Leadership in companies that acknowledge complexity – an integrative framework for complexity-centric leadership in robust pioneer organisations

  • Elena Kohler

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The researcher's experience of working in rigid hierarchical organisations raises the question of the actual role of leadership and the usefulness of hierarchy for controlling organisational complexity. Since most corporate organisational structures represent an unrealistic image of a complex organisational living system, this research aims to analyse how leadership evolves in organisations that do not rely on traditional hierarchical set-ups. Consequently, the thesis investigates conditions under which complexity-centric leadership emerges and what kind of activities are regarded as leadership roles in existing organisations, that successfully incorporate complexity principles within their organisational structure.

    Theoretical and methodological research approach:
    Underlying concepts of organisational complexity theory and complexity leadership theory (CLT) were synthesised within the literature review. Gaps were identified referring to the embeddedness of structural conditions as well as the emergence and roles of leadership in complex organisational systems. Literature states the significance for investigating organisations as complex living systems with implications for leadership practice and acknowledges that contingencies have not yet been explored in the field of application in existing companies. Thus, the methodological selection was to study real organisations that do not try to manage or control complexity but instead incorporate complexity and its derived principles within their organisation. These robust pioneer organisations were explored within a qualitative exploratory and interpretative approach via conducting interviews. In contrast, previous research was mostly performed via quantitative models that imitated organisational complex adaptive systems (CAS). Semi-structured interviews were regarded to facilitate most appropriately exploring organisational patterns and how leadership emerges as real-life phenomena in such organisations. Hence this method was the perfect option to discuss the identified gaps from the literature with complexity-centric leadership experts who could draw on their practical experience during the 19 undertaken interviews.

    The findings:
    In the analysed robust pioneer organisations, leadership is without power to directly control or influence organisational outcomes. Taking decisions and being responsible forsubordinated organisational members are not anymore associated as central leadership roles. A pivotal function of the investigated complexity-centric leadership is to create an environment where people feel that it is safe to take risks. Evidence suggest that this is most likely achieved by promoting a dedicated mindset through the entire organisation. Based on certain structural patterns and conditions that impact members´ collaboration, complexity-centric leadership is regarded to distribute responsibility and decisions across any organisational member. Through integrating the findings within a framework for complexity-centric leadership organisations, this research contributes to knowledge and practice. It establishes a causal link between the sources of leadership emergence and leadership behaviour while incorporating the underlying structure of an organisation. Therewith it provides a valuable tool for academics and researchers. This identified emergence consequence implies the main contribution to knowledge from this study. The framework also contributes to practice by offering guidance for leadership practitioners and companies that want to become a robust pioneer organisation while willing to advance their leadership approach towards a complexity-centric leadership.
    Date of Award2023
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorHefin Rowlands (Supervisor) & Thomas Peisl (Supervisor)

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