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Complexity Leadership Theory and Its Relationship with Transformational Leadership


The paper discusses the concept of Complexity Leadership Theory and Transformational Leadership. It will also explain how a transformational leader in a higher education setting can use Complexity Leadership Theory as a theoretical framework.

According to Bar-Yam (2003), complex leadership differs from traditional leadership in a number of ways. While the latter is based on alignment and control, the former depends on the leader to provide inspiration, vision, and execution. That is the former hinges on interaction and adaptability. The leader in complex leadership provides the organization with generative properties and follows the routinely performance to get things done. The change in a complex leadership environment is based on the emergent context, as opposed to traditional leadership where it is powered by the organization structure. Beardwell & Claydon (2007) noted that complex leadership theory is a framework to enable learning, creativity, and adaptive capacity to systems that are complex. The system, commonly known as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), is founded on the ability to produce organization-based knowledge, so that such can be used within that organization. The purpose of the structures is to foster changes in CAS while providing controlling systems that are appropriate to coordinate formal organizations. They also produce outcomes that support the mission and vision of the organization. In addition, it seeks to integrate the complex changes and bureaucracies so as to enable coordinated exploitation and exploration providing a CAS hierarchy a top-down control in an informal emergence. The challenge in Complex Leadership Theory is how to execute the CAS dynamics and informal emergencies without suppressing the creativity or adaptability capacity (Curlee & Gordon, 2013).

As Sweetman (2010) observes, Complex Leadership Theory views “leadership as a process through which leadership emerges from the networked interactions of organizational members” (p. 11). The leadership style is derived from the complex theory used to understand the complex systems in sciences and technology. The approach describes the leadership dynamics from a new angle giving it a multi-dimensional perspective and focuses on the organizational system behavior. Sweetman (2010) adds that the theory is not created to give a prescription to the leadership approach in an organization. Instead, the theory explains leadership as an essential systemic phenomenon, as well as an emerging event that needs to be managed differently.

Uhl-Bien, Marion & McKelvey (2008) identified three major components of Complexity Leadership Theory. The first is the complex adaptive system. This is a basic unit of analysis in many complex sciences. The system provides the interaction level of interrelated agents that are linked in a collaborative dynamism of similar outlook, needs, and goals. The second component is the organic, dynamic, and unpredictable occurrences in an unexpected manner and places. For instance, in an organization, the complex adaptive system in one department or a team can affect the whole organization. The last element of the complexity theory is that complex leadership theory implies that maximum performances of complex adaptive system provide the capability to adapt to the organization, and this gives a sense of a coordinated structure.

Types of Leadership in Complexity Leadership Theory

The complex leadership theory denotes three types of leadership. First is the adaptive leadership, which is the emergent behavior changes that come about because of the systemic interaction, interlink, and asymmetrical information. It is based also on the complex nature of network changes and tensions. This kind of approach denotes creative, learning, and adaptive actions that come about because of the CAS interactions while trying to adjust to the tension. On the other hand, the administrative leadership involves the activities of groups and people in a formal role to manage those who are able to coordinate activities and complete the organizational outcomes. This is expected to be done in an effective and efficient way. The function of administrative leadership is to participate in planning, create the vision, allocate resources, and ensure that the organization is moving towards the identified goals. Finally, administrative leaders must also manage the conflicts or crises that are likely to emerge while focusing on the control and alignment of purposes. Lastly, the enabling leadership happens in almost all levels in an organization. However, the role depends on the structural levels and positions in that organization. The enabling leadership is responsible for the creation of the necessary conditions that can promote effective leadership approach to places that require adaptability and innovation. The enabling leadership is also built on the flow of relevant information, as well as creativity and innovation in the organization (Gawel, 1997).

What Transformational Leadership Means

Transformational leadership is founded in a theory that leadership should focus on transforming the behaviors of those whom they lead in a positive manner while the followers are also transforming the behaviors of their leader (Komives & McMahon, 2013). In transformational leadership, the leader must go beyond his or her normal operations and develop strategies to guide the department or a company to a higher level of performance and achievement. A transformational leader focuses on building a team by motivating it and cooperating with them at various levels within the organization in an effort to achieve a better transformation. Transformative leaders also take responsibility in their groups or organizations by setting goals and giving incentives, so that the subordinates can achieve better results. They are also able to provide numerous opportunities for professional and personal growth for every person in their team (Girczyc, 2008).

Transformational leadership accomplishes four elements. The first is that a leader must develop an idealized influence by acting as a role model to employees. He/she must show a charismatic personality that will entice others to a desire to become like their leader. Idealized influence can be expressed through willingness to take risks by sticking to a particular set of values, ethical principles, and convictions about the tasks undertaken in the organization. Through idealized influence, the leader builds trust with employees and they, in return, develop buoyancy in the leader (Hansen, 2003).

A transformative leader is also able to inspire confidence, sense of purpose, and motivation among employees. This is done through clear articulation of the vision for future while communicating the expectations and demonstrating commitment to the vision and goals of the organization. This is why the leader must employ good communication skills to enable him/her express the message in a clear manner with a sense of responsibility and authority. The leader must also be continually optimistic and enthusiastic (Komives & McMahon, 2013).

The third element of a transformative leadership is the ability to ignite intellectualism through creativity and autonomy among employees. A transformative leader is supportive of the followers by continually including them in important activities like decision-making to tap their capacity and input of creativity and innovation in coming up with viable solutions. A transformative leader does not make assumptions but instead asks for ideas from employees without discrimination. The leader takes it upon himself/herself to change the thinking of his followers and the challenges that need solutions. He/she also helps the followers to see where the organization is heading to within a given period (Nworie, 2011).

The fourth element is that a transformative leader allows for individual consideration as per the needs of employees. A good leader must realize that each of his/her followers has different needs and desires. For instance, some may be inclined towards money while others only want a change. A transformative leader must consider the variations in needs and determine through whatever means what motivates each of his/her followers. The one-on-one coaching is a good session where a transformative leader can provide mentoring and coaching services. In this way, he/she can provide personalized training sessions for every follower. This can positively affect the growth of both the organization and the character (Schwartz, 1999).

How a transformational leader can use Complexity Leadership Theory as a theoretical framework in a higher education setting

Building Human Capital

A leader in an educational setting will build the human capital by empowering the students with the knowledge and skills required to succeed. A transformative leader does this through training and involving the people in planning and decision-making (Komives & McMahon, 2013). More important in a higher education environment is the empowerment aspect that students must have. The leader, in complex leadership theory, must give the organization generative properties and follow the routinely performance to get things done. The emergent context will determine the change in a complex leadership environment such as a higher education setting. In this case, an enabling leadership will be required to empower students to take more responsibilities in school while participating in the effort towards achieving the goals of their college. The leader in this case will come up with various ways to enable students develop into responsible leaders by responding to their individual needs. Enabling leadership also empowers followers, so that they are aligned towards the goals and objectives that the college wants to achieve (Beck, 2004).

Motivating Subordinates

Yvonne (2011) noted that motivation is one aspect that transformative leaders use to see that their followers are not only contented with what they do but also rewarded for their work. The complex leadership theory identifies enabling leadership as one aspect that a transformative leader can use to motivate the followers. For instance, the leader can routinely delegate duties to students, so that they take up leadership roles at early stages. This will definitely motivate them to look up to their leader whenever they are given leadership duties, so that they do not embarrass their leader. Yvonne suggests that delegation of duty will also motivate the subordinate because they develop a sense of responsibility. Everyone will be motivated to take up his or her responsibilities seriously.

Managing Interpersonal Conflict

A good leader knows that conflicts are bound to happen in their organization. The circumstances, in which conflicts arise, are crucial to managing the conflict. As a transformative leader in a complex environment, one must develop an effective system of communication that allows all parties involved to communicate freely in an effort to manage the complex organization structure (Winkler, 2009). In a higher education environment, for instance, a transformative leader will have in place a system to report anything that a follower thinks might cause a conflict. This gives him/her an opportunity to handle the problem before it explodes into a full conflict. A transformative leader also advocates for forums where follows are free to talk to each other. In this way, it is possible to understand the needs of everyone and identify ways to meet them. Moreover, a transformative leader applies collaborative skills while examining the organizational and psychological dimensions as systems of enablers and thinkers within the team. Understanding the kind of hostility among the followers will also assist in deciding the kind of approach that will be taken to handle a conflict. For instance, it will enable the leader to handle nonassertive behaviors differently from the passive or direct aggression (Winkler, 2009).

Managing Goal Conflict

A transformative leader involves the followers in decision-making and planning. This is supposed to help him/her to tap their creativity and innovation. One of the important areas that transformative leaders must seek the support of the followers is the goal: the very reason why people are asked to do what they are doing. In a higher education setting, students will have their own expectations from the learning process (Taras & Steel, 2010). However, before starting a class, the teacher or instructor may ask students about their expectations in that lesson and tell them his/her. Managing conflicts related to the goal is the simplest, and a transformative leader should be able to achieve this through inclusion in discussions and decision-making (Beck, 2004).

Decision Making Strategies

Inclusive decision-making is the secret of a successful leadership. A transformative leader must put in place systems that allow followers to participate fully in the decisions that are undertaken in an organization (Geyer, 2003). In a higher education environment, this can be done through discussion forums where followers are asked to give their views concerning a particular decision. For instance, the subject teacher/instructor can discuss with the students, the objectives and goals to expect. This will allow students to make suggestions concerning their class. The strategies adapted in the decision-making process are also important as they can allow followers to exploit fully their creativity and innovation. The use of suggestion boxes will also allow followers to make suggestions anonymously. It may turn out to be more creative and innovative than if they were giving them in an open forum. It also gives the leader time to tap into the actual feeling of his/her followers as they feel a sense of privacy when they contribute to the decision-making process (De Witte & Muijen, 2000).

Approaches to Communication

Effective and timely communication is a recipe to a successful leadership. A transformative leader puts in place systems at every level in the organization to enable followers to converse with each other in a timely manner (Kirkman, Lowe & Gibson, 2006). The leader must approach the communication style depending on the circumstance, so that followers do not feel intimidated but rather empowered when their leader speaks to them. The leader must also put in place systems to ensure that the communication in the organization is productive. For instance, there should be no grapevine or unsubstantiated communication. This will only mean that the leader is not communicating effectively with the followers. A quick flow of relevant information, as well as innovation and creativity, will ensure that the team is empowered and motivated to achieve the goals (Steers & Nardon, 2010).

Managing Organizational Culture and Climate Change

According to Deloitte (2010), successful organizations are led by a system of culture that is inspired by the beliefs, values, and assumptions for the leadership. It is also important that the members of the groups are also willing to learn throughout the process of developing their organization by adapting to the new belief systems, assumptions, and values that are brought in by the leaders or new members. Deloitte (2010) indicated that a transformative leader is someone who not only provides a set of systems and practices that form the culture of a group or organization but also engages in choosing the group members and influences their views of the group by encouraging them to make efforts towards a success. Moreover, leaders in a higher education setup must ensure that there is integration in their department of leadership to establish an environment that is goal oriented, coordinated, and united towards a particular mission. Leaders must be people who can sell their vision to an organization and make it formulate viable solutions to the challenges in their environment.

Managing Human Diversity

Nworie (2011) observes that the human diversity denotes different needs and expectations. A transformative leader is able to put this into consideration when planning on the objectives and goals of an organization. He/she allows customized trainings to cater for the needs of followers. Human diversity also means that the organizational culture must be universal and not discriminatory to some followers based on their religion, race, or any other characteristics. The leader must consider both the internal and external environment to understand his/her role in accommodating diverse needs of followers (Schabracq, 2009).

In conclusion, a proper understanding of such concepts as Complexity Leadership Theory and Transformational Leadership are necessary to anyone who wants to excel as a leader. The Complexity Leadership Theory can successfully be used as a theoretical framework in any set up. Thus, organizations must integrate such proven theories to enhance their performance.


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