Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Groningen's online course, Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Several leadership styles have been developed in literature. To name a few, task versus person oriented leadership, directive versus participative leadership, laissez faire leadership, transformational and transactional leadership, and many more. I will describe two of them and some general findings from research before we go to the pivotal role of the context in complex organisations. Transformational leadership focuses on the transformation and motivation of employees so that they will perform beyond expectations. It’s aimed at increasing involvement of employees with organisational goals. It relates to clear vision, to charismatic and inspiring leaders, and they set challenging goals. Therefore, it’s strongly related to movement and change. Well, what does research tell us? The context matters, but there are some general findings.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second Laissez faire leadership is always ineffective. Transformational leadership is very often effective. And we also know that the combination of hard and soft behaviours also is quite effective. But most strongly, we know that the effectiveness of leadership depends upon the situation, and this situation, or context, is defined by several characteristics. We have the individual level, and that deals with characteristics of leaders and employees, or the tasks of employees. We have the team level, and that relates to characteristics of team members or departments. We have the organisational level, the type of organisation, the culture, the size.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds And of course, we have the fourth level, and that is the outside world in which the organisation operates, the sector or the country, or in our case, complexity. So if we now turn to a complex, dynamic world, or complex organisation, then the question is, given this context, how does this relate to leadership? We have to find answers to questions like, how are complex dynamics coordinated and motivated? What about the traditional top down leadership styles? How do they interact with emergent bottom up processes? Is it just another context variable, or do we need a completely new concept of leadership when we talk about complexity? And finally, what does this mean for leaders themselves?

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds There are several people who wrote about complexity and the consequences for leadership, and basically, there are two ideas. Some say that we really need strong leadership, such as transformational leadership, because of this complexity. We need strong leaders to get direction, to get a common goal, and to create a sense of we-ness in this uncertain and complex situation. But there are others that say that we really need to different concepts of leadership, and in contrast to the traditional top down leadership control perspectives of organisational processes, complexity theory says we need leadership that can be seen as a bottom up process, that we need indirect leadership, or interactive bonding among interdependent need-seeking individuals, so we need complex leaders.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds And in the end, maybe we need individuals that lead themselves. The question is, can it be combined? Transformational leadership and complexity theories offer very different perspectives on leadership in complex organisations. Transformational leadership provides a top down, leader controlled model of leaders identifying vision and mobilising followers behind that vision. Complexity provides a bottom up model of emergence with complex leaders bonding and enabling rather than controlling the interactive dynamics that lead to creativity and fitness. The critique on transformational leadership is that it is very leader directed, and it may stifle creativity and emergence because of its emphasis on leader control. But maybe transformational leadership fits within a broader theory of complex leadership.

Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds In doing so, transformational leadership would not be hierarchical, but rather catalytic and nurturing. And be aware. What about the effect of complexity and uncertainty on the needs of employees? Recently, I did a study to gether with Frouke de Poel on the role of leadership in project teams. Leadership effectiveness in project teams seems to be dependent upon the level of organisational tenure diversity. Data showed that transformational leadership is related to organisational commitment, creative behaviour, and job satisfaction only in teams with high organisational tenure diversity.

Skip to 4 minutes and 33 seconds By contrast, participative, or bottom up leadership, has no impact on team innovativeness, team performance, and team conflict in teams with high organisational tenure diversity, but it’s very beneficial with respect to the same outcomes in teams that are low in organisational tenure diversity. So if we translate these outcomes to complexity, it could very well be the case that the effectiveness of transformational and bottom up participative leadership are both in place in a context of complexity, and especially the combination of both leadership styles. Moreover, within this context of complexity, we should not forget to also look at the background that is the needs of the employees. So what does this all mean for leaders themselves? It starts with being self aware.

Skip to 5 minutes and 20 seconds Also, it’s very important that leaders are able to read the context, both outside the organisation, but also inside the organisation. So in a context of complexity, it is important to find a combination of leadership behaviours, for instance, the combination of transformational leadership together with bottom up, participative leadership. And in general, this asks from leaders to be flexible. Make sure that their own style fits with the context in which they operate. And that means that the first and foremost goal of leaders should be to be willing to reflect upon themselves. Leaders also do not have the same perspective on their own style as, for instance, employees, and that means that they should ask for feedback about their own behaviour.

Leadership styles in complex organisations

This lecture describes some leadership styles and their effectiveness in certain situations. How does this relate to a complex context? Which leadership styles could be effective in that context? Finally, some lessons for leaders are proposed.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World

University of Groningen

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: