixating on the 'content' of what is happening. For example, when GWR stopped being involved in the WFTD scheme and F1 became more involved operationally with GWR's employees to help maintain the delivery of produce on time and at the quality demanded by wholesale customers, FI spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with production problems. GWR employees responsible for fresh food production had been previously unemployed, obtaining jobs with GWR after completing GWR WFTD projects. Whilst this WFTD experience included a great deal of skilling in GWR operations, inefficiencies; produce wastage and ad-hoc production processes had become embedded in GWR's urban farming operations. These problems were considered by F1 and F2 from a perspective of what they refer to as "hearing the system", as explained by F1:

After spending some time observing what was going on we took a deliberate step back from the details of what wasn't working, this meant forgetting about who was involved, my frustrations, or analyzing what was said, when and by whom. We then recognized that everything that was going on was a series of separate siloed activities, there was little connection between individual employees and no-one understanding the 'big picture' or the necessity for GWR to be a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

With this perspective of what was going on 'down on the farm', F1 instigated new conversations with employees as to how important their work was to the success of GWR and therefore GWR's ability to give them more work; re-designed GWR's supply chain processes to better connect employees with each other and gave employees opportunities to gradually come to understand the inter-related nature of GWR as a dynamic 'living system'. This included helping them to understand that their role in keeping the system alive and well was more than just undertaking a list of jobs each day when they came to work on the farm.

Responding adaptively

GWR co-founders, whilst always making the effort to 'hear the system' rather than be blinded by the minutiae of in-the moment activities, also understand the incomprehensibility of complex systems and therefore operated with an action-learning perspective. This approach is explained by F1:

Rather than trying to predict what might happen by over-analyzing everything and then jumping to conclusions, F2 and I have a clear understanding that we can't predict the unpredictable with a dynamic living system like an organization, so we try to stop each other from second-guessing what might or might not occur and put more emphasis on adapting quickly when faced with an unexpected and possibly unwelcome issue or a problem.

Consequently F1 and F2 support each other to remain patient, not jump to conclusions and wait for a situation to 'unfold'. However, they move into action quickly and precisely when they perceive an opportunity that must be taken or at least explored to see what might happen next. This wait-and-see then jump-into-action process is guided by a deep understanding of and commitment to GWR's social enterprise purpose: to help relieve poverty by growing jobs for long-term unemployed Australians. For F1 and F2, responding adaptively also means a co-action process of always learning from everything that happens and making adaptations to their behavior, processes and operations informed by what has been learned. As F1 puts it:

We guard against making assumptions, we always try to challenge what we are doing and stay open as much as possible to changing how we do things to achieve our overarching purpose, helping alleviate poverty by growing sustainable jobs.

Disposition-based relating

Forming disposition-based relationships is the driver for all decisions made by F1 and F2 regarding which organizations and individuals they are prepared to form business relationships with on behalf of GWR. This approach drives their choices relating to business networking and business opportunities generally. Furthermore, this disposition-based relating is also underpinned by the deep commitment to GWR's purpose as a social enterprise, as explained by F2:

We have an intuitive understanding between us when we meet people who want to form some kind of relationship with GWR, particularly business-to-business relationships. We will immediately hold back from sharing information or be completely open and share everything about GWR, the good and the not so good, purely on the basis of our unspoken evaluation as to whether the people we are dealing with have the same disposition as us towards solving social and environmental problems. We do this by letting other people talk and by asking them more questions at first than telling them about us. Then we talk to them about GWR in a way were we can get their response to various things that reflect our purpose. And I guess the values that underpin that purpose, then we listen, we listen a lot, if one of us is talking the other one is listening and watching, if people are talking to us we listen and ask probing questions to find out whether people genuinely have the same values, motivations and attitudes as us.

Focused cognition

For at least a decade prior to establishing GWR both F1 and F2 used Edward de Bono's thinking tools and processes including the Six Thinking Hats; specific Lateral Thinking tools and Power of Perception thinking tools for quality decision making and problem solving (de Bono, 1986; 2009a; 2009b). Gaining accreditation as an instructor and delivering de Bono's proprietary training programs in these thinking tools since 2000, F2 had also trained, mentored and coached over 2000 people in de Bono's thinking tools and processes prior to becoming the Chairperson of GWR, including training and mentoring F1 from around 2003.

Therefore, conversations between F1 and F2 about GWR issues, problems or tasks are always driven by a clearly and precisely articulated focus as to what they want to achieve with their thinking together or with other people. This is done by applying de Bono's Purpose Focus or Area Focus thinking tools (de Bono, 1992; 2009a). Also, F1 and F2 seldom enter meetings with other people, without meeting together beforehand and defining a very clear Purpose Focus for the thinking they want to achieve during the meeting. In addition, all GWR Board meetings are conducted using de Bono's Six Thinking Hats and agenda items are always framed as Purpose Focuses so everyone understands what they need to achieve with their thinking, individually and collectively when using the Six Thinking Hats.

Furthermore, if there is any disagreement or friction building between F1 and F2, to prevent any further adversarial thinking and to "think together" more productively rather than "against each other" they consciously and deliberately start using the Six Thinking Hats and other appropriate de Bono thinking tools. This includes establishing a clear, mutually agreed Purpose Focus so they are both going in the same direction with their thinking, not polarizing against each other.

Whilst de Bono's thinking tools are not always used on all occasions F1 and F2 communicate with each other or on all occasions with employees or other people they meet with, these tools are always drawn on and formally used when strategic thinking is required; difficult or complicated problems must be resolved; new and innovative ideas are needed and always with Board meetings. Enabling other people to use these thinking tools is also integral to the way F1 and F2 have operated as co-founders of GWR. The importance of de Bono's thinking tools for them to be focused and creative with their thinking is explained by F2, as follows:

We had used de Bono's thinking tools together for many years before establishing GWR so we both knew the value of these tools and it was automatic for us to imbed them into the way we operated as co-founders of GWR. Knowing what thinking and what thinking tools to use to effectively solve problems and come up with innovative ideas together, is distinctly our way of doing things as GWR CEO and Chairperson.

Inter-relationship of co-actions

Exactly when the GWR co-founders co-act with 'hearing the system', 'responding adaptively', 'disposition-based relating' or 'cognitive focusing' is a contextual issue. These co-actions are determined by the circumstances they find themselves in or when they proactively choose to adopt them to deal with an unexpected problem or an opportunity. Although some were more prominent than others over the period of the case study, often they were inter-related and all happening at the same time in response to unexpected occurrences both external to and within GWR, as explained by F2:

We both agree that what we call 'cognitive focusing' has been essential with the development of GWR. But mostly, we think it's all of the co-actions we have identified, being inter-related and activated by us on-demand when unexpected things happen, that accounts for GWR's adaptivity and ability to survive. 'Responding adaptively' is always activated when we encounter new opportunities or unknown uncertainties and always guided by our 'cognitive focusing'. I guess 'hearing the system' has been more prominent when we are not sure what might be going on in the environment around us, or what's going on with the internal culture of GWR, so probably it's been more prominent when things have been most tense or unsettling. I definitely remember being aware of us making a big effort with 'hearing the system' during what we recognize now as the first stress and experiment phase of GWR's development. 'Disposition-based relating' has always been the way we have operated with other people but increased during 2018 because we are now much more active developing new networks and being very proactive about that.


Enabling leadership should foster interdependency where the well-being of one interacting agent is dependent on another, so information is refined or realigned in ways that contribute to the co-evolution of ideas and new information keeps emerging, this being "energy flow" within the system. (Hazy & Uhl-Bien, 2013; Uhl-Bien et al., 2007; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009). In addition enabling leadership should foster internal tension that has the potential to engender learning and creativity. In other words, enabling leadership is about creating conditions where there is an imperative for networked agents to be knowledgeable, creative and adaptive (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009).

In relation to fostering tension, Uhl-Bien et al., (2007: 311) maintain, the role of people in upper and middle-level management engaged in enabling leadership is to inject "seeds of emergence" or perturbations (shocks) into the system. This could be in the form of ideas, information, strategically placed resources or new people, the intention being to stimulate the networked system of agents.

The interrelated co-actions of GWR co-founders over the formative period of GWR's first six years appear to demonstrate many of the characteristics of enabling leadership. For example: hearing the system involved a deliberate attempt to be aware of system dynamics and develop a new perspective about the essential nature of GWR as it developed as a CAS, also enabling the co-founders themselves to foster interdependence; responding adaptively helped "inject seeds of emergence" with the co-founders' wait-and-see then jump-into-action approach; both responding adaptively and disposition-based relating fostered the conditions for tension by constantly changing in response to unexpected things emerging; withholding immediate reactions and not forming relationships in a predictable and expected manner. Cognitive focusing ensured that new ideas and innovation was a constant ante-dote to excessive systemic tension as well as over-stabilization and also appears to have been the 'glue' that bonded the founders' co-actions into a dynamic set of cognitive behaviors, ensuring a constant flow of ideas, information and serious creativity.

When discussing the conditions for emergence Lichtenstein (2014: 396) suggests that a parallel approach to adopting behaviors associated with the three dimensions of Complexity Leadership, to create the conditions for emergence to occur, is to identify behaviors that correlate with emergence and proposes a set of such behaviors: disrupt existing patterns, encourage novelty, sensemaking and sensegiving, leadership for stabilization.

The co-actions of GWR's founders appear to also be appropriate for creating the conditions for emergence to occur, as proposed by Lichtenstein (2014: 396-402). . Hearing the system being a form of complexity-based sensemaking; responding adaptively constantly encouraging novel approaches to be adopted throughout GWR's operations, particularly when combined with cognitive focusing and the use of de Bono's thinking tools for creating new ideas on-demand. When inter-related the founder's co-actions also enabled a balance between constant change and innovation and the stabilization of processes, as a set these co-actions appear to correlate with leadership for stabilization.


After applying the analytical frame of Generative Emergence to construct a case study of an idea growing into a highly adaptive, sustainable organization and correlating the phases of Generative Emergence with Enabling Leadership as a function of Complexity Leadership, this paper proposes there is an opportunity for social innovation research and practice to consider the role of Complexity Leadership in tandem with the concepts of Generative Emergence. It also proposes that consideration of the Enabling Leadership behaviors of the kind presented in this paper could catalyze further research into these types of behaviors, within the context of growing sustainable social enterprises.


[1] Undertaking a Work-For-The-Dole Program is a requirement of the Australian Government for long-term unemployed people to continue receiving social welfare payments, after being unemployed for more than six months. WFTD programs are conducted by not-for-profit or Australian local government authorities with funding from the Australian Government to supervise WFTD participants and provide them with non-commercial work experience opportunities.


Brown, B.C. (2011). "Complexity leadership: An overview and key limitations," Integral Leadership Review, ISSN 1554-0790, link.

de Bono, E. (1986). Six Thinking Hats, ISBN 9780670813148.

de Bono, E. (1992). Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas, ISBN 9780002551434.

de Bono, E. (2009a). Lateral Thinking: Fast Track to Creativity, Advance Practical Thinking Training®, Certified Instructor Materials, The McQuaig Group Inc.

de Bono, E. (2009b). The Power of Perception: Ten Thinking Tools for Making Better Business Decisions, de Bono Thinking Systems® Inc, Certified Instructor Materials, The McQuaig Group Inc.

Goldstein, J., Hazy, J.K. and Lichtenstein, B.B. (2010). Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation, ISBN 97802306222702.

Goldstein, J., Hazy, J.K. and Silberstang, J. (2009). "Complexity, systems thinking, and social entrepreneurship: A future of possibilities in complexity science and entrepreneurship," in J. Goldstein, J.K. Hazy and J. Silberstang (eds.) , Complexity Science and Social Entrepreneurship. Adding Social Value through Systems Thinking, ISBN 9780984216406, pp. 111-132.

Geer-Frazier, B. (2014). "Complexity leadership generates innovation, learning, and adaptation of the organization," Emergence: Complexity & Organization, ISSN 1521-3250, 16 (3): 105-116.

Hazy, J.K., Goldstein, A.J. and Lichtenstein, B.B. (2007). "An emerging complexity paradigm in leadership research". in J.K. Hazy, J.J.A. Goldstein and B.B. Lichtenstein (eds.). Complex Systems Leadership Theory: New Perspectives from Complexity Science on Social and Organizational Effectiveness Volume 1, ISBN 9780979168864.

Hazy, J.K. and Uhl-Bien, M. (2013). "Toward Operationalizing complexity leadership: How generative, administrative and community-building leadership practices enact organizational outcomes," Leadership, ISSN 1742-7169, 11(1): 79-104.

Lichtenstein, B.B. (2008). "A scale-free theory of emergence, within, of and across organizations?" College of Management Working Papers and Reports, Paper 15, link.

Lichtenstein, B.B. (2014). Generative Emergence: A New Discipline of Organizational, Entrepreneurial and Social Innovation, ISBN 9780199933594.

Lichtenstein, B.B. and Plowman, D.A. (2009). "Leadership of emergence: A complex systems leadership theory of emergence at successive organizational levels," Leadership Quarterly, ISSN 1048-9843, 20: 617-630, link.

Lichtenstein, B.B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Orton, J.D. and Schrieber, C. (2006). "A matrix of complexity leadership: Fourteen disciplines of complex leadership theory. in J.K. Hazy, J.J.A. Goldstein and B.B. Lichenstein (eds.) Complex Systems Leadership Theory: New Perspectives from Complexity Science on Social and Organizational Effectiveness Volume 1, ISBN 9780979168864, pp. 129-140.

Lotrecchiano G.R. (2010). "Complexity leadership in Transdisciplinary (TD) learning environments: A knowledge feedback loop," International Journal Transdisciplinary Research, ISSN 1559-8020, 5(1): 29-53.

Marion, R. and Uhl-Bien, M. (2011). "Implications of complexity science for the study of leadership," in P. Allen, S. McGuire and B. McKelvey (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Complexity and Management, ISBN 9781847875693, pp. 355-370.

McCellan J.L. (2010). "Leadership and complexity implications of practice within the advisement leadership bodies at colleges and universities," Complicity, ISSN 1710-5668, 7(2): 32-51, link.

Marion, R. and Uhl-Bien, M. (2001). "Leadership in complex organizations," Leadership Quarterly, ISSN 1048-9843, 12(4): 389-418, link.

Marion, R. and Uhl-Bien, M. (2011). "Implications of complexity science for the study of leadership," in P. Allen, S. McGuire and B. McKelvey (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Complexity and Management, ISBN 9781847875693, pp. 355-370.

Morin, E. (2005). "Restricted complexity, general complexity," Translated by Carlos Gershenson. Paper presented at Intelligence de la complexite: 'epistemologie et pragmatique, Cerisy-La-Salle, France, 26 June, link.

Uhl-Bien, M. and Marion, R. (2009). "Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organizing: A meso model," The Leadership Quaterly, ISSN XXXX-XXXX, 20: 631-650, link.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R. and McKelvey, B. (2007). "Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era," Leadership Quarterly, ISSN 1048-9843, 18: 298-318, link.