Leaning into Complexity: Supporting Leaders Through Transformative Learning

Nancy Southern Sylvia Gafney and Bernice Moore

Nancy Southern,  Sylvia Gaffney, and Bernice Moore

Nancy Southern

Sylvia Gafney

Results of a qualitative study show how leaders experience complexity and how it is changing their understanding of their role and ways of engaging with and supporting others. Transformative learning theory and practice can aid leaders in shifting their meaning schemes and ways of being to enable organizational transformation.

IBM’s 2010 study of 1500 CEOs of organizations worldwide revealed that the greatest challenge facing leaders today is working in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world. The complexity that surrounds

Bernice Moore

them is changing the nature of their organizations and their roles as leaders, and most stated they felt ill equipped to meet the challenge. This paper and the supporting research explores ways in which transformative learning can assist leaders in learning how to lean into complexity much like an encounter with the other, as they seek to develop new ways of working that include engagement of others through shared leadership. Through understanding transformative learning, leaders can develop their own ability to shift their meaning schemes and perspectives; learn how to create space and opportunity for others to engage in this dynamic dance of learning; and change and develop new ways of working together.

As educators, researchers, and organizational systems consultants, we are intrigued with the findings of the 2010 IBM study. While complexity in the work environment has been increasing for some time and is a natural outcome of the fast-paced information age, this is the first year of this annual study that the challenge of complexity made its way to the top of executive concerns. Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services, noted that the findings of the study reflect the reality that “the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system” (IBM).

Clearly this challenge presents a potential crisis, and we have seen the effects of many organizational system failures that resulted from both manmade and natural catastrophes that devastated people, communities, and societies. It seems the infrastructure that supported us in the 20th century is crumbling rapidly. Every crisis also creates opportunity, and we believe this one calls us to bring transformative learning theory and practice to support leaders in meeting the challenge of increasing interdependence and complexity. The CEO’s in the IBM study saw the need for greater ability to work with ambiguity in ways that engage creativity and support innovation. Our belief is that understanding the nature of transformative learning can help leaders see that doing more of the same by focusing on increased controls and hoping for behavioral changes will not create the conditions for people to work together creatively within 21st century organizational systems.

Research Approach

Our article first reviews the themes that emerged from our research, which included interviews with 14 leaders in business, government, healthcare, and non-profit organizations. We sought a diverse group of leaders and reached out to people we knew could provide insight into this challenge and opportunity. These were people in director level and above positions in organizations that have a variety of challenges and opportunities, and who rely on their working relationships to support their effectiveness as leaders. Participants included five CEOs from high-tech start up, global purchasing, software development, economic development, and public agencies; a Director of Women and Children’s Services in a major public hospital; a Risk Manager for a major bank; a Talent Director for a global manufacturing company; an Operations VP for a high-tech manufacturing company; and others. These are women and men between the ages of 30 and 65 who represent a mix of cultural backgrounds.

Our approach to the research was to craft a conversation grounded in Habermas’ (1985) four domains of communicative competence. Together we sought new understanding of the challenge of working with complexity through a learning conversation that was grounded in mutual comprehension, shared values, truthfulness, and trust. The purpose of the conversation was to create an opportunity for both the researcher and participant to experience what Gadamer (1993) termed a fusion of horizons, or an expanded horizon of understanding for these leaders, for us, and for those with whom we will share this work.

We wanted to learn more about how these leaders are experiencing complexity and how it is changing their understanding of themselves as leaders, their role in the organization, and their relationships with those with whom they work. We also hoped to create a space for their critical and appreciative reflection on their situation in a way that would bring greater meaning to them and support their transformative learning journey. Brookfield (in Mezirow & Associates, 2000), describes the purpose of critical reflection as”making explicit and analyzing that which was previously implicit and uncritically accepted” (131). Through critical reflection these leaders were able to consider the beliefs and assumptions that informed their way of working and how those were changing through this encounter with complexity. At the same time, we sought to enable them to appreciate the importance of the work they are doing to support their leadership role and to create the conditions for others to meet this challenge.

Research Findings

While these leaders had varying degrees of understanding of complexity, systems, transformative learning, and organizational transformation theory, they all had an awareness that they were working in social and organizational systems that required them to connect the interrelated parts and help others see the interrelated nature of their work. In all cases, these leaders were able to associate their experience of complexity with changes in their effectiveness as leaders. Many of these leaders described their experience in working within complexity as both stressful, due to the many pressures and challenges, and also exhilarating. Many described the reality of working within a space of ambiguity where they were not sure what they might encounter at any given moment. One leader noted that “you need to be ready to be thrown into an urgent situation at any moment” and stressed the importance of helping people prepare to be effective in those unplanned situations.

Different stages of awareness, different levels of understanding, and different energy supported some leaders in experiencing the increasing complexity as exhilarating, while at the same time demanding. Some leaders were clearly not thriving on the complexity they were experiencing and described the need to cope through creating greater separation between their work and non-work life and focusing on providing the needed comfort away from work. Many described their need to strengthen their relationships to both support others in working in this complex environment and to gain the support they needed to ensure their leadership effectiveness. Others spoke about the importance of making better connections between people and technology.

An important finding that emerged from the research was the extent to which organizational conditions and culture make a difference in leaders’ experiences and ability to change their way of being in their leadership role. Some of these leaders felt they had significant influence in changing the cultural conditions and others did not. Those who were working to create change recognized they were in new territory that placed them in a vulnerable position as they tried to foster transformative change on the individual, team, and organizational levels.

A strong theme involved the need for more voices, improved communication, and trusting relationships that would enable people to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from failure as well as from success. Important to many of these leaders was their ability to surface and engage diverse perspectives, recognizing that unless differences could be addressed, the creativity, innovation, and collaboration necessary to succeed in this environment could not occur. As one participant noted, “we need a culture that allows for challenge.” Important within this culture of challenge is that alignment be achieved, and fairly quickly. One participant noted:

I strive to work with the team, connect the dots, and create alignment. It’s not only the people who work for me—it’s my peers and superiors as well. The most important piece in a group of people is that we all have to be in synch—in synch about the issues, the root causes, and the fix.

All of these leaders clearly see that they are working within and across organizational systems that are interrelated and require them to think and act systemically. While some of the leaders still rely on the hierarchy as an important aspect of getting things done, others expressed the need to break down some of the hierarchy, especially when it reinforces power distance that strains relationships and communication. These leaders get their power through relationships and recognize that strong and trusting relationships enable them to take risks that support transformative change. All of them recognized the need to lean into complexity rather than resist it as they know it is not going away. One leader noted:

I have a lot of faith in complexity as an organic movement. I believe that the forces that happen are happening for a reason and are important. I know it is bigger than me and I trust it. . .  It is hard and at the same time, I feel this is a very important time in our history. I am excited about the role I can play. That gets me up every day, smiling, and thinking about the possibilities. I try to stay aware of the impact of stress on me and work with that.

These leaders are taking responsibility and accountability for creating the conditions for transformative learning and change in their workplaces. Some are actively engaged in learning more about the nature of complexity, systems, and new approaches to leadership. Many saw the need to increase their awareness of the forces and dynamics at play, move from power to supportive relationships, place greater reliance on collaboration, and encourage the process of challenging prevailing beliefs and practices. All of these potentially transformative changes require some degree of shift in their own and others’ meaning schemes.

The theory and practice of transformative learning can provide important understanding to support their personal development and provide them with new approaches to work within their organizations. The remainder of this article is our attempt to connect the dots between this theory and practice with the transformative change that is needed to work in a more complex world.

Relevance of Transformative Learning Theory to Leaders’ Experiences

Mezirow (1990) defined the purpose of transformative learning as shifting meaning schemes and perspectives. While many of us have worked for years to support transformative change in organizations with some movement in this regard, radical transformation away from rigid hierarchies and functional silos has not yet taken place in many organizations. Organizations remain stuck in old patterns of structure and process, and leaders have not yet developed the capacity to question the underlying assumptions that keep them stuck. As Brookfied (in Mezirow, Taylor, and Associates, 2009) points out, organizational leaders need to develop greater capacity for critical reflection and analysis both to recognize their agency and to challenge and change the underlying theories and practices that are present in the embedded power structures that limit human connectedness and full participation.

The increased challenges of living and working in a complex world creates the need for leaders in all types of organizations to create new understanding of the nature of their roles and responsibilities and how they engage in relationships with all who are interconnected through the organization. Our research showed that the challenge of meeting the systemic demands of complexity is creating a greater need for leaders to reach out and seek the support of others and in return recognize how critical their support is to helping others work in this increasingly complex environment. One leader noted

Previously I held people issues and technical issues as separate entities. Now I see that they are interconnected. I have to have the right people doing the right things with the right tools. I need to know people deeply, be involved in their challenges, and aware of how they are responding and what is happening with them.

Other leaders noted the importance of engaging diverse voices to support understanding the various aspects that create complex situations and the challenges of helping people work with different perspectives. One leader shared how he experiences people differently within the context of the complexity that surrounds their organization.

The most complex is the people aspect. I believe that each person is a sacred mystery in and of themselves–let alone all the complexity that surrounds and comes with each one of them. I have to ask myself: Do I choose to embrace and accept the mystery of this person? Or, do I manipulate him or her to what I want? I’m an introverted leader, and leaning into the mystery of an individual is both fun and a challenge for me.

One can see in this quote that a shift in meaning schemes took place as this leader recognized the importance of experiencing others in a deep and meaningful way, as people who are experiencing similar challenges and likely hold similar aspirations. This way of being in relationship as a leader is quite different than the more traditional perspective of working with human resources, which this leader recognizes as a manipulative approach. While it was not the purpose of this study, future research could delve deeper into the experiences of leaders who have made a shift in meaning schemes to understanding what supported them in doing so. New understanding that is emerging through brain science and mindfulness practices may also support leaders in transforming their meaning schemes; and a connection of this research to those emerging areas is explored in a paper by Gaffney and Moore, available in the 2011 Transformational Learning Conference Proceedings.

These leaders saw the need to develop the capacity of those who work with them to understand and work with complexity. This involves educating people about the interrelated dynamics at play and developing their ability to hold the tension that is created when one enters the space of unknowing and ambiguity. One leader described how he was instrumental in helping the organization move from functional silos to action learning teams. He noted the importance of developing trustful relations that could support open and honest communication.

We have established weekly meetings. We talk about life for the first half hour so that we can get to know each other. Then we talk about what we need from each other. We encourage people to be honest and lay it out respectfully. We tell them to trust the process. The focus is on open communication–say what you need to say. We point out to each other the problems we were experiencing with each other’s teams. They may tell me problems with my team and I need to not respond defensively, but see it as an opportunity to improve.

What we see reflected in the above statement is a learning-centered approach that asks leaders and those who work with them to engage in trusting and truthful relationships in ways that expect reduced power difference and greater vulnerability and trust. Leaders need to model this way of being in relationship and create a safe space for others to engage with them. Many of these leaders described the importance of making sure they were communicating often, with transparency, encouragement, and trust.

The conditions leaders described as needed in today’s complex work environment focused on creating a space where people can be comfortable with not knowing, taking risks, seeking support, and working collaboratively in new and creative ways. This is to a great degree the environment that Peter Senge (1990) envisioned as a learning organization, through which the disciplines of personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking called for transformative learning and change in organizations. Although a number of organizations have used the learning organization framework to create new cultures that support greater engagement, creativity, and innovation, the practice of organizational learning has been limited by a lack of understanding of transformative learning.

Transformative Learning as a Collective Endeavor

Transformative learning happens through an encounter with the other, creating a disorienting dilemma when the encounter does not fit into our existing meaning schemes. For these leaders, complexity is “the other;” and their need to engage in new ways, with new understanding, new language, and new actions presents a disorienting dilemma, as it is easier to rely on that which is known and comfortable. Organizations with their embedded power structures are not safe spaces for transformative learning. Leaders tend to rely too heavily on instrumental learning with a primary focus on the individual’s role as a leader. Complexity, in our opinion, requires shared leadership, which has at its core communicative learning. The shift to communicative learning in organizations can have a significant effect and support new ways of working together to foster Senge’s (1990) concept of team learning which centers on critical reflection, dialogic communication, and a shift in meaning schemes. How can leaders create that safe space for transformative learning for themselves and others?

The importance of relationships emerged through our conversations. All of these leaders were fully aware that the nature of their relationships had changed and felt that this was a place where continuous attention and learning was needed. Much of their effort was devoted to shifting their relationships and supporting others in doing so. As one leader noted:

We appreciate, as a team, how important it is for us to take the time to understand each other. Peer relationships are the biggest challenge we continue to face. And, we consciously work on it. It’s like a good marriage. It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t work as well–even when you’re working hard at making it work! Peer relationships require a big sacrifice on everyone’s part. It’s all about energy. Why should I expend my energy to worry, or think about, or care about my peers and their issues? Everyone needs to first understand that everything is interconnected. What affects others has an effect on me and the whole organization in some way. Our work on relationships is never done.

Many of these leaders spoke to their ways of collaborating with their peers and reaching across the traditional silos to better understand and connect with others who hold different perspectives on the work. One leader spoke about how she helps others work with difference and the conflict that can arise from it. She has some background in transformative learning theory and practice and recognizes how it helps her create a space for transformative learning.

I can help others enhance their relationships and help people understand how and why difference exists and conflict results. I try to think about the assumptions people are holding and conflicts they are having and try to help individuals and groups bring those out. I do this in the many meetings I facilitate each week. I help people bring up assumptions, question them, and design new assumptions.

In working with complexity, leaders are challenged to move people from blame and avoidance to patterns that support collaboration. Collaboration is a dynamic system that requires a focus on strengthening relationships to enable increased risk taking and trust and open the space for inquiry and dialogue. Participation within this collaborative space enables the creativity of new ideas that lead to innovation and change.

As leaders learn to embrace the unknown and lean into complexity, they can develop new capabilities to lead transformative change in their organizations and support the development of transformative learning in others. This opportunity to infuse transformative learning as a way to work with complexity can have significant influence in creating organizations where people thrive and work together in just and ethical ways. These are the types of organizations we need in order to create a more sustainable world.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1993). Truth and Method. 2nd ed. Trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Continuum.

Habermas, Jurgën. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Trans. T. McCarthy. Vol. 1. Boston: Beacon Press. Original work published 1981.

IBM Corporation (2010). “Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study: An IBM study.” Somers, N.Y.  IBM Global Business Services. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from:

IBM Corporation (2010). “Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success.”  Retrieved April 4, 2011 from

Mezirow, Jack & Associates. (1990). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, Jack & Associates. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Mezirow, Jack., Taylor Edward W. & Associates. (2009). Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, Peter. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

About the Authors

Nancy Southern, EdD, is an executive faculty member at Saybrook University and Chair of the MA and PhD programs in Organizational Systems. She is a research member of the Global Society of Organizational Learning and a steward with the Bay Area Society of Organizational Learning and an active member in the Organizational Development Network. She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Transformative Education and the Organizational Development Practitioner. Her research interests intersect culture, collaboration, community and innovation using qualitative methodologies including action research, hermeneutics, and other interpretative and transformative approaches. Nancy’s consulting work focuses on creating cultures of collaboration in public, private, and non-profit organizations and local communities. She has worked with senior and mid-management teams to help build their capacity for engaging in meaningful conversations and appreciative, critical inquiry to address their challenges and create the organizational changes they desire.

Sylvia Gaffney, Ph.D. is president and owner of Gaffney Corporate Strategies providing custom-designed consulting services in organizational effectiveness and change management programs to companies on a national and international basis. Sylvia facilitates workshops and consults with senior leaders on program implementation for large and small corporations in integrated business planning focusing on strategy, structure, systems, staffing and stakeholders. Her work is focused in the areas of team building and blending, leadership development, intergenerational challenges, cultural change issues, resilience, retention, recruitment, job compatibility, and employee morale. She has conducted orientation programs, exit interviews, and 360 feedback processes. She provides executive and life coaching. Sylvia graduated from Pepperdine’s MSOD program and received her PhD in Organizational Systems from Saybrook University.

Bernice Moore, PhD, is President of ICO Consulting. She has a PhD in organizational systems and years of practical experience as an internal and external consultant leading organizational change. Bernice has studied group dynamics with the Gestalt Institute and organizational learning with the MIT Organizational Learning Center and has a background in international policy and economics. Bernice has worked with teams from all over the world, helping them to succeed and to build cultures of collaboration. She led one program that increased sales from 0 to $9,000,000 in just 9 months; she brought a team together from the US and Mexico to build a state-of-the art interpretation center in Mexico City. Bernice coached international executives in China and Europe to work through and resolve the conflicts that had incapacitated them. ICO Consulting is dedicated to helping customers use Inquiry to improve how we think and work together, Collaboration to improve working relationships across boundaries, and Optimization to continually improve processes and results.