The Complex Question of Leadership

The researchED Guide to Leadership hits the shelves this month and I am delighted to have contributed the closing chapter titled ‘Surviving and Thriving in Uncertainty’. My contribution is essentially about the complexity of schools and why leaders benefit from acknowledging this complexity.

This blog post is written to accompany the chapter, partly to explain further what is meant by complexity, and also to sketch out a little more why I believe this topic offers important insights into the question of how we should lead our schools. In providing a theoretical underpinning, I will draw mostly on the pithy book ‘Complexity: A Very Short Introduction’ by John H. Holland (2014), but I shall point to a few more beginner texts at the end of the post. I hope to tweak your interest in complexity as a field of inquiry, and in the reserachED book, which is well worth getting hold of!

What is complexity?

Complexity is a scientific field which explores the behaviour of complex systems as diverse as rainforests, markets, multi-celled organisms, and the internet. The distinctive property of a complex (as opposed to simple or merely complicated) system is emergence, that is where the behaviour of the whole system is not simply a sum of the behaviours of its parts.

We are comfortable thinking of systems as complicated, but not so good at imagining emergent behaviour resulting from complexity. What is the difference?

In a complicated system, each component plays a predictable part and there is a linear relationship between cause and effect. For example, when my dishwasher stops draining it is probably because the pump is broken. I know that if I replace the pump, the whole system will work again. However, in a complex system, we cannot isolate ‘parts’ as being the cause of something so readily. If, for example, we determined that the internet was enabling criminal fraternities to connect and proliferate, we could not solve this problem by simply ‘fixing’ one part of the system.

In reality, ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems do not separate so neatly. We should think more in terms of a continuum from simple, to complicated, to complex. Holland suggests that asking ‘When did this system become complex?’ is like asking ‘When does water become wet?’ An individual water molecule cannot be described as ‘wet’, but as water molecules are aggregated, ‘wetness’ will emerge as a property. Note that the property emerges from the system and is not something that ‘existed’ in the individual components. This is why we describe wetness is an emergent property.

Similarly, we might ask ‘When does a school become dysfunctional?’ or ‘At what point did this feel like a safe place to be?’ Dysfunctional schools slip further towards chaos over time, and the reasons may remain largely mysterious. Relational trust, the foundation of psychological safety, does not have a formula which suddenly transforms the organisation. In both cases, there is a quality to the system that defies simple explanation or conventional attempts to analyse how we have arrived at this point.

Aside from emergence, there are other signs that the system in question is complex. There will likely be chaotic behaviour – spontaneity, unpredictability, uncertainty – the degree of which will depend on how unstable the system is. Small events may have insignificant consequences, or may multiply to have unexpected effects. Unlikely events may occur more frequently than you would reasonably expect. However, patterns will emerge as if the system is self-organising, quite separate to our attempts to impose order. Complex systems are, as a consequence of the above, difficult to control or predict. It is not that they are without regularity; rather that it is not always clear how these regularities emerge or what might happen if they are disrupted.

It is important at this point to distinguish between two types of complex system: physical and adaptive. We are interested in the latter. In a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) the ‘agents’ within the system will adapt their responses to stimuli over time (they learn!). This aspect means that complex feedback loops exist, which leads to evolutionary behaviour. Adaptive systems result in greater diversity and dynamic behaviour as they are in a constant state of flux and spin off in various directions.

Is the school system complex?

As I stated above, it would not be correct to say that the school system (or a part of the system, such as an individual school) is or is not complex. It is better to ask to what extent does complexity exist, where, how does this manifest, and why does it matter? We may find that aspects of the school system are merely complicated, or even simple, and we need not bother ourselves with understanding complexity. However, we may find utility in defining some aspects as complex (more of this later).

Whilst we may point to emergent properties of the school system (or evidence other features of a complex system such as unpredictability, uncertainty, or spontaneity), schools are remarkably similar to each other, and constant over time. The system appears ‘stable’ in that it is not particularly prone to catastrophic events, sudden change, or radical shifts in behaviour. Should we not expect a complex system to be somewhat less ordered than the school system appears to be?

Whilst it appears paradoxical to claim that the school system is simultaneously spontaneous and boringly predictable, this is indeed what it is. It is similar in a sense to our solar system. We can expect planets to be spherical, objects to orbit other (larger) objects, and for anything with mass to follow its current path, unless otherwise interrupted. These regularities emerge from the laws which govern the behaviour of celestial objects. However, there simultaneously exists a degree of chance and chaos: asteroids colliding with planets, diversity of planetary forms, and the spontaneous formation of life against tremendous odds. Attempting to act against the emergent order will be frustrating, and its effects unpredictable and possibly counter-productive. The regularities we observe in our school system are similarly a product of the grammatical rules which determine how the parts of the system interact, although these rules may be self imposed rather than ‘natural laws’. We have more chance of changing our school system than we do the solar system, but not unless we understand why it is the way it is.

Despite the obvious regularities within the school system, schools never appear to ‘settle’. There is perpetual novelty which results from competing ideologies, contested ideas, policy fads and whims, ambition, pressure, ignorance, and a desire to make a difference. This restlessness means continuous change, but with the result that very little actually changes. What a fun and frustrating place to while away a career.

Why is complexity of interest?

Much of the motivation for treating a system as complex is to get at questions that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Holland (2014)

Holland points out that solutions to many of the 21st century’s important problems came about as a result of understanding how adaptive agents interact within complex systems, including ‘enhancing the immune system, making ecosystems sustainable, regularizing global trade, curing mental disorders, (and) encouraging innovation’. These are bold claims, but my interests are far more modest. I would be satisfied to find that by viewing the school system, and schools, as complex, I can shed some light on the more perplexing aspects of working in schools, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of how to change them for the better. Like Holland, my intent is ultimately pragmatic in that my objective is ‘to attain some ability to “steer” the complex system’.

And this is why complexity theory has a place in a book about leadership, and why it fits so well with this book on leadership. The researchED Guide to Leadership takes a particular position on the subject. The assumption is that we have not yet come close to fully understanding what leadership is or the mechanisms by which it delivers. Much of the theory and recommended practice feels so unsatisfactory: as if we are not just arriving at the wrong answers, but that we are yet to even ask the right questions. Might this be because we are not seeing the school system as it truly is? If leadership is a matter of influence (which is about as close to an agreed definition as we have so far established), and the object of our influence is a complex, adaptive system, any insight into how to ‘steer’ such a system would surely take us forward?

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations.

Holland (2014)

In the opening chapters of the book, Tom Rees and Jen Barker talk about the persistent problems faced by schools; those that keep re-emerging and appear so resistant to resolution. The persistence of these problems suggests they are baked-in to the system; a consequence of its structure and grammatical rules. To my mind, the school system is configured to continually confound, and that the persistent problems are how we interpret the recurring patterns of the system. If we are to tackle these persistent problems effectively, we must first understand from whence they came and the various ways they might manifest. We are battling a shape-shifter, but we can learn to recognise its incarnations and what might work to tame the beast in whatever form it might take.

Making sense of school leadership

Including a chapter about the complexity of schools in a book series that promotes research evidence is a little bit cheeky as there is so little direct research into schools as complex systems – so far. At best, we should consider other complex systems (where a stronger evidence base exists) as analogous to the school system, at worst as a metaphor. But I am happy with doing so as the intent is to dig away at some aspects of leading schools which the conventional theory and research does not explain well. The book’s editor, Stuart Lock, acknowledges the challenge of writing a research-based book in a field where the research is often patchy and unreliable, and argues the need, therefore, for the book to take a position – a ‘best bet’ – on what leadership is and what direction research might fruitfully take in the future. My best bet includes complexity: in the short term as a way of making sense of school leadership, and in the longer term as an avenue for further research.

Sense-making is important, and has some pedigree as a topic of inquiry in the field of social psychology. It is the process by which we give meaning to experience. As a ‘practitioner’ of school leadership, I find the common narratives about school leadership do not help me make complete sense of what I experience. Understanding complexity has helped me comprehend what I observe in schools and the wider system. It has lifted the fog and reduced that feeling of disorientation that is often experienced by school leaders. I hope we find that complexity theory, when applied to schools, has theoretical validity – that it is robust enough to predict and to inform wise action – but in the meantime, I am satisfied that it helps me make sense of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the school system. There is a risk that those coming across complexity science for the first time find it overly theoretical and removed from their daily experience of working in a school, but I would argue it is highly applicable and pragmatic. By viewing schools as complex adaptive systems, we get closer to seeing things as they really are, not as we would like them to be. This might be uncomfortable as it involves acknowledging the limits of our control and the boundaries of our knowledge, but we can be satisfied that we have formed a more accurate mental model of the terrain. As a result, our actions should be wiser and more likely to succeed. That’s the goal, right?

How do you improve a complex school?

If schools were simple organisations, school improvement would be straight-forward. If they were merely complicated, the task would be difficult but ultimately within the grasp of any sufficiently knowledgeable leader. But a complex school system presents us with a daunting task. That is not to say that only super-human leaders are up to the task. On the contrary, we need leaders who are humbled by the scale of the challenge and realistic about what can be achieved. You don’t need to be a special kind of person to lead a school (or lead in one), but you do need to develop a particular form of expertise. In conditions of uncertainty, the ‘know-it-all’ leader will do significant harm. We need leaders with a deep knowledge and light touch.

In my chapter, I draw upon the work of various academics and practitioners to see how schools look when you take a complexity perspective. The suggestion is that we need to see, and to understand, schools as complex organisations so that we can begin to explain some of the behaviours which might previously have appeared mysterious or which we might have interpreted in more simplistic ways. Understanding why things are the way they are is a necessary precursor to informed action. I explore what happens when leaders are in denial of complexity; the harmful actions of those who assume things to be simpler, more known, and more predictable, than they really are. So many school improvement efforts not only fail to have the intended impact, but have damaging unintended consequences along the way. We would move forward considerably if we understood better why the well-intentioned actions of leaders so often fail.

What I won’t (and can’t) do is tell you how to improve your school. But I can offer you a definition of leadership as ‘steering a complex system’. This perspective may offer an insight that has passed you by until now, raise a question that has not yet been asked, or even provide a way to solve, albeit temporarily, one of the persistent problems you face in your school. Learning more about complexity has helped me come to terms with the impossible task of school leadership. I hope my brief contribution to this excellent book tweaks your interest and generates debate.

The researchED Guide to Leadership (2020) is available at

Further reading

Allen R, & White B (2019), Careering Towards a Curriculum Crash. Available online at

Holland J. H. (2014), Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press.

Lindley, D. V. (2006) Understanding Uncertainty. Hoboken, NJ: WileyBlackwell.

White B (2019), The Wicked Problem of School Improvement. Available online at

Osberg, D. and Biesta, G. (2010) Complexity Theory and the Politics of
Education. Boston, MA: Sense Publishers

Other posts on this subject from this blog

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