Complexity Leadership Theory: Adaptive Leadership

Defined by Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey (2007), the Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) provides a primary framework that explains the entanglement among three leadership roles, which are administrative, adaptive, and enabling leadership, and also between the bureaucracy and complex adaptive system (CAS).  CAS emerges naturally in social systems (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007), in which there are adaptive agents interact, learn, and create new forms of behaviors.  All of the human organizations combine CAS with human thinking system as their interacting agents (Liang, 2007). Adaptive leadership, therefore, is a framework which leaders practice to enable the organizations adapting new strategy for the changing environment.  Uhl-Bien et al. (2007), in addition, defined adaptive leadership as an emergent, interactive dynamic that helps produce adaptive outcomes in an organization.

As the world focuses more on globalization and technological innovation, organizations change it paces.  Adaptive leadership is needed to transform and evolve the organization or business.  Effective leadership determines the competencies of the leaders because they have to bring changes to the organization in order to adapt with the changes.  Consequently, the effectiveness of leaders who practice adaptive leadership, to me, is determined by the success of message delivery, the personal adaptation, and the relationship with followers.  In any organization, the performance depends on human capital and social capital (Yukl, George, & Jones, 2010).  If the leaders are not competent and effective, then followers are losing their motivation, trust, and encouragement. 

I am working for an organization that follows strictly Federal regulations, and particularly, is affected by the economic down turn, adaptive leadership is really needed.  Affecting by the budget cut, operating budget at the central office cost center reduces significantly.  There must be a change in business processes to adapt this new budget proposal.  The organization should be underway some innovations to adjust their daily operations.  My organization, with adaptive leadership, would streamline business operations, control waste, develop lean product management, automate and simplify processes, and increase efficiency and effectiveness.  Adaptive leadership will helps leaders to take on steadily but adaptively from the diagnosing to solving the challenges.

To me, all organizations should practice adaptive leadership because of the globalization and technology.  With adaptive leadership, leaders will need to consider the context, stakeholders, and the diverse culture of the organization to make decision of change.  For example, Microsoft always demonstrates the adaptive leadership.  Cited by Hogan (2008), Glover, Friedman, and Jones (2002) referred to Bill Gates’ experience in China and as a result of his time spent getting to know Chinese’s culture, Microsoft was able to tailor its strategy and successfully expand into that country’s market.



Hogan, T. (2008). The Adaptive Leadership Maturity Model. Organization Development Journal, 26(1), p. 55-61.

Liang, T. (2007). The new intelligence leadership strategy for iCAS. Human Systems Management, 26(2), 111–122.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the Industrial Age to the knowledge era. Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318. 

Yukl, G., George, J. M., & Jones, G. R. (2009). Leadership: Building sustainable organizations (Laureate Education, Inc., custom ed.). New York: Custom Publishing.

About Phat Pham

I don't have money to share, but I do have a desire to transform our society, starting from the workplace and the local community I serve.
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