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Complexity theory attends to systems that are highly dynamic, with many parts acting and reacting to each other and their environment. In a time when change is taking place on multiple levels, within many systems around various timelines, complexity theory helps us, participants in these systems, personally navigate multiple systems at one time.) For a simple definition see or for a more in-depth definition.)

Every system must engage with its environment for it to function, people being no exception. The degree with which a system can partner with or adapt to changes in the environment correlates with the systems ability to thrive and flourish. Yet systems are usually happy staying as they are, for they have a deep desire to remain stable. This dynamic is called homeostasis. As we think about this innate desire and the call for leaders to push systems to change, it is important to remember this is hard work and in times of great environmental change not all systems will find the motivation to change. Yes, some systems will die.
But there is hope! An important concept in complex adaptive systems is that of self-organizing. This is the force within systems that helps it change as the environment changes. Self-organizing theory looks at this phenomenon of how agents, governed by a few rules, sync behavior from the bottom-up without any centralized control. Researchers in this area look for simple rules. Often these rules are not big concepts, but little practices, habits, or commitments. Learning to self-organize or self-regulate is critical for systems. Some times this process is healthy and allow the system to thrive, and at other times the regulation is unhealthy and the system becomes dysfunctional. Leaders can help systems discern if their self-organizing is healthy or unhealthy as they help the organization raise to it's consciousness the process (healthy or unhealthy) it uses to self-organize.

One of the assets of complex adaptive systems theory is it seeks to be practical, or useful on the ground. In this way it gives leaders, in various systems from various disciplines, new ways of understanding the systems in which they are leading. Pat Ebright, for example, found it helpful for her in understanding why she could not approach a situation linearly and/or resolve a situation with a linear approach. A complex adaptive systems approach reminded her that relationships matter, systems are dynamic, aspects of systems are interrelated, and there are things you simply can't prepare for. As a leader in health care, these are important aspects to account for in leading.

Complexity leadership draws on complexity theory and sees leadership "as a complex interactive dynamic that promotes the emergence of adaptive outcomes (learning, innovation, adaptability)." This framework "enables the learning, creative, and adaptive capacity" and recognizes three leadership roles "administrative, adaptive, and enabling." (For more see this article.) It is an example of how theory, and leadership theory in particular, has evolved as theory and studying dynamic systems has evolved.

So how has the world of leading evolved? Leadership theorists use to think of leadership using scientific management theories. In this approach leaders focused on controlling functions with a goal of increase production (scale) and/or quality control. Making things efficient was standard procedure during this time. (And it thought in terms of linear processes.) The next evolution was around systems thinking where leadership theorists sought to understand the pieces in relation to the whole, see the flow of information, and understand how systems adapted. Yet often these systems were built on less complicated understandings of the world (or only addressed one of the many systems at play). Now, drawing on complexity theory, leadership theories have moved toward sense-making or helping people situate themselves within various networks. One example of this model is Cynefin's model. This simple matrix helps leaders locate themselves and gives clues as how to navigate through the complexities in order to create meaning and move forward.


I am a dynamic, changing system. 

Leadership means leading at least one dynamic, changing system within a context that's dynamic and changing.

Drawing on complexity theory, in general, and complex adaptive systems and complexity leadership, in particular, 21st century leaders can gain insights into how to lead today in order not only thrive but also to contribute to a greater whole in meaningful ways.