View From South Africa: Complexity Theory and University Leadership

Universities are complex, dynamic organizations which must adapt in ways that aren’t always planned or predicted. For some university leaders, such challenges present an opportunity to lead for great change within the sector. For others, the sheer speed of unplanned change makes the situation feel chaotic and overwhelming.

To succeed, university leaders need to understand that the qualities of leadership that may have worked in the past are different to those required in a complex world.

Protest action and COVID-19 may have seemed like isolated threats, at least initially. But the past few years have revealed the complexity of the demands on university leadership under conditions of sustained crisis.

South African higher education institutions experienced significant political unrest since March 2015 when the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements merged to demand free, decolonized education. More recently, the uncertainty of the pandemic lockdown has profoundly affected institutions. Leadership has needed to be fast, adaptive and innovative.

University leaders themselves said they were unprepared for intense and sustained protests. Many lacked the skills to address the complex crisis – saying they were “not trained for this.”

Complexity Theory matrix
(Image: “Complexity Theory: An Overview with Potential Applications for the Social Sciences,” by Turner, J. R. and Baker, R. M., 2019, Systems, 7(1), p. 16)

What does complexity mean?

According to the scholar Robert Poli, complex problems and systems result from interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished. They must be addressed as entire systems and managed systematically.

They are different from complicated problems, whose individual causes can be addressed.

My research proposes a leadership model to deal with complexity. I investigated the current styles of leadership in South African higher education institutions and developed a model of the primary competencies leaders need.

The findings point to a relatively weak understanding of complexity science among leaders. The advantages that such a perspective can yield for institutions are not well known. An appreciation for complexity is critical within a university environment where bureaucratic assumptions often underpin management operations.

The lens offered by complexity theory allows leaders to move beyond a bureaucratic perspective and see leadership as a complex, interactive dynamic function through which adaptive outcomes can emerge.

Competencies required

The study was conducted over four years with people in leadership positions across South African universities.

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This article by Cyrill Walters originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “What complexity theory can teach leaders of South African universities today”

Classical leadership studies have primarily focused on leaders while neglecting the complex systems in which they operate. The model I propose uses a complexity-science perspective to yield new insights into the dynamic processes underlying leadership in academic institutions.

This is a departure from prior research because the model suggests that what’s important is not simply the composition of the leadership team or the ability to increase interactions. Instead it’s how interactions are managed and regulated via dialogue.

The study concludes that complexity thinking and nonlinear science are potentially powerful leadership tools. To use them, leaders in South African universities need to:

  • Support a “generative leadership” style: coordinating and coaching rather than controlling. This is more likely to give rise to spontaneous, self-organizing networks.
  • Support diversity: the more difference in the system, the more likely novelty will arise. More than demographic diversity, it’s openness to difference of opinion and perspective that will increase the social exchange and information flow.
  • Support learning: provide team members with the knowledge and skills to manage and resolve conflict, tolerate disagreement and reach common understandings.
  • Develop the system’s network, both inside and outside the organisation.
  • Embrace tension, ambiguity and unpredictability. This requires leaders to provide opportunities for conflicting perspectives to surface among team members. It means creating a climate that values the diversity of views, and helps teams resolve differences and tolerate uncertainty.

Complexity and the future of university leadership

The various crises in South Africa have revealed that leaders’ decision-making roles have become more intense. As systems grow more complex and inter-connected, the prospect of failure increases. This is particularly the case when they are tightly coupled and the failure of one part of the system endangers the system as a whole.

Who could have predicted that throwing a bucket of human excrement on a statue would spark nationwide protests about decolonisation, which inspired similar movements in other parts of the world?

Conventional constructs of leadership have too often focused on the charismatic visionary individual. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, argues for collective wisdom, or the decentralization of decision-making. He says it is a better option than embodying leadership in an individual, since human beings are not perfectly designed decision-makers.

Surowiecki suggests that the more power is given to a single individual in the face of complexity and uncertainty, the more likely it is that bad decisions will be made. Leaders need to consider complex systems and their dynamics. If their hope is to blunt the impact of the current uncertainty and unpredictability they must acknowledge that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems.

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Cyrill Walters

Cyrill Walters is a post-doctoral fellow in higher education studies at Stellenbosch University and teaches on the MBA program at Stellenbosch University Business School. She is currently working on projects that include the decolonization of knowledge in South African universities, the impact of COVID-19 on the academic work of women scholars, and the application of complexity theory in higher education leadership.

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Neil McAdam

Cyrill, I fully endorse your thoughts. For a more generic application of similar approaches and an exploration of some of the barriers to implementing the new organisational leadership see my PHD from Deakin University in Australia dated 200w

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