In #SAcdn, Articles

by John Hannah

In answer to the call from SA-Exchange, here’s one of my graduate essays from a few years ago, back when I thought it was cool to be wordy and pompous… I’m not like that at all anymore. 

Traditional leadership models are deeply rooted within an industrial age paradigm in which leaders are seen to occupy privileged positions within a vertically organized hierarchy. Leaders, according to this perspective, possess some favoured combination of specialized knowledge and specific characteristics endowing them with the ability to see what others cannot and, by means of vested authority, protect the enterprise from destabilizing external forces and lead it in a desired direction (Plowman & Duchon, 2008). This model of leadership is a comfortable fit not only with an industrial paradigm intent on stability, productivity and control, but also with deeply embedded habits of interpretation about leadership within our popular consciousness. As such, it has served industrial enterprises well (Marion, 2008). But, given the quantum shift from a society based on an industrial economy to one grounded in the generation of knowledge, as well as general societal shifts towards globalisation, connectedness and flattening hierarchies, the continued applicability of this traditional view of leadership comes into question.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education which has demonstrated a stubborn adherence to tradition in the face of the surrounding widespread societal change. Education, which should be at the forefront of these cultural shifts, has been restrained by traditional models of leadership intent on stability (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2002). This is not to suggest that there have been no innovations made in the field related to teaching and learning. Indeed, there have been significant contributions made to a changing landscape of the teaching and learning enterprise and many “classrooms” today are places very different than their traditional counterparts. However, these changes are far from pervasive and have occurred in spite of the traditional hierarchies of school leadership not because of them. They have emerged organically within schools against the backdrop of tight, restraining, conservative school leadership structures. If the time has come for, as many commentators have argued, a “revolution in education” (see, for example, Robinson, 2010) then a new more holistic model of leadership is required – one that creates rather than suppresses the conditions for these emergent innovations to be more readily enabled. One such model that holds promise is complexity leadership, a model that “…provides a framework in which certain leader behaviours work to foster complex mechanisms and generate conditions in which agents can respond quickly and effectively to unanticipated conditions (both destructive and beneficial)” (Marion, 2008, p. 10). This view is underpinned by complexity theory and the notion that emergent, intelligent order in a complex system can be generated from the interactions among agents within that system without any necessary external or central authority or command. Complexity theory has emerged as a powerful new framework for explaining the workings of many of the world’s complex systems (Waldrop, 1992) – fields such as meteorology, neurology, cell-biology, ecology, and economics, to name a few, are increasingly illuminated by complexity theory.  A growing number of theorists in the field of education are also turning to this complexity lens as a way to better understand the workings of education systems (Cormier, 2008; Davis & Sumarra, 2006; Doll, 1989; Dron, 2007; Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001, 2002, 2008; Siemens, 2005).

A persuasive case for the embrace of complexity leadership in education is to be founded upon four pillars: first, the explanatory power of complexity theory as a way to understand the workings of complex adaptive systems must be described; second,  a portrait of education systems as themselves instances of complex adaptive systems best understood through the lens of complexity theory must be drawn; third, the militating effects of traditional leadership conceptions within complex adaptive systems must be exposed; and fourth, the promise of complexity leadership as a better model must be highlighted.  The remainder of this paper will expand very briefly on this line of argumentation.

Complexity theory defies a simple, parsimonious explanation. It is an emerging science that draws on a rich mix of disciplinary studies – chaos theory, systems theory, fractal mathematics, emergence, the dynamics of adaptive systems, computational modelling, self-organisation, network theory and cybernetics. An attempt to weave these disciplines into a unified theory that explains the workings of complex systems is the mission of complexity theorists, a mission perhaps best articulated at the Santa Fe Institute where researchers from many disciplines “…collaborate in attempts to uncover the mechanisms that underlie the deep simplicity present in our complex world” (Santa Fe Institute, 2011). At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a landscape that is a “…vast entanglement of ‘bodies’ of all kinds…” (Stanley, 2006, p. 3) a few key principles of complexity theory can be identified:


  • Complex systems exhibit non-linear behaviour
  • Complex systems are characterised by multiple interactions between agents within the system and the external environment
  • A reductionist approach fails to explain complex systems
  • Simple initial conditions in a complex system can generate unpredictable outcomes
  • Behaviour in a complex system is emergent
  • Complex systems adapt to their environment while remaining distinct from it
  • Order in complex systems is a function of feedback loops
  • Complex systems are characterised by self-organisation
  • Complex systems are open-systems made up of interacting agents exchanging resources among themselves and with the external environment


Complexity theory, in contrast to classical, reductionist paradigms, views the systems of our world as too deeply entwined and unpredictable to be fully understood with simple models (Prigogine, 1997). It is a theory that seeks to understand more holistically the emergent, dynamic features of complex systems and the conditions which enable this kind of dynamic order.

It is not surprising, then, that this field of study has attracted social scientists interested in the study of human organizations, and few would argue that the “education system” features many of the characteristics that describe a complex system. This is particularly true in this era that sees education moving toward open, distributed, and networked models. Morrison (2002, p.26) cites several features exhibited by schools that characterise them as complex adaptive systems. Some of these are that:

  • They require organization and have distinguishing features that change over time;
  • They are dynamical and unpredictable organizations;
  • They are nonlinear organizations;
  • Small changes can have massive effects;
  • They are complex, complicated and constantly changing;
  • The environments in which they operate are largely unpredictable and mutable;
  • The synergy of their several parts is greater than any individual or smaller combination of individuals;
  • They are learning organizations

Given this reality, it behoves leaders of education institutes to question their traditional, reductionist leadership models and to embrace an approach more befitting the complex nature of their education systems, to apply a leadership strategy that “…consists of establishing and modifying environments within which effective, improvised, self-organized solutions can evolve” (Anderson, 1999, p. 216).

Russ Marion (2008, p. 4) highlights three general conclusions of complexity theory that are particularly relevant to considerations of leadership in education when he writes, “…complexity dynamics are capable of spontaneously generating without inputs from external agents; they create order by dissipating energy rather than accumulating it; and they generate largely unpredictable outcomes because they are driven by random dynamics and complex interactions”. These conclusions make for an uncomfortable fit with traditional top-down leadership models that focus on driving the direction of education enterprises from external command, avoiding  chaos and disorder by increasing managerial energy, and predicting the path of the enterprise through rigid strategic planning operations. Traditional models of educational leadership are complicit with narratives of power and control which are antagonistic to the emergence of collective intelligence and self-organised order. Transactional leadership, transformational leadership and, to a lesser degree, distributed leadership models emphasise the “leader” and his or her agenda as initiating and directing organizational goals and values (Lord, 2008). No matter how these forms of leadership are couched, they still conform decidedly to a top-down hierarchical conception and fail to acknowledge the degree to which this kind of structure inhibits bottom-up, emergent innovation and vision. In much the same way that effective teaching is constrained by prescribed, outcome-driven curriculum, effective leadership is constrained by the dictates of inspirational leaders and rigid strategic planning.  Complex organisations such as schools are better served by leaders who acknowledge these inhibiting factors and strive to “loosen up” the organisation by focusing, not on predicting and directing future paths but on influencing and managing the interactions among the agents in the system and creating favourable conditions for emergent intelligence. Marion and Uhl-Bien (2008) refer to this as enabling leadership and capture this idea in four “new realities” for leadership in education:

  1. Leaders provide linkages to emergent structures by enhancing connections among organisational members
  2. Leaders try to make sense of patterns in small changes
  3. Leaders are destabilizers who encourage disequilibrium and disrupt existing patterns of beahvior
  4. Leaders encourage processes that enable emergent order

There are obvious challenges to implementing a model of leadership based on complexity theory. First, as a still emerging “new science” complexity theory has yet to reach mainstream consciousness where it can take root in a shared language. Second, complexity leadership calls for a significant re-assessment of traditional bureaucratic mindsets that are deeply embedded. Third, it is a challenge to complexity leadership to establish itself as not entirely in opposition to other promising models of leadership (distributed leadership, emergent leadership, for e.g.) that recognize the potential in an organisation’s latent energy being released or “loosened”. Complexity leadership, rather than being seen as a replacement for these models is better seen as a broader contextual foundation in which to enable the interactions described by them. Finally, although the idea of complexity leadership can be well articulated conceptually, it is difficult to operationalize in a practical way. The work of Marion and Uhl-Bien (2008) is a significant step towards meeting this challenge and creating a complexity leadership research agenda.

This paper very briefly makes the case for complexity leadership in education based on four central premises: 1. Complexity theory is a powerful and appropriate paradigm for understanding the dynamics of complex adaptive systems; 2. The education system, with all its interacting “levels” and particularly given recent shifts toward connectivity, openness and distribution of knowledge, is itself an instance of a complex adaptive system; 3. Traditional models of leadership based on mechanistic, cause-and-effect linearity that are so deeply embedded in the bureaucracies of schools are inhibitors of emergent innovation and adaptation within school systems; 4. Complexity leadership that acknowledges the features of complex adaptive systems and the conditions that enable them provides a more conceptually sound foundation for knowledge-era leadership in education.



Cormier, D. 2008. Rhizomatic education : Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4 (5).

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006). Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, teaching, and research. New York, Routledge.

Doll, W. (1989). Complexity in the classroom. Educational Leadership, 47(1), 65-70.

Dron, J. (2007). Control and Constraint in E-Learning: Choosing When to Choose. London: Idea Group.

Lord, R.G. (2008). Beyond Transcational and Transformational leadership: Can Leaders Still Lead When They Don’t Know What to Do?  In R. Marion & M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.), Complexity Leadership Part 1: Conceptual Foundations (pp.155-185). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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