“In these troubled, uncertain times, we don’t need more command and control; we need better means to engage everyone’s intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise.”

Traditional perspectives on leadership are based on a view of organisations as mechanical systems. Organisations are made up of  prescriptive rules, formalised control mechanisms and hierarchical authority structures – all adding up to clearly defined responses to a changing but knowable world.

This machine model of organisations is prevalent among international agencies, as ALNAP research identified in 2008, and carries with it some clear assumptions about what effective leadership means in the aid sector.

The aim of the machine organisation is to achieve routines, equilibrium, stability and order, and leaders are expected to contribute to this stabilisation through directive actions, based on planning for the future and controlling organisational responses.

However, in complex systems, as regular readers of this blog will be well aware, the future cannot be perfectly predicted and change cannot be precisely directed. Russ Marion and Mary Uhl-Bien have undertaken over 10 years of research which suggests that in complex systems there is a need for distinctive leadership qualities.

Empirical research in many different organisations – they range from church-based community organisations to Al Qaeda – has highlighted a number of vital ‘complex adaptive leadership’ qualities. Some of these findings resonate with Marshall Ganz’s analysis of the 2008 Obama Presidential Campaign, examined in a previous Aid on the Edge post.

Specifically, ‘complex adaptive leaders’ are characterised by their ability to 1) disrupt existing patterns; 2) encourage novelty; and 3) use ‘sensemaking’.

  • Leaders disrupt existing patterns in organisational behaviour by creating and highlighting conflicts, rather than stabilising the organisation. For example, in the organisations under study, successful leaders made several radical and controversial changes, internally and externally, and used communications to bring attention to these changes as a way of highlighting the importance of the ongoing change. This contrasts with the traditional leadership approach of creating predictable behaviours by minimising conflict and eliminating uncertainty. Another way for leaders to disrupt existing patterns is by acknowledging and embracing uncertainty, refusing to back away from uncomfortable truths, talking openly about the most serious issues, and challenging institutional ‘taboos’. This can encourage more open thinking about these issues, and provide legitimate ground for new ideas and patterns to emerge. Again, the traditional leadership approach was to shy away from difficult conversations and focus on hoped-for certainties.
  • Leaders encourage novelty by actively looking and promoting innovation rather than standard operating procedures. They do this by generating and reinforcing simple rules which could allow innovation to emerge at local levels. Such “distributed leadership” is based on ‘tenacious rigidity about principles and complete flexibility in how to go about carrying out the principle’. Facilitating interactions was also key, enabling staff to start interacting with each other in new and different ways. Instead of creating a single ‘assembly point’, successful leaders kickstarted many small group interactions, increasing connections between people and creating a richer and more unpredictable dialogue within the organisations in question. This contrasts with the traditional model of a leader as using command and control approaches, and maintaining strict hierarchies of reporting relationships.
  • Finally, leaders act as ‘sensemakers’, helping to interpret rather than ‘forge’ or ‘drive’ change. Leaders so this by giving meaning to what is happening, acting as ‘tags’ (Holland, 1995). Tags enable specific behaviours by directing attention to what is important and what things mean. Leaders become tags when others recognise that they symbolise deeper messages of change. Leaders also make sense of emergent and unanticipated events through reframing, either in the principles of the organisation, or in the context of the hoped-for changes and how important they are. And leaders label behaviours in ways that provide coherence and shared understanding. Using language carefully, leaders are able to articulate meanings, lend weight to collective action, and clarify the hoped-for image of the organisation.

The overall conclusion of this research was that the leaders of successful organisations did play a key role in radical transformations of those organisations, but not by specifying it or directing it but by creating the conditions which allowed for the emergence of such change.

The contrasts between traditional and complex adaptive leadership are shown below, drawing on research from the University of Minnesota.

  Conventional View of Leadership Complex Adaptive Leadership
Leadership is… a position or role of authority an activity or behavior that can arise anywhere in a human system
Leadership flows… in one direction: from the top-down in all directions
Leadership is exercised… by individuals with special leadership traits collectively by groups and/or by individuals informed by the collective
Effective leadership comes from… accurately anticipating a predictable path to a predetermined outcome recognizing and influencing patterns that are present in human systems at all levels
Leadership requires… certainty, clear vision, and the power of persuasion and control willingness to embrace uncertainty, listen to all voices and take adaptive action, often in collaboration with others
Leadership creates… harmony and stability conditions that are conducive to groups moving forward — which sometimes means disrupting the habitual patterns of engagement so that groups, communities, or organizations can set the conditions for a preferred future
The purpose of leadership is to… fix problems and leverage opportunities to achieve goals enable adaptability, learning, and innovation so that groups make progress on the issues they care about –even in unpredictable and changing conditions
Leadership can make a difference through… one large strategic intervention designed to fix a problem or achieve a goal recognizing emerging patterns in human systems and making meaning out of many small changes

This is challenging, not least because it subverts the sources of power traditionally relied upon by leaders for their authority. This is especially the case in the aid sector, which relies on a degree of certainty for its very existence (“give us more aid so the flood victims suffering will be eased”, “give us money so we can make poverty history”, etc etc etc).

Instead of a culture of compliance, so predominant among aid agencies, leaders need to foster a culture of curiosity. This leads to a paradox of leadership in complex settings such as those faced by aid agencies: leaders need to undercut their sources of power, while simultaneously retaining people’s confidence and trust. They need to outline the uncertainties they face while simultaneously eliciting trust of key stakeholders (for more on trust, see the previous Aid on the Edge post). This may ultimately mean that aid agencies need to go for smaller, more humble, more realistic, but ultimately more effective approaches.

This is the aid leadership paradox – if anyone wants to truly lead an aid organisation in complex settings, they need to give up on conventional ideas of being a leader of an organisation.

This calls for being less worried about growth, and more focused on relevance; less about branding and profile, and more about partners and relationships; less concerned with ‘being the first and the best’, and more obsessed with the collective, longer-term effectiveness of aid efforts.

A good guiding principle might be the old Teddy Roosevelt quote: “There is no limit to what a person can achieve if they don’t mind who gets the credit”.

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. […] to be doing this well.) (Update #2: Recommend subscribing to the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. Love this post – now, can I just get the organization where I work to see the […]

  2. This is a wonderful post that presents the distinction between a conventional (and prevailing) view of leadership, with one that reflects the new reality of social organizations as highly complex and dynamic.

    To be sure, this poses real and vexing challenges that must be overcome. One that stands out to me is the need to develop the capacities and competencies of people, individually and collectively, to not only recognize and understand this new reality, and the kind of leadership required to navigate it, but who can enact it in their everyday actions.

    What is needed are more learning environments that result in complex leadership being embodied in people, and embedded in the social networks in which they belong and serve.

  3. […] the similar lines, Ben Ramalingam recently described “complex adaptive leaders” — focusing more on leadership qualities than on organizational structure/practices. Such […]

  4. […] argument resonates strongly with ideas of complex adaptive leadership explored in a previous post here. The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its […]

  5. For those interested in “Complex Adaptive Leadership” (CAL) my book on the subject was published the same time as Ben’s article – a real example of complexity and morphic resonance in action! There is a deep underlying flow in the affairs of humanity of which CAL is a manifestation…

  6. […] selection. In other contexts, they’ve written more about adaptive leadership (e.g. see this one from the Ramalingam). I agree with most of what they have to say on the topic. Where I part ways with them is on the […]

  7. […] The Leadership Paradox – Leadership is … an activity or behavior that can arise anywhere in a human system. […]

  8. […] discuss, ‘How can we help them?’” – Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Educator, via @PascalVenier The Leadership Paradox – Leadership is … an activity or behavior that can arise anywhere in a human […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Facilitation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Resilience, Self organisation, Strategy