Top down or bottom up? Leadership and groups in chaotic, complex or complicated contexts

Do groups need leaders or can they simply self-organise? This question is in the air—or maybe I am just noticing it today. Over the weekend my colleague Don Lowe emailed about ‘facilitator free interaction’ and a loosely related idea—‘senius’ (which stands for a sort of collective genius.) was discussed in a Brian Eno clip ( Tweeted by David Gauntlett (@davidgauntlett). Eno argues for “… situations that produce good outcomes, rather than individuals who produce good outcomes”. Today there are two posts by Harold Jarche, one of which led me back to his excellent 2011 post and the other directly relevant to my theme now  All of these lean towards groups as determinants and away from leaders or leadership. Is that the right way to go?

It will help, I think, to separate at the start three different types of group/leader settings to make sense of this. First (which has been my long term interest) there are groups that involve (mainly) face to face interaction. Second, there are groups that operate mainly virtually—‘networks and ‘wirearchies’. And lying between them an area I would like to explore later—virtual connections for live conversations (e.g. via VOIP or similar links). Is the last is more like the first or the second … and what follows from the answer?  I’ll come to that another day.

I want to answer the question about the relative importance of leaders and of groups as the determinant of outcomes with reference mainly to the first category. I like the Jarche arguments about virtual networks and it’s likely that my argument applies least to them.

The answer is neither new nor radical but I think it’s worth making, not least because it spring-boards to the posts that will follow.

Concentrating on good leadership as the determinant of good outcomes can be called the ‘top down’ school: good leaders lead teams to good outcomes by applying the appropriate leadership style and skills. Truck-loads of books and articles have been written on this topic and there are some obvious themes that emerge. Looking beyond ‘great [wo]man’ theories it is usually clear that if the right person, at the right time deploys the right skills, s/he makes a difference. There are some dramatic and clear examples of this, perhaps nowhere clearer than the life-or-death contexts of combat. Stories abound of failing units being rallied to excellent performance by the arrival of a new commander. More sadly, previously successful ones can fail because of a new, poor commander. For better or worse, leaders make a difference.

Yet ‘top down’ as an approach to complex adaptive systems does not work—as the failure of top down approaches in artificial intelligence showed some decades ago. So, exactly how leaders make a difference needs to be kept open just for a moment.

What, then, of ‘bottom up’? Certainly this is how complexity emerges—‘life at the edge of chaos’ emerges by simple actions that are repeated and result in adaptive and complex outcomes. And the literature on self-governing groups—which fills another truck or two—attests to this. Sometimes this self-government is based on temporary, democratically nominated leaders:  Harold Jarche’s 2011 post references an Apache approach of leaders emerging temporarily for a given situation and there is a suggestion by Clifford (Clifford, B., & Perry, P. (2000). The Black Ship: The Quest to Recover an English Pirate Ship and Its Lost Treasure. Headline) that pirates elected leaders who were to be obeyed during pursuit, attack or emergencies but who could be overruled or replaced at other times.

Moreover, the principles that underpin these interactions—such as group size, group composition and the links of these to participation discussed in the last post—make a difference. They can be understood, articulated and applied.

So is it is an easy and facile answer to say that obviously both leadership and group interaction have an effect. Probably, but it becomes a richer answer if we understand how they link.

Broadly speaking, leadership needs to fit context and contexts vary. The most crucial variation is the way that order, causality and knowledge intersect. Knowledge guru Dave Snowden has one of the clearest takes on this, and his Cynefin framework (nicely explained in a SlideShare presentation at discusses the difference between chaotic, complex, complicated and simple contexts. What a leader needs to do differs depending on which of these four we find ourselves in.  Ignoring the simple setting (it’s not very interesting) a leader needs to ‘command’ when there is chaos, ‘lead strategically’ when in complexity and ‘manage’ when things are complicated.

Unfortunately, these three are frequently confused. Numerous ‘management’ techniques (KPIs, GANTT charts, etc., etc.) are somewhere between unhelpful and downright damaging if they are rigorously applied to complex situations and are fatally constraining in chaos. This is where the pirate model is so nice: in the chaos of the chase and attack, the elected captain commands and woe betide the man who disobeys. In complex situations, the captain is engaged with the crew who elected him—he can influence and shape the directions, but in the end he needs consent. If it is complicated (the least likely to the three for pirates), his job is to manage the technically relevant processes and people to get the right answer, again in consultation with the crew.

So here is the answer I think we get the most mileage from: when the matter involves (mainly) face-face groups in a complex setting—and most things involving human behaviour are complex—leadership in the full sense matters. It delivers mainly by building trust, by setting parameters and norms, by making resources available and by delegating details. The military have a phrase for this—they call it ‘mission command’. Under this method, the commander makes his/her intent clear, sets the boundaries and devolves direct actions to the units involved. Whether lower down this is handled hierarchically (command and control) or more democratically (like the SAS) is again context specific.

Other roles we might think of in groups—such as workshop facilitation—follow this pattern. In my experience, a good workshop sets strong boundaries about the methods to use and guidance about when a given method might be deployed—but allows the group interactions to be the bedrock for producing outcomes. It’s also is sensitive to the underlying dynamics that promote—or stifle—good outcomes. I’ll turn to these questions in my next few posts.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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