9/24 – An Integral Theory Analysis of Complexity Leadership

Jim Best

Jim Best



Jim Best

Jim Best

In this paper I provide a description of complexity leadership theory and its antecedents in complexity science, and then use integral theory as a meta-theory to evaluate complexity leadership theory.  I will use Wilber’s AQAL model as interpreted by Forman and Ross, focusing on quadrants, lines, stages, and meaning-making systems.  Complexity leadership is important first because it acknowledges that organizations are complex adaptive systems (CAS) embedded in a complex world, and that the notion of organization as a simple causal-based machine that can be led and controlled with a traditional cybernetic command-and-control leadership approach is an inadequate model for most modern organizations.  Second, it recognizes that the problems of an industrial era organization are dramatically different from the problems of a knowledge era organization that requires high levels of innovation and dynamic adaptation, and the ability to quickly appreciate the organization’s human and social capital. Third, that complexity leadership is not about top-down design, but rather bottom-up organic growth that coexists with the command-and-control structures that currently coordinate the organization.


I have used “Complexity Leadership: Part 1 – Conceptual Foundations” (2008) edited by Mary Uhl-Bien and Russ Marion as the core text for understanding complexity leadership. Uhl-Bien, Marion, and Bill McKelvey are the primary authors of the theory but have attracted a number of other authors that use CAS concepts as antecedents for their leadership-related work. Together these authors provide a rich mixture of new thinking.

I have chosen Forman and Ross’ “Integral Leadership: The next half-step” (2013) to guide the analysis because it seems to be a good summary and interpretation of the primary sources for Integral Theory. Other sources are brought in as needed.

Searching on Google Scholar for “Integral Theory” AND “Complexity Leadership” anywhere in the article from 2000-2014 came up with only 12 results, none of which were an integral theory analysis of complexity leadership theory.  Perhaps it is premature to consider this body of work a theory.  Nevertheless, an analysis of what is extant is possible at this time.


Complexity Leadership Overview

Complexity leadership theory (CLT) has arisen as a relatively coherent body of thought within the last decade, primarily through the organizing work of Mary Uhl-Bien (University of Nebraska) and Russ Marion (Clemson University) with a growing group of scholars (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008).  Complexity leadership (CL) focus is first and foremost descriptive at the organizational level (Crosby, 2008) and secondarily at the team and individual levels. The unit of analysis in CL is the complex adaptive systems (CAS) aspect of the organization, rather than the individual or follower as it has been in much of the traditional leadership literature (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009). CLT is a reaction to the notion that organizations are increasingly seen by many scholars less as hierarchical monolithic structures designed to operate coherently under a command-and-control regime, and more as dynamic organic associations of intelligences with multiple and often conflicting goals at multiple levels with a high degree of interdependent relationships not defined by the official organizational structure. This is especially true as we move from a theory-of-the-firm that supports efficient physical product creation to a more services-based economy and firms that thrive on knowledge-era capabilities like adaptation, knowledge transfer, collaboration, and innovation in response to an unpredictable and dynamic environment.

CLT reasons that if a CAS framework is increasingly useful in describing complex organizations and the dynamic environment in which they operate, then understanding leadership in terms of CAS mechanisms will be useful in creating the conditions for leadership to emerge. In the words of Uhl-Bien et al (2008, p.187), “Complexity leadership theory (CLT) focuses on identifying and exploring the strategies and behaviors that foster organizational and subunit creativity, learning, and adaptability when appropriate CAS dynamics are enabled within the contexts of hierarchical coordination (i.e., bureaucracy).”

In the next sections the basic elements of a CAS are described and their application in the development of CLT.

Complexity Theory and CAS Theory

Following the outline of Ralph Stacey’s masterful recapitulation of complexity science development (Stacey, 2007), Jeffery Goldstein does a good job of surveying the main CAS concepts used in CLT and their antecedents in five decades of systems theory development.  He concludes “It can be plausibly asserted that CAS has assimilated most of the preceding material on complexity, not just in the sense of a grand synthesis, but, more to the point as prompting many innovative research initiatives out of this very synthesis” (Goldstein, 2008, p. 41).  Goldstein acknowledges key antecedent influences of current CAS theory – systems thinking, theoretical biology, nonlinear dynamical systems (NDS) theory, graph theory, phase transitions, and the unique contributions of recent complex adaptive systems theory around emergence.

Some examples of CAS theory antecedents follow.  A main contribution from systems thinking is feedback loops. Interlocking negative and positive feedback loops, along with the delays generated by stock and flow structures, make a system’s behavior “complex”. Negative feedback drives the closed system towards equilibrium (dampening fluctuations) and is the essence of cybernetic control. An actual state deviates from target state at which point the control system reduces that deviation iteratively to zero.  Biological systems thinking have deep implications for understanding organizational systems.  There is the focus on whole systems, and new levels of complexity with new behaviors at each level.  Optimization for the whole and the parts is not the same.  Homeostasis moves the system to an equilibrium point by absorbing fluctuations but does so from an open systems perspective.  Autopoiesis is about self-sustaining but not necessarily self-organizing or adapting.  NDS (non-dynamical systems) thinking brings in the theory of chaos, attractors, state space, phase transitions, bifurcation (jumps from one attractor to another), iteration, and fractals.  Systems naturally go through a kind of evolution passing from one attractor to another, but this phase trajectory is largely unpredictable due in some part to a sensitivity to initial conditions.  The concepts of NDS have been used primarily as metaphors in sociology up to this point, with leaders and their vision operating as attractors.  Network theory ties structure to function.  Structure becomes visible with network analysis tools and simulations, and metrics have been developed to quantify the structures.  Clusters, structural holes, boundary spanners, giant clusters, etc. give voice to the mechanisms behind exploitation and exploration, homophily, belonging, segregation, collaboration, innovation diffusion, and a host of other phenomena.  Finally, CAS brings emergence into the picture, spontaneous, self-organizing order that derives from the amplification of successful strategies (structures) in a dynamic system close to the edge of chaos.  Instability or tension drives the emergence of novel order in self-organizing systems far from equilibrium.

But where does this emergence come from? CAS theory says that if the contributions of four particular aspects of the system are high enough, order emerges.  Those four aspects include the existence of multitudes of agents with agency (the ability to act and adapt), their connectedness, their interdependency, and the variety of populations operating in a landscape where the “fittest” varieties are selected.  The agents co-evolve by “transforming their internal models to become more adaptable to changing environments” (Goldstein, 2008, p. 43).

In the end, CAS is a new model for a new world.  The problems organizations face tend to be wicked – incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements driven by multiple stakeholders creating novel and unique problems.  In the new fitness landscape there is no one right and optimal answer as there is in a cybernetic-defined system designed to reach equilibrium through feedback controls.  At the very least the landscape is rugged with many suboptimal peaks separated by deep valleys of failure.  In reality, that rugged landscape is “dancing” – dynamically changing its shape as the myriad agents constantly co-adapt to each other, changing the rules of the game at every step.  And yet, this is not chaos.  There are discernible structures and patterns the next level up as we dial the zoom lens back out.  The expert kayaker sees the reliably “permanent” holes and standing waves in a whitewater river.  It is these “features” of the landscape that CLT intends to recognize and exploit.

Main Components of Complexity Leadership

Complexity leadership derives its theoretical basis from the mechanisms of complexity theory.

Complexity leadership theory is first a description of how creativity, innovation, and adaptability emerge from the dynamic interaction of individuals and groups under the proper conditions, and second, about how individuals and groups can arrange things so this emergence does occur.  Complex systems like organizations are largely unpredictable at the fine-grain focus, and only roughly predictable at coarse-grain.  Weather (until recently) has been largely unpredictable, while climate (coarse-grain) is very predictable.  CLT takes for granted the vast variety and unpredictability of individuals (CAS agents) and treats them as black boxes – there is no individual insight.  However, using a coarser-grain lens, patterns may emerge, attractors may influence, and conditions managed that encourage creativity, innovation, and adaptability.

Increasingly, the major challenges of the firm are not about perfectly efficient systems to produce product under highly stable conditions (industrial era), but rather to respond to novel conditions by collecting, processing, and creating information that helps deliver new solutions to new problems (knowledge era).  Command-and-control organizations have limited utility in the knowledge era whereas unleashing the collective intelligence of the workforce is seen as offering a richer base of creativity and innovation which emerges through an interactive dynamic that is much less constrained.

CL distinguishes between leadership and leaders.  Leadership arises when the interactive dynamic between individuals is enhanced by the participants or by influencing the conditions under which it takes place, at all time scales, across all organizational levels, and across functional silos. This so-called adaptive leadership produces adaptive outcomes.  CL considers leaders to be those who act in ways that enhance this outcome, whether or not they have been invested with organizational authority.  Adaptive leadership is differentiated from management (administrative leadership), which has been the organizational basis for most of the traditional study in leadership.

Bill McKelvey (2008) describes the positive value the organization derives from these innovative interactive dynamics using the economic concept of “rents” (profits above the industry average). Each collaborative interaction in which creativity and innovation emerge through microevolution at a very fine-grained level contributes to the appreciation of the human and social capital of the organization and increases aggregate rents.

Craig Schreiber and Kathleen Carley (2008) offer a related angle on the interactive dynamic.  They identify four aspects of organizational context that promote increased learning and adaptability: 1) relational coupling (connection and interdependence), requisite variety (matching internal to external complexity), network form (formal v. informal structures), and stress (the correct level of tension that generates change but does not destroy the system).  Taken together, these result in a few fundamental aspects that characterize CLT:

First, learning and adaptability are the result of what people do in an organization; they are the result of collective action. … Second, the coevolution of human and social capital is at the heart of the collective action process. … Third, collective change agents are the competitive source of learning and adaptive responses. … Fourth, collective action needs to be stimulated, not controlled. … Last, while organizations need to stimulate emergent collective action they also have a bureaucratic nature and need to control organizational outcomes efficiently for exploitation. (Schreiber & Carley, 2008, p. 293-294).

This leads to the formulation of a tripartite structure of leadership that includes a traditional top-down administrative leadership best at exploitation (doing known things well), an adaptive leadership that emerges from collective action and the co-evolution of human and social capital that is well suited to exploring the novel, and an enabling leadership that interfaces the other two and intentionally creates the conditions for adaptive leadership to thrive (Uhl-Bien, Marion & McKelvey, 2008).

To help crystallize some of the differences that CL offers from more traditional approaches, Donde Plowman and Dennis Duchon in “Dispelling the Myths about Leadership” (2008) identify four myths about leadership in the knowledge era organization and suggest new formulations (adapted from Table 6.3, p. 144):

Cybernetic Leadership Emergent Leadership
leaders specify desired futures leaders provide linkages to emergent structures; enhance connections among members
leaders direct change leaders make sense of patterns in small changes
leaders eliminate disorder and gaps between intentions and reality leaders encourage disequilibrium; disrupt existing patterns of behavior
leaders influence others to enact desired futures leaders encourage processes that enable emergent order

Table 1: Cybernetic and Emergent Leadership Compared

As can be seen, this describes a very different view of leadership capability in the individual.



Edwards (2010, p. 39) recalls Ritzer and Colomy’s four categories of meta-theorizing: to support understanding against a general theoretical landscape (Mu), as a preparatory for building middle range theory (Mp), as the development of an overarching integration theory (Mo), or as a means of evaluating or adjudicating the conceptual adequacy of a theory (Ma).  As used in this paper, CAS is a meta-theory in the Mp sense of providing a platform for the development of the middle-range theory of complexity leadership (CL).   AQAL (all quadrants, all lines) can be applied in a number of ways.  Edwards (2010, p. 69) describes it in the Mo sense as “an overarching metatheory of psychosocial development that has been applied across many disciplines, including those within the environmental, psychological, social, and organisational sciences … a large-scale conceptual system for integrating many different paradigms …”.  Reams (2005) uses it in the Mu sense of a landscape or framework to guide and explore the historical development of leadership theory.  I use integral theory in this analysis as a meta-theory in the Ma sense that we can use it to evaluate the “completeness” of (from an integral perspective) middle-range leadership theories like complexity leadership theory (CLT).  The following analysis uses the AQAL (quadrants, lines, stages, types, but not states) formulation of Ken Wilber as interpreted by John Forman and Laurel Ross (2013).  Forman and Ross also slightly reformulate the work of several adult development theorists to construct “meaning-making systems”, again for the purpose of evaluation.  Adult development theory appears to be roughly on the same theoretical level as leadership theory.  Wilber has strongly incorporated the general adult development work into integral theory so it too, becomes part of integral theory as meta-theory in the Ma sense.  In this analysis I consider both AQAL and adult development theory solely from a 3rd person perspective as all of my sources are from that perspective, and acknowledge that from an integral methodological pluralist stance, a more complete analysis would explore 1st and 2nd person perspectives (Esbjorn-Hargens, 2009).


CLT’s primary focus is on the exterior quadrants, especially changing individual or team behaviors (UR) and also system processes (LR) to enable correlation, novelty, creativity, and adaptability to emerge in any interaction between individuals and groups.  Necessarily there is development required in the cultural quadrant (LL) representing in the organization what is essentially a new paradigm for how the firm works.  Sense-making both for the organization (LL) and the individual (UL) radically shifts with the complexity lens, but it is in the culture of the organization that the collective makes meaning of perceived events in this different way.

Individual Behaviors (UR)

Armed with a new way of making meaning of how leadership emerges as a process, CL-aware individuals can behave (UR) in ways that promote this emergence.  The following are four examples of behaviors that might be targeted in a CL development program.

McKelvey (2008) in “Emergent Strategy via Complexity Leadership” considers what CEOs can do to speed up the development and appreciation of distributed intelligence (human and social capital) in their organizations and directs it away from unpromising uses while avoiding the creation of a command-and-control structure.  CEOs should ensure that the organization is exposed to the appropriate set of adaptive tensions and manage them at the most effective levels to promote creative emergence (not too “hot” too push into chaos, and not too “cold” to settle into static sinkholes).  When individuals and groups are exposed to tensions in this way the theory says they tend to spontaneously self-organize in structures that dissipate the tension through creative and novel collaborations, producing the greatest value (rents) for the organization.  The CEO needs to carefully harness the vision of strong charismatic leaders without those visions becoming static fixed-point attractors of organizational energy.  And finally, the CEO needs to use traditional command-and-control practice to attach slack resources to the legitimate tensions of organizational mission to manage the agency problem of misalignment.

Middle managers are often in the best position to create the enabling conditions for adaptive leadership to develop.  In “Complexity Leadership Theory”, Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey (2008) focus on fostering interaction, interdependency, and injecting adaptive tension.  Interaction creates the networks through which information and resources flow and connect. Managers can create open work spaces, self-selected work groups, and adjust schedules and interaction rules.  They can create cross-group initiatives or coordination.  They can create interactions outside the organization.  They can support individuals to build out their personal networks, keep themselves informed of organizational and industry issues, and monitor the environment.  Interdependency creates a pressure to act on information.  Creating and managing conflicting constraints leads to active engagement between parties.  Tension creates an imperative to adapt and promoting heterogeneity tends to create these positive tensions.  Individuals can generate tension by welcoming creative tension in their engagements with others.

Lord (2008) suggests in “Beyond Transactional and Transformational Leadership” that background field (context) biasing factors around emotion, goals, and identity lead to useful bottom-up emergence.  That is, by exhibiting positive emotions, by talking about goals as something to be reached for rather than trying not to fail to achieve, and by triggering prosocial (collective) identity rather than proself (individual) identity behaviors, these contexts bias interactions in a general way.  These behaviors can come from anyone in the organization but formal leaders may have more influence because of their granted authority.

Schreiber and Carley (2008) in “Network Leadership” focus on behaviors that affect context and process.  By encouraging the right organizational contexts collective action emerges in response to change or tensions.  Collective action is required for superior information processing and the faster organizational learning speed that sustains superior performance.  The contexts the authors call out are the right levels of interdependency (relational coupling), requisite variety of knowledge diversity to enable the right balance of exploration v. exploitation (March, 1996), certain social network structures that defer to expertise rather than authority, and the right level of organizational tension. Improving collective intelligence is at the core of CL and the process changes necessary come from shaping the communications structures.  Human and social capital (what we know and who we know) co-evolves from the tension of communication structure changes.  How centrally-hubbed are individuals to local information flow?  How well connected for the diffusion of knowledge?  Can employees be groomed as boundary spanners across siloed groups with significant structural holes between them?  And to what degree is the interface between the formal structures and the adaptive informal structures connected as they indeed must be?  The ability to recognize and create these conditions appears to me to require very sophisticated skills that can be developed in the enabling leader.

Purpose – the interior experience of the individual (UL)

In all of the sources considered in this paper there was only one “A Complexity Perspective on Leadership Development” (Van Velsor, 2008) that addresses what is needed developmentally of the individual.  Daniel Weberg’s recent case study dissertation on complexity leadership turned up very little on the interior side (Weberg, 2013).  Weberg collected data to begin describing that space (D. Weberg, personal communication, April 14, 2014) but the case study literature is sparse.  A second book by Uhl-Bien and Marion is slated to address this gap.  CL requires relatively sophisticated behaviors for the nurturance of creativity, innovation and adaptation within groups of people that are embedded in a formal organizational structure.  The traditional formal structure has many incentives for interpersonal competition, self-promotion, and often very weak conflict resolution capacity.  CL requires a very enlightened view in these areas, even going so far as to encourage conflict and its resolution in productive ways.

I consider the implications for leadership development in a later section.

Lines and Stages

Lines are a useful way of separating some dimensions of development and as Forman and Ross (2013) see them, dimensions of intelligence.  They call out six lines – cognitive, interpersonal, intrapersonal, moral, spiritual, and physical.  Reams (2005) adds an emotional line.  “One implication of differentiating the various streams of development is that it helps us understand how we can be at different levels of development in different areas of our lives” (Reams, 2005, p. 122) which in turn has implications for leadership development. CLT in its broadest description heavily addresses the cognitive and interpersonal, implicitly requires intrapersonal development, but does not address emotional, moral, spiritual, or physical lines at this point.  Forman and Ross simplify the spectrum of developmental stages by specifying characteristics that define them as early (doing their own work), middle (coordinating or managing through others), or late (guiding whole groups).

Cognitively, CL requires a mind shift (UL, LL) from seeing organization as machine to organization as organism or complex system.  CLT does not envision the leader role inhabited formally by particular people but rather by a variety of people at various times with particular skill sets.  CLT sees adaptive and enabling leadership arising from the interactions of all people at various times.  At the individual level it requires some people in organizations to look for opportunities to enable the adaptive organizational response at the same time they acknowledge the traditional coordination and programmatic roles that administrative (formal) leaders continue to play.  At the collective level, culture (LL) and systems (LR) must accommodate this shift.  This shift requires the ability to hold multiple realities and paradox simultaneously in dialectic tension, to be aggressively learning.  This corresponds to a late or advanced cognitive developmental level.

At its core CL is about supporting interpersonal interaction that is generative of innovation, creativity, and adaptability.  All the novelty and microevolution that creates forward motion at a macro level happens between people.  With any focus on the interpersonal, that requires a substantial intrapersonal level of development.  This enablement therefore happens in all quadrants but CLT has little to say about exactly what kind of development on the interior side must occur for this to be successful.   CLT includes a mention of what Vallacher & Nowak (2008) call dynamical social psychology (2008) but their focus is more on the mechanisms that bind individuals into social aggregates rather than on what it takes for an individual to develop the awareness and skills to do this work successfully.  Again, the stage of development of both the inter- and intrapersonal lines for enabling leaders is probably late stage.  It is important to note, however, that CLT assumes mixed levels of development to exist simultaneously across the employee population and that uninitiated staff may blossom (innovation, creativity, and adaptability) in an enabled situation without any real awareness of CL.

Meaning-making Systems

Forman & Ross capture the adult development work of Don Beck and Chris Cowan (based on Clare Graves), and Torbert (based on Loevinger and Cook-Greuter) to describe meaning-making systems that individuals and collectives tend to inhabit as “containers”. These containers roughly correspond to the combined profile of all the simultaneously functioning lines at their respective stages of development.   These containers describe how we make sense of our experiences rather than what we think about our experiences.  The transitions we make from container to container are critical and are the subject of leadership development programs. We first explore a container’s boundaries when we “arrive”.  At times it can become a crucible for forging identity.  And finally, an eggshell to be broken through as we move to a new container. Forman and Ross (2013) simplify the Spiral Dynamics scheme (Beck & Cowan, 2006) a bit into four basic systems (impulsive, diplomatic, achiever, and pluralist) and one integral system that embraces them all.  Each of the four basic levels is centered in a particular quadrant – impulsive (UL), diplomatic (UR), achiever (LR), and pluralist (LL).  The integral system sees all quadrants rising simultaneously.

It is key to note that CLT takes the practical stance that the organization will always be filled with individuals and collectives that operate in any one system (or multiples simultaneously) and that the mix itself has utility.  On the one hand, the formal organization may comprise traditional managers operating the administrative leadership functions from any one of the five systems but there is sure to be a liberal mix of the basic four meaning-making systems at play.  And on the other hand, the adaptive leadership that emerges from interaction and interdependence is likely to be enhanced by a diverse mixture of types, as is usually the case for any kind of variation that increases novelty. But in my opinion, the enabling leadership and those engaged in adaptive leadership will tend to be operating primarily from the pluralist or even integral systems.  A more detailed discussion follows.

Individual Meaning-making Systems

Impulsive types operate from emotion and are oriented around “me”.  Diplomatic types focus on “we” but are tied rigidly to a black and white view of what works.  Neither is very suitable for the nuanced and somewhat improvisational requirement of intentionally creating the conditions for creative, innovative, and adaptive emergent behavior.  The achiever system starts to embrace the rationale and thoughtful aspects the new CL paradigm requires and values the idea that “knowledge is power” (but get it and keep it) and of human and social capital rising together  (“work is an extension of what you know and who you know”), but the notion that “a well-managed company runs like a well-oiled machine” is indicative that this container is severely limited at a fundamental level (Forman & Ross, 2013, p. 88).  The pluralist container on the other hand concurs that “knowledge is power, which is precisely why it should be shared” and “ a well-run company will grow if it is cultivated like a well-tended garden” (p. 99).  There is the needed paradigm shift.

Collective Meaning-making Systems

Collective meaning-making itself sits in the land of culture (beliefs, values, expectations, priorities, status, power, conflict resolution, habits) and systems (metrics, finance, accounting, regulatory, law, policy, communication channels, etc.).The four containers also are useful in looking at the collective form.  Local norms and strong personal empire-like leadership drive an organization that defines itself as impulsive.  It is not likely that CL will thrive in this environment.  If the byline for diplomatic is “what is prevails over what might be” and the premise that there is one right and optimal answer for every problem, then again this container does not suit.  Likewise, achiever is about exploitation (doing specific things well) rather than exploration (responding to novel changes by learning and adaptation).  Standards, competence, and continuous performance improvement are signature qualities of this type of organization or unit. Pluralist culture values stewardship, community building, consensus, relationships, emotional intelligence, and may eschew hierarchy.  Although these are important qualities for adaptive or enabling leadership, the level of uniformity, “being on the same page”, is likely to put the pluralist system in conflict with the CL paradigm.

Integral Meaning-making System

The integral meaning-making system by definition embraces the other four systems.  This is a perfect start for CLT in that it assumes that the mix of types present in the organization is valuable if managed, for emergent creativity, innovation, and adaptation.  “Because they are less identified with their roles, integral minds are more able to stay present and grounded amidst high levels of complexity, diversity, and change” (Forman & Ross, 2013, p. 135). Who wouldn’t want integral individuals and collectives operating in their organization?  But are they necessary? My sense is that they are, even if they are few in number.  There must be a center of gravity, distributed or not, that holds the vision of the CL program in the organization, at least at first until the culture and systems start to build upon themselves and the individuals and collective see the power of the CL approach and are changed by it.

Implications for Leadership Development

In her article “A Complexity Perspective on Leadership Development” Van Velsor (2008) sets the task of leadership as “setting direction, creating alignment, and building commitment”.  Further, “leadership development has to do with the development of systematic processes, collective practices, and organizational cultures that facilitate the emergence of leadership as an outcome of interaction around shared work” (p. 334).  Santana (2008) recalls Heifetz’s “adaptive challenges” that leaders in a complex world routinely face for which no technical solution exists.  New approaches to unforeseen situations require the development of a leadership capacity to enable an individual or collective’s ability to deal with this complexity.

How is leadership “development” enacted in an organization that acquires the CL lens?  This is an interesting question because leadership as a process lies within the dynamics of interaction and not within an individual or group. Per William Drath “developing leadership capacity might include enhancing interactive dynamics within organizations and developing organizational cultures and systems that recognize those dynamics as a key source of leadership” (Drath, 2000).  Clearly the CT and CLT paradigms need to become part of the way the organization makes meaning.  This will be embedded in the culture (LL) and the systems (LR) and also requires individuals to cognitively “learn” the model.  But CLT is relatively new and there is no coherent body of knowledge readily available or CL “development program” ready-made.  CAS-savvy executive management at Billings Clinic in Montana were inclined towards thinking about their organization as a CAS and hired Curt Lindberg (principle of the Plexus Institute, an organization using CAS to approach organizational change issues) to provide that vision in their organization (C. Lindberg, personal communication, October 17, 2013).  Van Velsor (2008) points out that traditional managers can be coaxed to let go of their control orientation for a more facilitative approach by adopting a perspective shift, increasing self-awareness, and making behavior changes.  Van Velsor feels that creating shifts within groups is a rich source of perspective change but recognizes that in forming such groups attention must be paid to the boundaries set up that frustrate collaboration.

In the end, the potential program for developing a CL capability in an organization is very ill-formed at this early stage.  The systems changes required are vaguely conceived to be redesigned to encourage rather than suppress interpersonal dynamics, and this notion must get embedded in the culture.  The required cognitive changes are from a control orientation to an enabling role.  Individual interior development is about the perspective change required to re-conceptualize one’s role, a self-awareness shift to understand the need to develop new skills, and behavior changes to enact the new role.  At this point it appears to go no deeper than that.

Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless (Plexus Institute) espouse an interesting perspective in their recently published book “Liberating Structures” (2013).  Their work defines a catalog of 33 “adaptable microstructures that make it quick and simple for groups of people of any size to radically improve how they interact and work together.” (Lipmanowicz & McCandless, 2013, p. 21).  The term Liberating Structures was first introduced by William Torbert to denote structures that support people to develop skills to guide themselves.   Liberating Structures promote full participation to leverage the experience and creativity of everyone in an interactive learning mode.  They enable high levels of creative dynamics in lieu of the five commonly used means of traditional organizational interaction (presentations, reportbacks, managed dialog, brainstorms, open discussion).  There are many case studies that give evidence that using these structures promote microevolution via creative, innovative, and adaptive outcomes at the fine-grained level.  The authors contend that experiencing these interactions changes the participants, their view of the organization, and their place within it (their meaning-making systems).  Leadership arises, bottom-up, from this very local but highly distributed (anyone can do it) intervention.  If this is actually the case, then it may be that other bottom-up mechanisms (e.g., positive deviance) circumvent the top-down leadership development problem faced by CL as well.

Finally, Van Velsor identifies three conditions that might promote a successful development program: 1) a high visibility CL program that itself acts as a catalyst, laying a “practice field” for enabling enhanced interactive dynamics, 2) strong senior executive sponsorship and modeling of the enabling leadership behaviors, and 3) a very strong action-reflection practice that highlights the value of distributed intelligence so that learning gains an equal footing in the typical action-oriented organizational culture.


The AQAL framework has proved to be an interesting way to evaluate complexity leadership theory.  It is easy to see that the individual interior quadrant requires more “light”, and one wonders what impact exploring the other lines of development (emotional, moral, spiritual, physical) might have.  Enabling leadership can abide and be empowered by the full range of meaning-making systems inhabited by individuals in the organization, but clearly the most traction for enablement will come from the pluralist and integral systems.  The model explicitly names administrative leadership (exploitation, “doing things well”) as a necessary component of a whole organization alongside enabling and adaptive leadership (exploration, “doing novel things”).  Furthermore, AQAL is a useful common platform to compare CLT with other leadership theories, which is a topic for further exploration.

The phenomenon of emergence is core to CLT.  Here, the rubber meets the road.  This is where the fine-grained interactive dynamic in dyads or groups magically result in large scale, coarse-grained behavioral outcomes.  Where creativity, innovation, and adaptability at the micro turns into the gold of evolution and transformation at the macro.  Several of the authors take a stab at the essence of this magic (McKelvey, Lord, Schreiber & Carley, Lipmanowicz & McCandless, Vallacher & Nowak).  How does incremental translational change result in a transformational phase shift from one attractor to another?  It would be interesting to explore the CLT literature on that through the transformation-translation, relational exchange, and transition process lenses of AQAL. Equally interesting would be to use a holonic approach to examine the phase transitions. The language of CAS provides many tantalizing metaphors for constructs that have been recognized in psychological, social, and organizational domains by different names.  The excitement that those domains have had about the CAS metaphors is recognizable by the amount of literature that has been generated over the last 10-15 years.  “Complexity theory is up and running by any standard” (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014, p. 2).  The application of CAS theory to leadership in the last decade is a case in point.  But it goes beyond metaphor.  CAS theory is grounded in models that are developed by examining simulations in computers and in scientific domains of physics, chemistry, and biology where the instruments have been honed for many years by technology, applications and reductionist peer review.  We can pick up the models in our hands, turn them around, examine them closely, and ask and answer what-if questions much more quickly and with a much more hypothetic-reductionist lens than we can through traditional methods of inquiry of human systems.  This undoubtedly is both good and bad but is certainly different and allows a much broader range of human intelligence to get involved in the play.  The topic of “how we know” relative to CAS simulations using an integral methodological pluralist lens is yet another interesting angle to explore.  Kevin Dooley and Benyamin Lichtenstein (2008) offer an interesting window in their article “Research Methods for Studying the Complexity Dynamics of Leadership”.

On a final note, leading, leadership, and leaders are embedded in the ways we make meaning together.  The CT lens is becoming more prevalent within academia and business.  Thinking well about what that perspective affords the practitioner, as well as what it obscures, will surely have value as the paradigm of command and control organizations shifts to more agile and complex organizational structures.  There is much to explore.


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 About the Author

Jim Best, Ph.D. Student (Organizational Leadership and Transformation), Saybrook University

Jim’s past work in healthcare IT (Kaiser Permanente) as a Principle Enterprise Architect supporting care delivery systems clients (especially nursing and hospital operations) has afforded him a unique view of the workings of a large and diverse organization under the duress of complex industry, technology, and policy changes.

Now as a full-time student and part-time consultant, Jim brings a whole systems, complexity and network thinking lens to his study and work.  He is currently contributing to efforts that weave together, in theory and practice, approaches augmenting complexity leadership with front-line practice that enable full, innovative, and adaptive participation of those affecting organizational transformation.   His other focus is on using social network analysis to enhance innovation, collaboration, innovation diffusion, and network-based interventions for transformation in health care organizations.

Contact: | LinkedIn

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