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Chapter 1 of Complex Adaptive Leadership (978-1-4724-4791-3) by Nick Obolensky

A Journey of Discovery



We are surrounded by issues of leadership. Leadership books and courses are more numerous now than ever before. Leaders are under more scrutiny than they ever have been. We seem fascinated by leaders in all spheres of life – and we also seem to have a different attitude from our forbears.

Here are some questions to ponder:

  • Has your own attitude to leaders changed in your life, and if so how?

  • If we take as a starting point the attitude to those in authority/leaders as held by your grandparents, and then look at those attitudes held by your parents, and then by you, and then by the younger generation, is there a changing trend? If so, what is it?

  • Why do you think that this has occurred?


Spend a few minutes reflecting on your answers to these three questions.

To begin the journey of discovery into the world of Complex Adaptive Leadership and complexity, one needs to get an idea of the context. Chaos and complexity science studies have many roots. In his map1 [16] showing the history of Complexity Science, Brian Castellani from Kent State University identifies two main roots: Cybernetics and systems thinking2 [17] Systems thinking is the opposite to analytical thinking. Whilst analytical thinking seeks to get an understanding of the whole by breaking it up and analysing the parts, systems thinking does the opposite. It looks at the whole and from that, one can gain an understanding of the parts3 [18]. Paradoxes are easier to grasp with a systemic view. So let’s start by getting an overview of how we typically view leadership.

The exercise at the start of this chapter may well have raised some interesting thoughts

and reflections. Each of us will have had our own experience of leadership and witnessed

changing attitudes. Many bemoan the fact that the ‘younger generation’ seem to have less respect towards authority than the older (although such a complaint is hardly new).4 [19]

‘The death of deference’, however, seems to be sharper today than ever before. We hold our leaders to account more now than we have done. In the past we assumed they were more capable than us and we were therefore happy to follow. However, with the fast pace of change that we look at later in Chapter 2, the older generation has been left behind more than ever before. The upshot is that the ‘art’ of leadership seems to be harder to practice today than in the past. This may explain the explosion of leadership development courses, seminars and books. There is something deeper going on, and it is hard to pinpoint.

Let’s take a very wide view. Homo Sapiens have not been on this planet for very long. In fact if the history of the planet was compressed into 24 hours, we have been around for just over a second. The Earth is around 4,500 million years old. We began to emerge as a species about 100,000 years ago.5 [20] Civilisation and written history emerged around 6,000 years ago. So at first we had anarchy (which means no leader, chaos). Then as we became more civilised we needed to organise. Elites grew and oligarchy became prevalent. Leadership was hierarchic and done by the few over the many. As we will see in Chapters 24, the oligarchic assumption upon which we rest our views of leadership is becoming rather shaky. But the point here is that polyarchy has come out of oligarchy and anarchy – it can be seen like cogs in the machine, and is the third cog driven by the other two.

Figure 1.1 Underlying dynamics of polyarchy


So those who see complex Adaptive Leadership and polyarchy as a revolutionary idea designed to overthrow completely the assumptions of oligarchy, will be sadly disappointed. One can take the view that this is a Darwinian type of evolution, and only those leaders who understand polyarchy will survive – the survival of the fittest.6 [21] One could also see it as a Hegelian dialectic with polyarchy as the natural synthesis of anarchy (‘thesis’) and its opposite oligarchy (‘antithesis’). Worth noting here is that one of the fundamentals of Tao is to be able to understand the dynamic of opposites and paradox. One could even see polyarchy in terms of dialectic materialism (although Engels and Marx are hardly the vogue any more). Whatever metaphorical or theoretical viewpoint one may choose, polyarchy is fast emerging and represents a deeper and hitherto hidden shift of change in the world. Leadership in a polyarchy is more complex than in an oligarchy.

To understand how polyarchy can best be exploited, there needs to be an understanding of three key and interrelated points:

  • The context within which leadership exists, both globally and locally, is the starting point. Leadership in any form cannot produce results without a context within which to exist. And the context within which we live today is in many ways unique to the history of our species. The changes in technology and knock-on social changes are the most dramatic ever seen. Yet our leadership assumptions are still relatively stuck. This is looked at in more detail in Chapter 2.

  • After understanding the wider context, one needs to understand the limitations of oligarchy as it exists today. These limitations are due both to the fast changing times and also result from the organisational contextual factors. We all intuitively have a healthy suspicion of the heroic charismatic leaders in a way we never seemed to have before.7 [22] Whether we like it or not, oligarchy and its sister hierarchy exist all around us and will continue to do so for some time, despite the stresses and strains. However, structures are becoming more fluid and traditional boundaries are becoming more dynamic. Knowledge and wisdom are becoming wider spread, and this means leadership needs to be more dynamic and honest. This is looked at in more detail in Chapters 3 and 4.

  • And finally, one needs to understand the dynamics of anarchy – not the philosophical nihilistic revolutionary ‘off-with-all-their-heads’ anarchy, but the anarchy of chaos and complexity. It is only recently in the area of science and mathematics that nondeterministic approaches are making their usefulness known. The development of chaos mathematics and quantum mechanics seems to go against traditional deterministic scientific theories hundreds of years old, and yet they have reaped great results. For example we would not have solid state electronics, lasers, semiconductors, remote controls or DVDs without such advances in these relatively new ‘non-deterministic’ sciences. So perhaps it is no surprise that in the field of leadership the need for a more non-deterministic ‘complex’ approach is emerging. Complex Adaptive Leadership combines both deterministic and non-deterministic approaches to a powerful effect. This is looked at in more detail in Chapters 5, 6 and 7.


Once these three points are understood then the way of using a more polyarchic approach becomes clearer. And so the approaches in Chapters 811 will make more sense and be more useful.

Throughout the book the theme of Taoism crops up. This is because it is a useful philosophy which can help a deeper understanding of paradox and complexity. And in the true spirit of Tao, here is a paradoxical caveat: Tao cannot be fully explained in words. According to Lau Tzu, ‘He who knows cannot speak and he who speaks cannot know.’ According to Chuang Tzu, ‘If a man asks “What is Tao?” and another answers, neither knows.8 [23] Now that sounds like a bunch of mystical bunkum, but stay with it! Taoism is a very old philosophy. It was first codified by Li Ehr Tan, more commonly known as Lau Tzu (which means ‘Old Master’). The exact identity of Lau Tzu is still in question. He wrote in China around the fifth century BC. In China his work is simply known as Lau Tzu, although his book later became called Tao Te Ching 9 [24] and this is the title more commonly used in the West. The writings of Lau Tzu are more a collection of wisdoms some of which can be dated back to Shamanism from Siberia, a faith a few thousand years older than Lau Tzu’s time. The other book within which Taoist beliefs are explored is called I Ching (The Book of Changes), written a few hundred years later by Chuang Tzu. There are many leadership references in the Tao Te Ching, and some are explored further in Appendix A.

Perhaps the key quotation from Lau Tzu about Leadership is:

The worst leader is one that lies and is despised; not much better is one that leads using oppression and fear; a little better is the leader who is visible, loved and respected; however, the best leader is one whom the people hardly knows exists, leaving them happy to say, once the aim is achieved, ‘We did it ourselves’.10 [25]

Such a quotation is often used and few seem to disagree – but many think: ‘That sounds all fine and dandy – but how does one go about it?’ This book intends to provide the answer, not only how, but also why. This book connects with Taoism in four ways, or at four levels.

  1. Tao literally means ‘the way’. So at the very basic level this book proposes a new ‘way’ of leadership. However, there are some very deep precepts in Taoism which, if you ‘get’, will enable you better to understand and put into practice the powerful approaches in this book. The precepts will enable you to embrace paradox and uncertainty. This book is not just about the way of leadership generally, but a particular way which enables polyarchy to flow enabled by a type of leadership which is very dynamic, and enables Lau Tzu’s words above to become a reality.

  2. At the second level, this new approach to leadership expresses the dynamics of opposites and paradoxes. So far we have uncovered some paradoxes. For example we said polyarchy is about anarchy and oligarchy (two opposites at once). Perhaps the most important precept of Taoism to ‘get’ is the concept of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’.11 [26] Within polyarchy leaders need to know how to follow those they lead as well as lead those who follow. The key symbol of Tao is the Yin/Yang symbol (the ‘T’ai C’hi Tu’).

    Yin means the dark side of mountain, and Yang means the light side. The Yin/ Yang symbolises a basic precept of Taoism that opposites exist to complement and support each other. Opposites are a complementary dynamic rather than two antagonistic and static positions facing each other. Each has an element of each other’s opposite within themselves – the smaller circle. The Yin/ Yang symbolises ‘Both/And’ rather than ‘Either/or’. It is about going beyond opposites and realising that opposites combine to create something powerful. For example Yin is aligned to the female, and Yang to the male – without each of those opposites there would not be much to write about (nor anyone to write about it). Other powerful opposites exist as shown in Figure 1.2.

  3. At the third level the emergence of polyarchy, and the need for a more Yin type of leadership to balance better the traditional Yang approach, is just an extension of a deeper change occurring throughout the world. The world has been traditionally more Yang orientated – action, competition and achievement are traditionally valued more than contemplation, co-operation and sustainability. The male has traditionally dominated the female in society. However, that is changing. There is a swing towards Yin. These changes from Yang to Yin, and more balance, are apparent in many ways. For example in modern physics the advent of quantum mechanics is a sign of this deeper change. This is matched by more non-traditional approaches in mathematics, such as chaos mathematics. It is also matched by the move from consumption to conservation, and the growth of interest in the ecology. So whilst the ideas in this book may seem ‘radical’ or ‘fringe’, they are merely another expression of a deeper and emerging paradoxical reality which is happening all around us. Lau Tzu said a master is one who knows the Yang but operates within the Yin.

    Figure 1.2 The power of Yin/Yang opposites



  4. At the fourth level, Complex Adaptive Leadership is aimed towards achieving the Taoist state of ‘wu-wei’ (無為), concept which can best be described as the art of inaction, acting without effort (such as going with the flow) or refraining from any action which is contrary to the underlying natural flow. Inaction does not necessarily mean switching off and doing nothing, it means holding back and being watchful, ready to act when needed. It is the conscious act of not acting, or holding oneself back. This is often expressed by the paradoxical statement ‘wei-wu-wei’ – action through inaction, or effortless doing. 12 [27] Although this sounds very philosophical it has practical application, not least in Chinese history where ‘wu-wei’ was a central tenet of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty, one of the most successful Chinese Emperors. Although hard working, he had the characters ‘wu-wei’ inscribed above his throne, and this can still be seen in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In more modern times, ‘wu-wei’ has been seen as the very foundation of modern market dynamics13 [28] and the resultant need for governments not to interfere. The aim of Complex Adaptive Leadership is to establish a dynamic ‘far from equilibrium’ and a context where requisite and effective action can flow naturally in a highly complex and adaptive way without the need for action from the assigned leader. This is especially important for complex situations. As we will see, the rules of complexity are quite clear and easy to understand. The underlying dynamics of complexity are in fact simple. This paradoxical conclusion has been made by, amongst many others, the Santa Fe Institute founded in 1984 to specialise in complexity studies. And there is a clear link to the principles of Taoism. The Principal of the Santa Fe Institute, Brian Arthur, once said: ‘The complex approach is totally Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order… The world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.’ 14 [29].


So the theme of Tao flows through the book with relevance depending on which section is being discussed:

  • The first section of the book looks at the context and describes the underlying flow around us that is relevant to leadership. The art of Taoism is to act within the flow in an entirely natural and almost intuitive way. The flow in this part is looked at from various angles, including historic and organisational, as well as the resultant stresses for leaders.

  • The second section of the book looks at complexity and the surprising conclusion that the more complex things are, the less action is needed from leaders providing they have put in place the necessary environment, processes and culture. The eight key principles which enable this to happen are described, paired in four opposites.

  • The third section of the book looks at a model that can be used to improve leadership at all levels, and how the interchange between Yang and Yin is vital. The ultimate goal is to have a Yin-based leadership with the ability to use Yang-based processes to support it.

Chapter Summary

  1. The scientific view of complexity and chaos is not the normal view – there are underlying patterns and principles which can be applied. These are paradoxical in nature.

  2. Polyarchy is an extension, evolution and synthesis of anarchy (chaos and no leadership) with oligarchy (order and traditional leadership). It sees leadership as a complex dynamic system rather than just an attribute or something only assigned leaders do, and is based on the dynamics and features underscoring complexity science, chaos mathematics and a subset of complexity science – Complex Adaptive Systems theory – hence the term ‘Complex Adaptive Leadership’.

  3. A basic understanding of Taoism can help grasp the paradoxes which arise and enable a leader to use polyarchy as well as to be more effective within an oligarchic assumption.

  4. Complex Adaptive Leadership links modern Western complexity science with ancient Chinese wisdom to offer a new and powerful approach to leadership which can get better results for less effort.

In the next chapter we look at some of the reasons why polyarchy is emerging so quickly, and the astonishing pace and extent of change in relatively recent times.

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