Adaptive Action: What is Leadership

LeadershipThanks to all who responded to our first Adaptive Action inquiry.  Fifteen people shared their views of WHAT leadership looks like.  As you might expect from a diverse Twitter-connected crowd, the responses were interesting and varied.  One person summed up the findings nicely, “Leadership in a CAS [complex adaptive system see and] context is framed very differently than the traditional top-down models of leadership.” In the midst of the diverse responses, two themes emerged.


Leadership is evident in the patterns that surround a person, more than in the person’s own behavior.

The leader is recognizable in the behavior of the group, as people move toward or engage with one who is most sensitive and connected.  You observe leadership in its effects rather than in personal behaviors or competencies.  Many people talked about leadership as a context-specific phenomenon.  One even questioned the existence of leaders in complex adaptive systems, but the overwhelming response agreed that you would know the leader “ . . . by the number of people addressing or consulting him/her.”  The role of the leader was defined by the patterns of interaction in the room, as in “ . . . you must observe the individuals and their relationships/interactions closely and deeply. . . ”  In some contexts, the leader may even be invisible, having set the conditions for self-organizing activities then stepping back to allow the process to continue.  The role of the leader is to “build an ecology of strengths to get the vision accomplished.”

Behaviors that speak to leadership focus on engagement—seeing, understanding and being influenced by patterns. 

Based on the responses we received, the intention to lead is marked not by strength and self-promotion but by sensitivity and responsiveness to patterns as they emerge in a group. ”Leaders are too engrossed in people, ideas and such to spend time trying to act as if they were leaders.”  Leaders choose to connect by “making eye contact,” “asking questions,” and “listening carefully.”  We even see a process of leadership emerging, “I listen first and then create a dynamic of opinion formation through contact with small groups.” “I strive to listen actively, reflect on the needs of others, and respond knowingly.” Leadership behaviors are ones of receiving and responding more than deciding and enacting. 


A very interesting pattern emerges when we look at the intersection of these two themes.  Leadership is a co-created phenomenon.  An individual engages with patterns of a group as they emerge, this engagement reinforces the pattern, and the pattern is leadership.  At the same time, the group is invited to express itself, and the process of expression creates a pattern of following. Together, leading and following merge into a coherent pattern of productive social relationship.  Only one who sets conditions to establish and sustain such a pattern can function as a leader.      


If this picture of leadership is true, it should also be useful.  What options for action might arise for individuals and groups who see and understand leadership in this way?

  • Explore the profile of a leader you admire. How do they engage? What questions do they ask? How does their demeanor and/or physical presence speak to the emerging patterns of the group? How are they influenced by emergent patterns?  How do they influence them in turn?
  • Sit at the edge of a room and see who interacts with whom and how. What can you see? So what can you understand?  Now what might you do to lead or follow to move the group forward?
  • Consider the patterns of interaction in groups you know.  What are the eddies and swirls of interaction, and what do they tell you about real leaders and their leadership behaviors?
  • Reflect on your own leadership potential. How well do you see and respond to patterns that emerge around you? What actions do you take to influence and be influenced by those with whom you interact?
  • Critique your favorite list of leadership competencies. Which of them supports leadership as co-creation?  Which are irrelevant to it? Which are counterproductive when leadership is seen as a systemic pattern of shared performance?

What other options for action do you see?  What results do you observe for yourself and others? What questions or comments do you have about Adaptive Action on Leadership? 

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