…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

Here is my presentation which was given as part of a panel discussion about leadership and complexity for the International Leadership Association’s annual conference , London on 29 October, 2011.  The full document containing the panel abstract and the four presentation abstracts can be found here and David Holzmer’s post about this event can be found here.

Complexity and Uncertainty in Universities in Australia: Emerging Leadership Literacies for Knowledge Enterprises in Times of Flux

Description: Leadership literacies for the knowledge era enterprise rest on humanist principles of Servant Leadership theory and interconnect with sustainability and complexity through the premise that leadership is not set apart from the living systems-human and environmental-that we serve. Leaders also understand that these living systems are dynamic, emergent and unpredictable.

Abstract Although only history can ultimately confirm it to be true, anecdotal evidence suggests that we are witnessing new times framed by the interrelationships between knowledge production as the main driver of growth and wealth creation, globalisation, massification of education and deepening concerns about our world’s environmental sustainability. Added to these complexities is a reliance on the certitude of risk assessment and management that pervades the sector. However, the greatest risk to universities in Australia, as elsewhere, are changes to government policy, particularly when these policy changes reduce funding in an already underperforming knowledge nation (Considine et al. 2001; Wood 2003).

These times of change and uncertainty call for different and deeper ways of thinking about our world, our worldviews and our leadership practices. We find ourselves today, in the second decade of the 21st century, well and truly embedded in the knowledge era. Here universities are both sites of knowledge work and in the business of knowledge acquisition and dissemination and therefore can be seen as both drivers and vehicles of knowledge production, the main economic driver of growth in this knowledge-intensive era. Leading productively and promoting a culture of learning and performance are therefore vital to the sector and the society it serves.

Complexity theories (see for example, Waldrop 1992; Kurtz & Snowden 2003; Uhl-Bien et al. 2007; Obolensky 2010) are one way to surface these issues and make our thinking visible and encourage dialogue about the turbulent and challenging conditions we are experiencing. Through the lenses of complexity theory and proximal modes of understanding (Cooper & Law 1993) we see other ways of understanding the world unfettered by an ideology of neo-liberalism.

Instead, these world views rest on an assumption that complex social processes underpin our complex planet and our emerging worlds because they explicate the processes that lead to results, not just the results in isolation:

…taken-for-granted states of being, human or organizational, are products or effects of complex social processes. And if we want to understand them, we need a sociology of becoming.  Proximal thinking views organizations as mediating networks, as circuits of continuous contact and motion-more like assemblages of organizings…organizations so conceived are really effects created by a set of mediating measuring instruments (Cooper & Law 1993, pp. 238-40).

One concept of leadership that resonates well for universities and other knowledge-intensive enterprises and that work with the conditions already described is that “leaders are in the business of energy management” (Kets de Vries 2003). This definition privileges a view that that leadership is deeply tied to the sustainable use of our creative energies. It also elevates the judicious governance of energy of self, others and the environment alongside, not subordinate to, financial governance and into a triple bottom line (Elkington 1998) approach to governance.

Leadership literacies for the knowledge era rest on humanist principles of Servant Leadership theory (Greenleaf 1977) and interconnect to the domains of sustainability and complexity through the premise that leadership is not set
apart from the living systems-human and environmental-that we serve. Leaders also understand that these living systems are dynamic, emergent and unpredictable (Davis 2010). Leadership literacies for the knowledge era enterprise also  expand the notion of leadership to incorporate the process of leadership alongside post industrial and post heroic understandings of how leaders and followers (Chaleff 2009; Ladkin 2010), customers and other stakeholders contribute to the knowledge enterprise. Leadership therefore is deeply personal yet paradoxically all about what can be achieved collectively with everyone inside enterprise’s circle of leadership.

Further to presenting these emerging trends for leadership in knowledge era enterprises this presentation will share preliminary findings from a current PhD study investigating whether or not leadership literacies appropriate for the knowledge era are being practiced in universities in Australia today. These ‘leadership literacies for the knowledge era’ and their focus on complexity, sustainability (Dunphy et al. 2007) and servant leadership (Greenleaf 1977; Spears & Lawrence 2002; Sendjaya et al. 2008) theory will be further explored through the preliminary findings of this research. Complex Adaptive Systems theory will be used to as a way of recognising the cognitive leaps needed to attune mindsets to appropriate way of thinking about leadership appropriate for the knowledge era and the turbulent times that beset the 21st century. For example, one key element of Complex Adaptive Systems theory is to understand the world as an interconnected system and that “each of these systems is a network of many “agents” acting in parallel” (Holland, in Waldrop 1992, p. 145). Some of these “agents acting in parallel” have come together as panellists for this session and are also  indicated by the similarities of the themes from this PhD research project from Australia which began in 2008 and the findings from the IBM research report “Capitalising on complexity” (Berman & Korsten 2010).

As well as outlining the preliminary findings from my PhD study, this presentation will focus on a different complexity theory than those outlined by the other presenters in this panel discussion. The VUCA movement (Johansen 2009) encapsulates the turbulence-the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity-that mark the 21st century within a VUCA acronym thereby ‘taming’ it to some extent and suggesting ways of working with VUCA rather than feeling
powerless in the face of it.


Berman, S. & Korsten, P. 2010. Capitalising on complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Study. Portsmouth, UK, IBM Institute for Business Value.
Chaleff, I. 2009. The courageous follower: standing up to and for our leaders. (3rd ed.) San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.
Considine, M., Marginson, S., Sheehan, P., & Kumnick, M. 2001. The comparative performance of Australia as a knowledge nation. Sydney, Chifley Research Centre.
Cooper, R. & Law, J. 1993. Organization: Distal and Proximal Views. In S. B. Bacharach & P. Gagliardi & B. Mundell (Eds.), Research in the sociology of organizations: Studies of Organizations in the European Tradition, Vol. 13,
Greenwich, Conn: JAI Press, pp. 275-301.
Davis, H. 2010. The sustainability zeitgeist as a GPS for Worldly Leadership within the discourse of globalisation, European Academy of Management 10th Annual Conference: Back to the future. Rome, EURAM.
Dunphy, D. C., Griffiths, A., & Benn, S. 2007. Organizational change for corporate sustainability: a guide for leaders and change agents of the future. (2nd ed.) Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Routledge.
Elkington, J. 1998. Cannibals with forks: the triple bottom line of 21st century business. Gabriola Island, BC ; Stony Creek, CT, New Society Publishers.
Greenleaf, R. K. 1977. Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York, Paulist Press.
Johansen, R. 2009. Leaders make the future: ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Kets de Vries, M. F. R. 2003. Leaders, fools and imposters: essays on the psychology of leadership. (Rev ed.) New York, iUniverse Inc.
Kurtz, C. F. & Snowden, D. J. 2003. The new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world. IBM Systems Journal, 42(3), pp. 462 – 483.
Ladkin, D. 2010. What goes on in the relationship between leaders and followers? In, Rethinking leadership: a new look at old leadership questions, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 55-74.
Obolensky, N. 2010. Complex adaptive leadership: embracing paradox and uncertainty. Farnham, Gower.
Sendjaya, S., Sarros, J. C., & Santora, J. C. 2008. Defining and Measuring Servant Leadership Behaviour in Organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 45(2), pp. 402 – 24.
Spears, L. C. & Lawrence, M. 2002. Focus on leadership: servant-leadership for the twenty-first century. New York, J. Wiley & Sons.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. 2007. Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), pp. 298-318.
Waldrop, M. M. 1992. Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, Simon & Schuster.
Wood, J. 2003. Australia: an under performing knowledge nation? Journal of Intellectual Capital, 4(2), pp. 144 – 164.


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