Complexity leadership

By Sander Meijerink: Water managers with an interest in leadership issues may find inspiration in an abundant literature on leadership concepts. He or she may read books on visionary, connective, integrative, collaborative and entrepreneurial leadership, on eco- and sustainability leadership and so on. One of the more recent and promising contributions to the leadership literature is Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) which is developed by Uhl-Bien and others. The central argument of CLT is that that in knowledge-oriented economies organizations need to be able to learn, to be creative and to adapt to changing circumstances, hence leadership should be aimed at increasing the adaptability of an organization. Exactly because of its focus on learning and adaptability, we think CLT is helpful in realizing adaptive water management.According to CLT  three key leadership functions contribute to the adaptability of an organization. The administrative function is about decision making on the vision and strategy of an organization and  making available the necessary (human and financial) resources for realizing this vision and strategy. This function resembles the more classic notion of hierarchical leadership and can be fulfilled by positional leaders, such as a manager of a department, only. According to CLT, however, the administrative function is but one of the leadership functions that need to be fulfilled within an organizations. Equally importantly is the adaptive function of leadership, which  is about the development of new ideas and practices within networks. Although one may not steer or ‘manage’ such innovations ( these are said to be an emergent property of adaptive networks),  it is argued that the third function of leadership, the enabling function, plays a crucial role here. Positional leaders may fulfill an enabling function if they tolerate the development of new ideas and practices even in case these innovations deviate from the vision and strategy of an organization, or if they make available resources for piloting and experimentation. Others, who do not have a formal leadership position, may contribute to the enabling function by playing a role as boundary worker between different organizations and policy sectors or by advocating specific new ideas.

It is an interesting question to what extent these three functions of leadership are fulfilled within modern water resources management. Does leadership in the water sector promote conditions for adaptive management or is its longstanding tradition of top-down, bureaucratic leadership still hindering learning and adaptability?

We kindly acknowledge that this post was previously published on, your source for information on water governance.

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