What the World Needs Now from Our Leaders

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I am a supporter of Complexity Leadership. I discovered Complexity Leadership as I worked on my Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership several years ago. When I read about this leadership theory, I was asking myself ‘why haven’t I heard of this before?’ and ‘why has this not been adopted much more widely?’ I  was thrilled to see and read an article by Aaron J. McKim and Catlin M. Goodwin (2021) espousing the qualities of complexity, leadership, and sustainability. Non-linear and dynamic systems are something that I relate to, I am not particularly good at linear. This goes back a long time as I have always asked ‘but what if,’ ‘can we try,’ and ‘how will that influence [e.g., another department, etc.]. I believe that what one person does has an effect on everyone else. Think butterfly effect – a butterfly flaps its wings in one area of the world it can result in  weather change elsewhere. Making even small changes can bring about large consequences.

As we continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, and extreme weather conditions resulting in numerous disasters, and the environmental changes threatening our existence on this earth I have become aware that we – humans – need to do something different. If we keep doing the same things, we will continue to get the same results. (“Austin Talent Acquisition | High Tech Recruiters-HireFactors”) If we continue with the same results, the outcome will not be favourable. Thus, following what McKim and Goodwin (2021) have to say we need complexity theory as the foundation of leadership for sustainability.

Will we embrace leadership for sustainability?

We are not seeing any form of leadership for sustainability from the current leaders making the headlines. Maybe we need to step up and be leaders rather than leave leadership to the elected officials, big corporations, and the very wealthy. Afterall, they don’t seem to be doing a particularly good job. There have been changes occurring over the years that have not been addressed.

What can we do?

According to McKim and Goodwin (2021) “leadership scholarship and practice must change to equip all individuals with the capacity to disrupt systems, collaborate across differences, learn continuously, and build relationships in an effort to collectively advance toward a more ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable future.” (“Complexity theory: The changing role of leadership”) This resonates positively and powerfully with me.

Though this might sound a bit rebellious I adamantly support this notion and believe it is where our hope for the future lies. We will not go back to what we thought was normal prior to COVID-19. Those days are long past. Nonetheless, we do not need to be fearful or mourn their loss. We simply need to open our minds, hearts, and emotions to view the world in a unique way. If you are not curious you need become curious and ask difficult questions. I suggest we start with ourselves; ask yourself the difficult questions; what are my values, what beliefs have I carried all my life that might no longer be true, and where will I be and what will my life look like in the future – five years, ten years, maybe even as far as twenty years. Though we probably can’t fathom what changes will take place in those time frames, it behooves us to at least ask and make changes according to our values and strive for a positive future. If the current path of our world continues the future seems somewhat bleak.

Complexity theory is a profound shift in the way we understand and see the world. The linear thoughts, still very prominent in our world, need to change. Complexity theory suggests a non-linear, dynamic, emergent, and self-organizing system that is unpredictable and uncertain, according to Marion and Uhl-Bien (2001). Already we have complex systems where the interactions of the parts require understanding. An open, curious mind is needed to understand these interactions and encourage innovation, on-going learning, and change to evolve or emerge.

Complexity theory has provided a basis for complex leadership, systems leadership, and adaptive leadership. Moving away from traditional leadership models where hierarchy, prescriptive processes, and managed change are the roles of a few at the top. With complexity leadership we will see leaders clarifying the emergent processes of systems as they self-organize (McKim & Goodwin). Leaders will encourage disruption of existing patterns of behaviour within systems and will stimulate the exchange of information, ideas, and innovation (McKim & Goodwin).

Anyone and everyone can and must identify as a leader and accept the connected responsibilities (McKim & Goodwin). There is no place for anyone to sit back and say, ‘it’s not my job.’ Leadership is everyone’s job. Open your minds, your hearts, and your curiosity to move forward, disrupt, and see what emerges.

I will be continuing to share information about complexity leadership in future blogs and I look forward to your comments and discussion.


McKim, A.J. & Goodwin, C.M. (2021). Emergent opportunities in complexity, leadership, and sustainability. Journal of Leadership Studies, Volume 15, Number 3, 2021.

Marion, R. & Uhl-Bien, M. (2001). Leadership in complex organizations. The Leadership Quarterly, 12,389-418.

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