Emergent Leadership Origins: Complexity Theory and What Most People Forget About Agile

Emergent Leadership

The Emergent Leader

The emergent leader is one that rises up from the crowd. They aren’t appointed by the organization, they are appointed by their peers. They may be formally elected or they may have developed naturally into someone the team looks to for guidance. They emerge from the team to become a leader of the team.

They may not have official power, but they have the respect of the team. That respect was earned through the work they performed with the team, they earned it through their work and their knowledge of the subject matter.

Not every team can develop a good emergent leader on its own. They may need some encouragement from outside forces. Every team could possibly benefit from encouraging the emergence of a leadership structure within the team. It tells the team that they are trusted and valuable to the organization, and it lets them have more control over how they do the work. More control leads to more satisfaction and feelings of truly owning the work.

Complexity Theory

These interactions that create or destroy an emergent leader can be difficult to understand. It is probably easier to stamp it out than it is to encourage its growth. Human interactions, in this case, human interactions within an organizational structure, can be complex. The trouble has always been how to handle complex systems like human behavior and interactions when faced with the idea of a leadership structure.

One of the theories that brought about the idea of using emergent leadership to improve project management and organizations, in general, was called “Complexity Theory,” which many may recall if they have studied Agile extensively. Complexity Leadership stresses reliance on feedback loops, adaptive practices, and less reliance on authoritarian style leadership practices – (Baltaci, A & Balci, A, 2017).

The Complexity Leadership Theory provides a leadership framework which
improves resonance capacity of organization as complex adaptive systems
that are open to learning, creativity and information production. The
framework ensures control mechanisms to coordinate formal organizations
and produce outcomes in accordance with the vision and mission of the
complex adaptive system and thus foster dynamisms required by the
complex adaptive system. The theory aims to integrate new conditions caused
by chaos in the bureaucratic organizational structure – (Baltaci, A & Balci, A, 2017)

Books and Educational Material on Complexity Theory


It was basically recognized, well before the first – what we now call – Agile software development frameworks, that the bigger and more complex things get, the more difficult they become to control. Complexity Theory has been studied since the 1960s. So while many people point to Agile and say “iterative development”, they are forgetting a huge part of this history.

They are missing the idea of emergent leadership and the need for organizations to become flatter and more flexible. They are missing the need to reduce a top-down approach to management and have the people most involved with the system to guide the system. Organizational Agility begins with encouraging emergent leadership to actually emerge.

*Complexity Leadership Theory was proposed in 2001 and based off of Complexity Theory.  It has similarities to Agile philosophies.


Dinh, J. and Lord, R. and Garnder, W. and Meuser, J. and Liden, R.C. and Hu, J. (2014) ‘Leadership theory and research in the new millennium : current theoretical trends and changing perspectives.’, Leadership quarterly., 25 (1). pp. 36-62.  Retrieved From

Ferreira, P. (2001). Tracing Complexity Theory. (Complexity Theory). MIT.

Bolden, R. (2011). Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research. Retrieved from:

Baltacı, A. & Balcı, A. (2017). Complexity Leadership: A
Theoretical Perspective. International Journal of Educational Leadership and
Management, 5(1), 30-58. Doi: 10.17583/ijelm.2017.2435. Retrieved From

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