Complexity Theory of Leadership

Traditional leadership models that are effective for organizations based on physical production are often not well suited for a more knowledge-oriented economy. Complexity leadership theory focuses on enabling learning, creativity, and adaptive capacity in complex adaptive systems (CASs) within the context of knowledge-producing organizations. It expands the locus of leadership from the isolated, role-based actions of individuals to the innovative, contextual interactions that occur across an entire social system (Lichtenstein et al., 2006).

This conceptual framework includes three entangled leadership roles that reflect a dynamic relationship between the bureaucratic, administrative functions of the organization and the informal dynamics of CASs (Uhl‐Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007):

  • Administrative leadership involves actions and decisions by formal leaders who are responsible for planning and coordinating activities for the organization.
  • Adaptive leadership occurs when people with different knowledge, beliefs, and preferences interact in an attempt to solve problems and resolve conflicts.
  • Enabling leadership facilitates the process by increasing the interdependence among people, supporting the value of dissent and debate, increasing access to necessary information and resources, and helping to get innovative ideas implemented in the organization.

Complexity theory involves emergent processes and adaptive outcomes that are often unpredictable in advance.


Lichtenstein, B. B, Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Orton, J. D., & Schreiber, C. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 8,  2–12. Retrieved from

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318.