A complexity approach to leadership development: developing practical judgement

Kevin Flinn, Christopher Mowles

Research output: Book/ReportOther report


Over recent years, complexity perspectives have been taken up more broadly in scholarship and teaching about leadership with leadership development providers such as Ashridge Business School, Roffey Park, Harvard Business School, and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Leadership Foundation), incorporating aspects of complexity theory into their programmes. In this paper we argue that the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating advances a radical interpretation of the complexity sciences that has profound implications for the way in which management education and development might be usefully conducted. In staying with a radical interpretation of the complexity sciences the perspective calls into question the conventional paradigm of predictability and control in organisational life. That is, many leadership development programmes, even ones which claim to draw on the complexity sciences in their pedagogy, steadfastly maintain that organisations are open to manipulation by powerful leader-managers who are able to choose organisational futures and control them at will. From this paradigm of control, leadership is seen as a natural, neutral, individualistic activity that tends to the good.
The perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, developed over the last 15 years at the University of Hertfordshire, proffers a radically different view that understands leadership to be a contested, social and relational activity that has a shadow side. We argue that organisations are intensely political places and that leaders and managers are particularly powerful players in the game of organisational life. As the game unfolds, so leaders play and are played by the game; influencing while simultaneously being influenced. In this paper we offer a view of organisations as patterns of human interaction constantly emerging in both predictable and unpredictable ways in the living present, mostly through conversational activity. Consequently, helping current and future leaders develop their practice means basing much of the content of organisational development programmes precisely on this perspective, encouraging them to pay attention to what they are doing and the conversations they are presently engaged in, as much as what they think they should be doing
Original languageEnglish
PublisherLeadership Foundation for Higher Education
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014

Publication series

NameLFHE Stimulus Paper


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