4/28 – Complexity, self-organization and leadership: Enlivened experiences from The Netherlands

Jaap Geerlof and Anke van Beckhoven

Jaap Geerlof and Anke van Beckhoven

Jaap Geerlof

Anke van Beckhoven

Anke van Beckhoven







Our home country, The Netherlands, seems to be a fertile ground for self-organizing organizations and is an incubator for researchers that are interested in the topic of leadership and self-organization. Scientific literature unveils that the question of leadership of self-organizing organizations is surrounded by controversy. Some scholars interpret the emergence of self-organizations as the starting point of leaderless organizations, others emphasize its emanation as a opportunity for coaching leadership styles. We posit that the zeitgeist is ripe for the unfoldment of new organizational model, like self-organizing organizations, and a new kind of leadership. Complexity theory offers a promising epistemology for the leadership in self-organizing organizations, because it offers a more dialogic framework for understanding the desired leadership presence, and of the context within which leadership is embedded. In general the importance of the context within which self-organizing organization emerges is neglected in most of the literature on self-organization and leadership. An analysis of the Dutch situation emphasizes that the specificity of context determines and nourishes the potential for self-organizing organizations and invites a kind of leadership that enables supportive, complex and adaptive behavior.

A world in transition

Wicked, convergent crises in culture, climate, energy, economics, politics, ecology and of individual wellbeing dominate our day to day dialogue and media coverage (Jacobs & Jones, 2007; Wells, 2013). The headings of Dutch newspapers warn us that The Netherlands might be inundated within a century as a result of climate change. The editorials in Dutch newspapers make us aware of the life stories of refugees from Africa and the Middle East that are escaping from poverty, war and repressive regimes. Their numbers are increasing and some politicians speak of ‘a tsunami of refugees that is flooding the borders of Europe’ in search of security and a better life. The economy reporters show us how Europe is recovering from one of the worst economic crises and is again confronted with an economic growth without jobs. Human resource management journals are presenting articles on the high number of people who have a job, yet are unsatisfied about it because they experience work-related stress, and complain about the management style and the overall organizational climate. In 2013, Gallup reported that 70 percent of the people who hold fulltime jobs in the USA are not engaged and do not reach their full potential. The Dutch labor force tops this percentage by 10 points (Cabtree, 2013). These percentages indicate that organizations and the present leadership fail to create working conditions that provide a level playing field for the requirements of employees.

These headlines of Dutch newspapers and journals expose an overarching dilemma: wicked problems, leaders who are not in control, public discomfort expressed by many citizens and an overall lack of certainty about the future. These headings refer to an all-embracing feature of our lives. In general, we may conclude that the living conditions of many Westerners do not mirror the ‘promised life’ that is symbolized by the American Dream of improvement of individuals’ lives (Mack, 2013) and by the European contract of collective care (Geerlof, 2011). Both are embedded in the belief of progress and predictability and are based on the perception of basic safety as a ‘birth right’ (Berry, 1999; Berman, 2010; Raskin, at all, 2002).

This worldview of the Westerner is an offspring of the philosophy of modernity (Tarnas, 1991). Our present world order is believed to be in transit, moving away from the old standbys of order, control and predictability. This world order resembles the machine model that has dominated among others our organizational entities since the first Industrial Revolution, with an emphasis on structure, organizational divisions, management, functions and roles (Geerlof, 2014; Mason, 2015; Rifkin, 2013; Wheatley, 2006). But a new world order has not materialized yet and we live in the in-between period that is labeled ‘The Great Transition’ (Boulding, 1964; Korten, 2006). Humanity has to cope with the emergent properties of this era and find ways to deal with its complexities. All over the world, people are experimenting with new social constructs of their private and professional lives. Some of these surface and are becoming visible trends; most of them are probably under our radar.

Self-organization as an offspring of a complex world

One of the visible trends is the development of organizational models that are molded around the concept of self-organization. Some of these novel organizations have been identified and their characteristics have been described in scholarly and provocative books (Brafman, & Beckstrom, 2007; Gaulthier, 2014; Laloux, 2015; Scharmer, 2013; Wintzen, 2010; Van Dalen, 2014). Dutch companies and organizations are overrepresented in these descriptions; suggesting that The Netherlands provides a rich soil for self-organizing organizations.

The concept of self-organization has its roots in physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology and is embedded in the theory of complexity and has become an increasingly popular label for studying phenomena that appear to govern their own shape and mechanisms. The term was coined by the theoretical biologist Von Bertalanffy in the 1930s to describe the central features of organism growth over time, but was first used by Emanuel Kant in his ‘Critique of Judgment’ written in 1790. Scholars like Von Neumann, Ashby, Von Foester and Atlan contributed to the further elaboration of the concept. Self-organization is nowadays understood as a multitude of ‘emergences’, produced not only from their constituting order, but also from the disorder and the interacting relation between order and disorder, and demonstrating that disequilibrium is a necessary condition for growth. Self-organizing processes, that are omnipresent in nature, embed the capacity of making new meaning out of randomness in the form of temporary structures (Alhadeff-Jones, 2008; Morin, 2008).

Over the years, the term self-organization has become an all-purpose word and has been accredited distinct systemic and sometimes more instrumental attributes, like self-management, self-creation, self-maintenance, self-regulation, self-reflexivity, and self-reproduction. In the context of this article we define self-organization as a systemic property, relevant for contemporary organizational development.

The concept of self-organization is embedded in the theory of complexity. Complexity theories have their origin in the physical sciences, and have surfaced as an interpretive framework in the realm of social sciences in the last few decades. Complexity theory holds that reality is not to be understood as the consequence of linear properties between its subsequent parts. Instead, reality possesses qualities that we can only partially grasp, including the emergence of novel properties such as self-organization, and the general tendency of our world to become increasingly complex (Wells, 2013).

Contemporary complexity theory has two distinctive branches: English and Latin. In the English-speaking world complexity is researched from the perspective of complex adaptive systems (Alhadeff-Jones, 2008). As Laszlo (2013, p. 61) concludes: “Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are an ensemble of diverse parts that maintains its structure in its environment through the input, processing and output of energy, matter and information”. CAS are characterized in their evolution by the simultaneous presence of random phenomena and structured processes. The interaction between both of these dynamics paves the way for new emergent qualities. In the Latin countries, complexity is presented as a reflexive dimension, as an approach to inquiry. Complex thinking acknowledges the complexity of life and of human endeavor, and recognizes the mutual existence of order and disorder and of differentiation and integration (Morin, 2008, 2015; Montuori, 2013). Complexity theory affirms the impossibility of knowing the whole without the parts, and of the impossibility of knowing the parts without the whole. The theory holds that the whole can be more, but also less, than the sum of the parts (Morin, 2014, 2015). The latter is for example true for organizations with destructive leadership, which leads to counterproductive work behavior (Schyns, & Schillig, 2013).

Complexity theory clarifies that one cannot change just single element or process within a complex system, because all of the other unchanged elements and processes in the system will respond to the change in unpredictable ways and often provoke that the changed element and process realign itself with the rest of the (unchanged) system, or trigger an unexpected effect resulting into paralysis or even chaos (Ogilvy, 2013). This principle explains for example why so many of the transformations of the Dutch educational system failed. The Dutch ministry forgot to apply the golden rules of implementing change in complex environments: get everybody involved, including the students and their parents.

Morin (2008, 2015) – one of the founders of the Latin school – moves away in his epistemology from linear, deterministic and reductionist explanations. Instead he introduces a model of circular understanding that goes from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole, which contains recursive causal processes (Morin, 2008). In recursive feedback processes, the effect and the product are vital to the process that generates them. Recursive feedback loops often surface in transformational processes within complex environments. They prevent the realization of projected outcomes not only in organizational transformation, but also when new public policy measures are implemented. Complex thinking underlines that transformations requires an overarching, multi-level strategy of change, but prompts that future outcomes cannot be predicted at all, partly because of its self-emerging properties. This conclusion implies a 180-degree turnaround from the prevailing paradigm in mainstream organizational leadership, and public administration epistemology that is still grounded on the promise of predictability.

Novel Leadership in complex environments

The role of leaders, of leadership, and the leadership style in self-organizing organizations in complex environments is surrounded by controversy. The concept of self-organizing organizations presupposes an absence of leadership. Some authors agree with this stance and point to the power of leaderless organization as a core characteristic of the success of these organizational models (Brafman, & Beckstrom, 2007). Others highlight the essential features of al leader’s role in self-organizing organizations as one of being a colleague with a special assignment in maintaining the space for the new modus operandi by role-modeling and leaderships’ presence (Laloux, 2014; Scharmer, 2013).

It seems as if the puzzle of the paradox of self-organization and leadership has not yet been resolved. In our view, the conundrum of leadership and self-organizing organizations calls for a novel leadership approach and cannot be solved within the epistemology of the more traditional leadership theories.

The epistemology of leadership has a long history and is mostly grounded in the axiology of positivism. Most of the older leadership definitions emphasize effective leadership as rationalized, cognitive processes focusing on the traits of the leader or their behavior, or a combination of both (Northhouse, 2013; Yukl, 2010). The related leadership strategy is grounded on the premise of a leader’s attributes and followers’ response and thus promotes a planning-organizing-motivating-and-controlling cycle. Often, the leadership style in the older leadership theories is transactional; the leader motivates followers by appealing to their self-interest and exchange benefits (Yukl, 2010). Transformational leadership has been staged as an alternative to the transactional leadership style (Burns, 2003). Transformational leadership appeals to the moral values and the consciousness of the followers. It aims at mobilizing the followers’ energy, their professional pride, and thus: at improving the service and product quality of their organizations (Burns, 2003; Gaulthier, 2014; Pearson, 2012).

Traditional views on leadership are almost all grounded on the belief that the future can be predicted and the present can be controlled to ensure the desired future (Plowman et al., 2007). This view is transcended in leaderships behavior aimed at the reduction of complexity and uncertainty, oriented on problem-solving and guaranteeing followers to behave in a controlled way (Stacey, 1992). This reductionist response – characteristic for modernity – defies complexity, instead of embracing it and will therefore not provide a satisfying epistemological perspective. Ilya Progogine (1997) provided the evidence that the logic of reductionism and certainty is only valid in simple and isolated systems, but does not provide an analytic framework for dynamic processes in complex environments.

Reductionist approaches do not provide adequate answers in the period of The Great Transition, because of its complexifying nature, uncertainty and unpredictability (Ogilvy, 2011; Sardar 2010). This is one of the reason why there is so much confusion and controversy about what constitute effective leadership in our present era (Montuori, 2010). It might partially explain why a century of leadership studies has not resulted into a clearer comprehension of what distinguishes effective leaders from ineffective leaders (Hunt, 1999). Tellingly, after a century of inquiry the search of the answer of what distinguishes a leader from a non-leader has not resulted in one grand overarching theory. Instead the leadership epistemology has branched in the last decade into numerous leadership theories (Dinh et al., 2014). Equivalent epistemological developments are prevalent in other fields of research. In the departments of economics and psychiatry, new subfields have emerged, because the overarching epistemologies do not provide explanatory robustness to the increasing complexity of life.

The complexity of our world prompts that the question of leadership should addressed from a perspective that acknowledges complexity, instead of reducing it. The leadership inquiry should be approached more holistically, transdisciplinary, and focus on more process-relational ways of thinking. In our complex world – as in self-organizing organizations – reality is always influx, which means that leaders cannot predict the future over longer time spans, nor can they create a desired future with programmed interventions. As we have concluded complex systems are subjected to self-emergent processes and their futures are by definition unpredictable and uncertain. Leadership emerges through the process of interaction between order and disorder, and integration and differentiation and has to have surprising, holistic and systemic properties (Montuori, 2010; Volckmann, 2014). The specificity of organizations and their ecological context is essential to this process and is therefore crucial for the kind of leadership self-organizing organizations need. Startling, holistic properties rely heavily on creative systemic abilities of organizations. Creativity – essential for transformation – cannot spawn without imagination and improvisation, contextual interaction and is a quality of the collective and not of the individual (Glăveanu, 2014: Montuori, 2014). Mere order and stability do not stage an environment for creativity; disorder and instability do.

We postulate that complexity theory offers a promising epistemology for the leadership in self-organizing organizations, because it suggests a more dialogic framework for understanding the concept of leadership, and of the context within which leadership emerges. As Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) argue, the success or failure of leadership in action is ascribable to the capabilities of the organizations that carry them. Leadership strategies will be useless if they can’t cultivate an appropriate environment which facilitates the emergence of future positions of an organization. The effectivity of leadership will consequently depend upon the capitalization of the interactive dynamics within and between groups of people in organizations that are in constant dialogue with the (sub) systems in their relevant environment (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; Montuori, 2010).

The complexity of our world calls for an alternative focus on leadership with leaders who enable rather than manage and where the strength of a leader is obtained from the skill to guide rather than to order (Plowman et al., 2007); a leadership that acknowledges the existence of ephemerality, irreversibility, and recursive causality (Morin, 2008, 2015). Dialogue and developing a common language by using memes is an important tool for the leaders in complex environments. It is the instrument to build in shared-meaning, interdependence, and collective pools of knowledge. Storytelling enlivens the knowledge and is generative (Boal, & Schultz, 2007).

Leading effectively in complex contexts requires the capacity to embrace paradoxes, and going beyond conventional and widely accepted behaviors, which may include combining what is traditionally perceived as oppositional (Montuori, 2010). These leaders can direct but also follow, can be engaged but observant as well, and can be decisive and also reflexive. Leading in self-organizing organizations can benefit from applying counterintuitive strategies. The strategy of tradition leaders and organizations is to reduce when the situation becomes complex, by dissecting reality into readily understood formats. The counterintuitive strategy is to enhance complexity when situations become too complex, by changing the perspective from orderly, homogeneity towards disorderly heterogeneity. We have applied this strategy in prototyping possible future states of an organization. Instead of inviting the management, we asked people not related to the company from different unusual backgrounds to participate in our workshops, with staggering results. This evolutionary principle allows the emergence of a creative jump, of the emanation of a next level of solutions. To summarize: ‘leading in complex environments should be viewed as creating conditions that enable the interactions through which the behavior and direction of organizational systems emerge’ (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2011, p. 406).

Although ‘complexity and leadership’ is not a broad field of inquiry, some empirical data supports the emanation of a different view on leadership’s effectivity in complex environments, where self-organization emerges. Plowman and others (2007) conducted a qualitative case study to observe the interaction and behavior of leaders in a complex context. Their findings show that ‘as enablers, leaders disrupt existing patterns of behavior, encourage novelty, and make sense of emerging events for others’ (Plowman et al., 2007, p. 1). Their case study revealed the significance and potential of the role of leadership as an enabler for self-organizing behavior and that the people who are working in these organizations are engaged and connected, rather than being followers (Plowman, et al., 2007).

Self-organizing organizations and novel leadership in the Netherlands

As researchers and transformative consultants, we have been actively involved in the process of facilitating and analyzing the emergence of self-organized behavior and self-organizing organizations in The Netherlands.

Not surprisingly, The Netherlands provides a productive breeding ground for organizational change and the redefinition of leadership in the context of self-organization processes. Egalitarian, horizontal organization models based on consensus decision making processes have been a common feature of The Netherland. Its origin was the instatement of the Dutch water authorities in the 13th century to protect the land from flooding and to manage water-levels in the polders. These authorities were democratic stakeholder organizations consisting of elected representatives from local farming communities. For over 800 years The Netherlands may be described as a highly consensus-based community with a self-organizing tradition covering a wide range of aspects of society.

The revival of self-organizing organizations is a visible trend in The Netherlands. These new organizational models are molded around egalitarian social and ecological values and increased human interconnectedness. Some of these new organizations, such as Buurtzorg Nederland, the Triodos Bank, and BSO Origin have already been identified internationally by social scientists and tagged as ‘evolutionary-teal organizations’ (Laloux, 2014), or as ‘eco-systems organized around what emerges’ (Scharmer, 2013), ore are documented in books written in the Dutch language (Van Dalen, 2012; Wintzen, 2010).

These contemporary Dutch self-organizing organizations are radically different from the prevailing organization models, because they have toppled down the power-pyramid and are organized in a peer-based shape. In Dutch self-organizing organizations the traditional concept of employee as the follower has been expelled; with no clear disconnection between private and personal life, people working for these organizations are invited to show up as a complete persons. The organizational model consists of loose, decentralized and networked units. The calling of the organization is ‘evolutionary’ and intention-driven. These organizations function as living, breathing eco-systems. Key elements are: self-organization, agility and adaptivity (Laloux, 2014).

Scientific literature that covers the Dutch self-organizing organizations focuses on the intra-organizational development processes (Laloux, 2014: Van Dalen, 2014; Wintzen, 2010) and  paradoxically highlights the role of the founding father as the main responsible for the developmental success. The influence of context is hardly addressed in the analysis. The question why the  specific context of and within The Netherlands is a nursery for self-organization has not been posed sufficiently.

The creation of new organizations – or for transforming existing organizations – on the premise of the principles of self-organization, are not omnipresent in The Netherlands, but are mainly observed in the areas of society that are submitted to major changes. Since the public domain is all-pervasive in The Netherlands, alterations in public policy seem to create a context for transformation. Self-organization has emerged in the segments of Dutch society where new policy frameworks have been introduced; for example in elderly care and the youth and child social care system.

The entry points of most of these new policy regulations are austerity measures to compensate for the financial loses of the financial crisis, with budget cuts amounting to 30 percent of the total budget. The existing organizations in elderly care and youth and child social care systems are immensely challenged by these novel policy frameworks, because they bear the characteristics of large bureaucratic and inflexible organizations. Hierarchy, transactional leadership and management, substantial overhead, internal rules and regulations and strict protocols define the working processes and the culture of these organizations. Financial acumen to manage cash flow, leveraging expenditure on staffing to enlarge the productivity per employee, and raising the investment in public relations to attract more clients, will not necessarily secure the future of these organizations, since their method of care provision is grounded on intramural practice. In many of the care institutions, the real estate costs amount up to 30 percent of the total budget. Their long-term rental contracts or ownership of millions of square meters of real estate add to their inflexibility.

Within this policy framework and societal context, a crack emerged for new initiatives based on the premise of self-organization to blossom. In this setting, Jos de Blok for example seized his opportunity to start Buurtzorg Nederland in 2006. De Blok, a former nurse, founded his organization with a team of professional nurses who were dissatisfied with the protocolled health care delivered by traditional home care and elderly care organizations. His team introduced a new model of patient-centered care, focusing on facilitating and maintaining independence and autonomy for clients (Van Dale, 2014). Buurtzorg started as a team of 4 professionals in 2006. By 2014 thousands of nurses were working with Buurtzorg in self-organizing teams of professionals in The Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, and the United States. Patient-centered care has been rewarded by clients with higher levels of client satisfaction (Van Dale, 2012), and is far more cost-efficient. Ernst & Young estimated the saving potential of the concept of Buurtzorg of roughly 40 percent to the Dutch health care system, and KPMG concluded in 2012 that the approach of Buurtzorg empowers nurses to deliver all the care that patients need.

Buurtzorg and other initiatives breached the walls of the traditional care companies by co-creating new health care organizations, grounded on a new care paradigm and self-organization. This renewal was soon spotted by the Dutch national government as prototypes for the new policy perspective on the quality and the execution of healthcare. At that time, the Dutch government had also implemented a new business paradigm of management into the public sector: New Public Management (NPM). NPM left more discretion to the managers and care institutions and companies and promoted public entrepreneurship (Meurs, 2014; Van Dale, 2010). NPM created, in concordance with new elderly care policy frameworks, a breeding ground for new initiatives.

De Blok was adopted by the State Secretary of social care, Jet Bussemaker – who had been active in the same professional network as De Blok in the years before she became State Secretary of social care – as an exemplary case of health care renewal and received oral government support. This stature aided De Blok in the rollout of Buurtzorg, for example, in negotiating contracts with healthcare insurance companies. Complexity theory informs us of the importance of ephemerality. It does matter which individual person acts as the nucleus of change, and how he is interconnected with others in the circles of influence. Ephemerality and the fluidity of interconnectedness is precisely what makes each transformation an unpredictable process (Bateson, 2002).

Evidence from The Netherlands also substantiates that leading transformation within a context of complexity requires a combination of leadership styles. De Blok, for example, is not only ‘the teal-leader’ – as defined by Laloux (2015) as the person capable of conditioning self-organization, of coaching his professionals and creating and holding the space to capacitate his team members to flourish professionally. He also embodies more traditional leadership styles that enable him to play the game in tough negotiations with insurance companies, real estate agents and the government. Leading transformation in complex environment calls for a myriad of leadership qualities that can only be expected from people who possess an inner balance. Leading self-organizing organizations in a complex setting  necessitates authenticity, self-creation and continuous personal development. Self-mastery is the key to growing ones leadership presence, building trusting relationship and enabling flexibility as circumstances change, while staying connected to ones core values (Geerlof, 2014).

Although the Dutch government changed its policy paradigm and policy framework on elderly and youth care, most of the rules and regulation and the liability protocols remained unchanged. These protocols had stimulated the traditional healthcare institutions in the past to centralize and expand and ended up becoming massive bureaucracies based on the merits of control and lack of professional space (Geerlof, 2011). ‘The powerless paradox’ of good intentions and unsystematic implementation is a general feature of Dutch policy.

The emergence of new self-organizational models in The Netherlands could not have taken place without the leadership of individuals and groups, and the cracks that emerged because of policy alterations. But to capitalize the merits of these new initiatives, a systemic transformation is imperative. The lack of systemic transformation is one of the reasons why most initiatives never reach a stage of maturity. As scholars and transformative consultants we can learn from these failures.

Recently we worked for an elderly care institution in the Western part of our country. Our assignment was to transform the traditional protocol-led working style, controlled by middle management, into a novel, client-centered approach conducted by multi-disciplinary self-organizing teams. We designed our approach as an action research (Reason & Bradbury, 2008). Step one was a sensing journey along the elderly care centers. As workers we participated in the teams and visited the homes as mystery guests. In these teams we observed how regulations and protocols cast a shadow on the performance of professionals. We witnessed how formalized rules are constructing the (inter)relation that professionals have with their clients. The team members complained that they had to ignore their personal values and ‘quality of care’ ethics. As a consequence, the care they delivered had become a derived version of the protocols of the national Inspection of healthcare.

A second step was the presentation of our analysis to the board of directors. In our power point presentation we proposed a series of pilots in which we would prototype the new elderly care with the professionals and participant from the neighborhood. Our analysis revealed three pillars of action in turning around the organization: (1) cuisine as the golden tread of daily routine, (2) enhanced neighbourhood participation and (3) the development and implementation of integral accountability based on storytelling, instead of facts and figures.

We started with one pilot with an interdisciplinary team by applying transformative tools inspired on the work of Kegan (2009), and Scharmer (2009) in a series of workshops. The team was inspired and co-created prototypes that could have been implemented almost the next day. The implementation failed because the board of directors actively disengaged when the going got tough and financial head wind took over the desire for transformation. The transformative language was widely applied on the website and the folders, but has not been materialized into behaviour and practice.

Transforming an existing organization on all levels – vision, structure, human resource management, leadership accountability, communication – into an organization based on the repertoire of self-organization, professional freedom, and person-centered services, requires vision, ambition, a long term perspective, and a combination of leadership styles engrained in the behavior of the governors and managers.

The emergence of self-organization in The Netherlands cannot be understood without the acknowledgement of the role of rapid changes in society. A crucial factor that created the conditions for new organizational models is the changing requirements of clients. The baby boomer generation – born after WWII – is retiring. They lived their lives in an era of progress and are the highest educated and most articulate group of elderly people our country ever had. This same conclusion holds for parents who rely on the youth and child social care systems for the support and healthcare of their children that suffer from autism have a low IQ, a mental illness, or who are physically handicapped. Both groups have been challenging the bureaucratic, rationalized, centralized, and protocolled, intramural health practice of the large-scale traditional institutions, and call for person-centered care that is locally organized (Bosscher, 2013).

The government responded to the needs of their voters by installing a new Child and Youth Law. Since the beginning of 2015, all 393 Dutch municipalities are responsible for the whole continuum of care for children, young people and families in need of support. Dutch aldermen carry the responsibility for the creation of a new landscape of youth and child social care. In concord, self-organized transdisciplinary local teams are inserted into the existing care system as the major instrument of change. The team members consist of youth health care workers, community education workers, youth psychologists and behavioral scientists. They collaborate in teams and work as ‘T-shaped’ professionals; each of the professionals participates from their own expertise and field of action, balancing generalism and specialism.

The scale of the implementation of the transdisciplinary teams is unseen in The Netherlands. For transformative consultants, the implementation of the self-organizing youth care teams is an ‘el dorado’, because hundreds of local teams have to be installed, and a major transformation is required. Most of the team members are former professionals working in one of the institutions, and have to reinvent their profession. In the process of prototyping, training and coaching we have encountered many enthusiastic professionals eager to playing a part in the self-organizing organizations, but again the lack of fertile context is worrisome.

The lobby-work of the establishment resulted in a Child and Youth Law which posits that in the first year of the transition, clients are eligible to a continuation of the youth care provided by the institutions, leaving hardly any space for new initiatives. As a consequence, the new self-organized transdisciplinary teams have to emerge within the context of existing organizations. Although the established institutions acknowledge the need for organizational change, they are at the same time being confronted with the question of organizational stability, or even survival. The “spontaneity paradox” arises when traditional leaders, as the managers and CEOs of youth care institutions, simultaneously encourage intrinsic motivation and self-organization, and demand that change has to take place within the existing organizational framework, leaving the teams in limbo with on the one hand clients that demand person-centered care and on the other hand managers that demand a traditional accountability.

Evidently, a youth care team cannot become self-organized without the proper transformational conditions. The process needs prototyping and building experiential knowledge in an iterative learning process facilitated by peer coaching and appreciative leadership that acknowledged the complexity of transformation, and fosters a social learning space in a complex context where the lives of children can be at stake. The years ahead will inform us whether self-organization will become a cornerstone of the Dutch youth and child social care system.

The emergence of self-organization sails on the wave of the reinvention of the professional. Policy documents and the mission statements of traditional health care institutions stipulate the importance of the professional, and vow to create space for professional judgment. These policies are translated into action, although not always in a consistent and systemic manner. Value-driven portfolios of health care services are developed and implemented, originating from a renewed awareness of human dignity of elderly people and of families that need youth and child care. The portfolio of some of the health care organizations is progressively based on prevention, hospitality, and interpersonal relations, and on facilitating autonomy and participation. But the basic structures of the organizations remain unchanged. As long as the professional will be expropriated by the employer, and only to be redistributed back to them in the form of artificial ‘functions’, task descriptions and protocol led workflows, the step towards full embodiment of the proposed values will be difficult. In refusal of this turn-around, the traditional organizations are against their odds generating the space for the unfoldment of new organizations that embody the principles of self-organization in their DNA. Not surprisingly many former professionals of traditional elderly care institutions have enrolled in Buurtzorg.

A rejoinder of leadership

Let us return to the topic of leadership and self-organization in complex environments. Our enlivened Dutch experience calls into question the notion that we are entering the phase of ‘no-leadership’. Some scholars, like Brafman & Beckstrom, misinterpret the significance of complexity and transformation in the time of The Great Transition as a dismissal of the importance of actively involved leadership. Our stance is that the complexity of our world and the renewal of organizational structures solely demystifies the traditional concept of leadership as the ‘single person’, ‘the male hero’, ‘the all-encompassing knower’, ‘the problem-solver’ and invites a leadership to emerge that enables supportive, complex, and adaptive behavior.

Complexity theory acknowledges the relevance of context. Context is intrinsic to self-organization, because self-organizing systems are open and closed at the same time and exists on the premise of continuous exchange of resources, like energy and information. The existing body of literature on leadership and self-organization neglects the importance of context. Future leadership research might profit from a transdisciplinary perspective, grounded on an epistemology of complexity, encompassing context, contingency and ephemerality. Dutch experience reveals that context is a key element in the emergence and sustenance of self-organization, as is ephemerality.

Dutch evidence informs us that the specificity of the organizational context colors the potential for self-organizing organizations. To lead the transforming of an organization from a traditional towards a self-organizing organization requires the capacity to embrace paradoxes. It also necessitates the application of multiple styles of leadership depending on the context and the audacity to go beyond conventional and widely accepted behaviors. De Blok is an informative example. He acts as the creator of a safe learning environment for his employees in which he perceived them as sense-makers and key knowledge holders (Berger & Johnston, 2015); if necessary he can transform instantly into the tough negotiator. His leadership presence is chameleonic and adaptive, a general feature of those who are leading in complex environments and are co-creating self-organizing organizations.

Few scholars – like Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001) and Montuori (2010) – have linked the epistemology of leadership to the epistemology of complexity. Complexity theory offers new epistemological windows for leadership inquiry, training, and development, which should be the centerpiece in the leadership debate in the coming years. We hope this article invites social scientist, future leaders and practitioners to expand their experiential knowledge on leading effectively in self-organizing organizations, and share their experiences –successes and failures – with the rest of the world

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About the Authors

Anke van Beckhoven and Jaap Geerlof are the initiators of Emergentie, a network of transformative consultants and embedded researchers working on assignments in the Netherlands on the transformation of the elderly care system, the youth and child social care system, the neighborhood care system, and the social security services.

We operate from the following guiding principles:

  • Participative observation.
  • Narrative and arts-based inquiry.
  • Participatory design; continuously rethink and reform co-operation with partners and stakeholders.
  • Capacity building and self-experience through prototyping.
  • Action research as driver for change.
  • Value based research; value what already has been accomplished, and continue building from there.
  • Awareness based; combining personal leadership, mindfulness with organisational transformation.
  • Complexity-based; facilitate effective co-operation and a culture of dialogue.

Anke van Beckhoven

Anke is a policy expert and an experienced researcher and organisation developer, involved in designing of social enterprises. Her years in corporate business and public administrations have informed her how to create and implement welfare and care practices: from translating core human values into work processes, developing methodology, to human resources, capacity building, and business models.

Jaap Geerlof is the co-founder and former CEO of a Dutch policy research and consultancy company in The Netherlands. He has conducted research in many fields of social and economic policy, has been an advisor of alderman of many cities and of several ministries in the Netherlands and a co-creator of transformations in the Dutch public administration. He is doing a PhD at the California Institute of Integral Studies on leadership and The Great Transition.



  1. Rinus van Klinken on June 6, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for a very interesting article. Self-organisation does seem to be an appropriate form of organisation for many professions in a context characterised by complexity (which is dominant almost everywhere). You make some very interesting observations of the leadership paradox for self-organisation. One aspect not tackled in the article is the results-focus (or fetish) and how this affect the self-organising professions. It seems to me that the demands for (quantitative) results does not only require a story-telling leadership, but also an creative one, i.e. one that can identify within the complexity of the context suitable ways of achieving results.

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