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Leadership and complex adaptive systems

By irinuk Mar 27, 2007 1746 Words
Although current leadership theory emphasizes the distinction between transactional and transformational leadership, in fact, most leaders have a mixed profile of the full range of leadership styles. The best form of leadership is not only transformational or only transactional, but rather a combination of the two. However, in order to better understand each style's pros and cons, they have to be discussed in terms of similarities and differences. This cross-analysis will reveal further inquiry topics.

Most leaders and followers find themselves in transactional relations - leaders engage in an exchange process with followers: jobs for votes for example. The leader rewards or punishes the follower on the basis of performance. The transforming leader is more effective, by looking for potential determination in followers, seeking to satisfy higher needs, and totally engaging the follower. The resulting relationship is mutually stimulating. This type of leadership has been considered to be superior, leading to higher efficiency. New systemic theories, however, show a slightly different perspective.

Transformational leadership implies an engagement between actors, leaders motivating followers to out-perform their transactional agreement. Rubin, Muntz and Bummer (2005) identify seven conceptualizations of transformational leadership: articulating a vision of the future, encouraging group-oriented work, setting high expectations, challenging followers' thinking, supporting followers individual needs and acting as a role-model. All these issues have been analyzed separately in other papers.

Transactional leadership, on the other hand, involves extrinsic motivations. Followers are either positively motivated by praise and reward or they are negatively motivated through threats or disciplinary actions. Performance is the only criteria taken into consideration in the case of transactional leadership. Everything is structured into activities, each characterized by a clear set of implicit or explicit rewards/punishments. Performance is monitored at all times. Management, in this case, can be either active, when followers' mistakes are corrected on the process, preventively, or passive, in which case the managers wait for followers' mistakes before taking corrective action.

To sum up, no leader can be exclusively transformational or exclusively transactional. This is only a theoretical discourse meant to better emphasize the similarities and differences. In terms of leader's source of power, the main difference is that the transactional leader relies on rank/position, while the transformational leader trusts in character and competence. The first attitude leads to compliance, while the latter leads to commitment. Regarding the time-frame, transactional leadership is short-termed, whereas transformational leadership is oriented towards the long-haul. Both leaders offer rewards to the followers, but in the case of a transactional relationship these are contingent (pay, promotion), meanwhile transformational relationships rewards on a higher level (pride, self-esteem). In the first case supervision is vital, in the second it is not essential. Change affects primarily the followers' behavior in a transactional oriented organization. In the case of a transformational relation, change affects the followers' attitudes and values.

Considering a complex adapting systems theory, these differences can be viewed from a different perspective. New approaches on the subject state that human organizations are emergent systems of actions that transform themselves through social interaction. The systems' leadership is an element of these organizations, a function of the whole (and not a person role) that provides for the system's ability to co-evolve with its environment. Smith (1986) states that "the dissipative structure transformation can be viewed as a type of system evolution, one in which a whole-system change increases resilience and system functioning capacities within an environment". The dissipative change differs from evolution through adaptation and selection. It involves quick change. The same as transactional management. However, both types of change are important at a certain moment in the development of the same system, just as both types of leadership are needed in diverse circumstances.

Older management theories emphasize only the advantages of transformational leadership and disadvantages of transactional leadership, shedding a negative light on the latter. The paradigm of dissipative structure implies a change that takes place through the breakdown and rebuilding of a structural arrangement, within a turbulent environment. This results in a more 'tidy' and efficient configuration. Thus, this aspect becomes a virtue of transactional leadership, as opposed to the transformational leadership which is based on continuous adaptation and evaluation. The complex adaptive systems perspective emphasizes the positive aspects of transactional leadership.

Given the dominant transformational/transactional frame in leadership for the past decade, I believe a new dimension could be brought into analysis: charisma. Both a transactional and a transformational leader can be more or less charismatic, although it is traditionally believed that it is exclusively a trait of transformational leaders. Conger & Kanungo (1998) describe five behavioral attributes of charismatic leaders: vision and articulation, sensitivity to the environment, sensitivity to member needs, personal risk taking, performing unconventional behavior.

Most of the research in the field has been focused on the outcomes of transformational leadership. This has been done extensively, at the expense of neglecting other aspects, such as the underlying basis of leadership behavior. A large part of the literature explains the effects and results of transformational literature, while very little, if some, discusses why the phenomenon appears or not in certain situations/organizations. In what way do personal characteristics influence behavior, inducing leadership style? This is a question that has not received enough answers.

Considering these needs as a starting point, Rubin, Muntz and Bommer have conducted a study that considers two important personal differences: emotional intelligence and personality traits, in determining leadership style and performance within the transformational leadership paradigm. I believe that in this contexts another difference should be taken into consideration: a certain natural inclination or vocation (towards artistical manifestations, for example). This factor rather moulds one's personality, but it is not the same thing.

It has been argued that emotional abilities are vital in performing quality leadership, as persuasion of employees in order to support organizational change is much more efficient when it appeals to emotion and not to reason (Amichai Hamburger 2001). This is true to a certain extent. Followers have the tendency to respond quicker and more efficiently when they are appealed to at an emotional level. However, the rational level should not be completely ignored. Followers can relate emotionally only to decisions that they either agree or al least don't disagree rationally. Nonetheless, the importance of a leader being able to correctly receive emotional feedback is unquestionable. Non-verbal communication plays a great role in decoding emotions. Indifferent of the leadership style, the ability to read and understand emotion leads to better relationships with followers.

The second hypothesis states that there are two important personal traits that render a leader more efficient: agreeableness and extraversion. These characteristics are also predictors of transformational leadership, meaning that the person who possesses them is more likely to be a transformational rather than transactional leader. Besides these, a third trait has been found to be relevant to the study: positive affectivity, or the predilection to experience positive emotions and moods. All of the mentioned traits play important roles in articulating a vision, communicating it and motivating followers, as well as getting pleasure out of social relations. Furthermore, these traits help leaders perceive and understand followers' emotions, leading to a consolidation of their relationships.

In terms of methods, the mentioned study used a survey to collect data from a total of 145 leaders and their subordinates within a biotechnology/agricultural company. The respondents were chosen on a voluntary basis and selected bearing in mind a set of criteria. This method is suitable for the research study, as it eliminated possible errors and supported the accuracy of the results.

The design was focused on followers' ratings of the leaders, on six dimensions: articulating a vision, providing a role-model, communicating high-performance expectations, providing individualized support, fostering the acceptance of group goals and providing intellectual stimulations. These dimensions synthesize previous theoretical findings, functioning as a tool to test them. It is also useful to the selected leaders as it offers quality feedback from followers.

In terms of results, the data supported some of the hypothesis. It has been shown that emotional abilities are positively associated with transformational leadership behavior, and that agreeableness is an important predictor of such behavior, but the results did not confirm the connection between extraversion and transformational leadership. Positive affectivity has been confirmed as being relevant. At the end, the study reached its goal to examine the influence of emotional intelligence and personality traits on transformational leadership behavior.

The question is: are those results relevant considering a complex adaptive systems perspective? I argue that they are. The adaptive systems paradigm is closely related to change and transformation. Turbulent conditions lead to the breakdown and rebuilding of structural arrangements, resulting in better structures. In this situation enhancers of transformation/change are of vital importance. The traits discussed in Rubin, Muntz and Bommer's (2005) study are relevant, because they represent factors that smoothen transformation, but in a long-term manner. However, from this perspective a transactional leadership behavior could have better results, as it imposes change more abruptly and in a shorter period of time.

According to Katz and Kahn (1966), cited by Hazy (2005), organizational leadership is referred to, in complex systems' terms, by a number of roles. Firstly, it clarifies organizational boundaries, the context for action for its members/non-members, and provides a certain pressure on members to operate efficiently. Secondly, organizational leadership responds to internal structural pressures and operates to improve the effectiveness of the organization's capabilities. Thirdly, it increases micro-diversity and enriches recombination possibilities by searching the environment random changes.

For the leaders and followers the practical implications refer to their relationships. Within complex adaptive systems transformation is carried out through social interaction. A leadership meta-capability is necessary for organizational adaptation in a changing environment. It is also necessary for organizational sustainability. As mentioned before, in a complex adaptive systems perspective, transactional leadership produces better results. Hazy states that the level of transactional leadership activity predicts the organizations' level of sustainability (2005). Leader-follower relationship is a key issue that has to be properly analyzed. Further inquiries have to be made on this topic.

References:Bass, B. M. & Steidlmeier, P. (1998), Ethics, Character, And Authentic Transformational Leadership, Center for Leadership Studies, School of ManagementBurns, J. M. (1978), Leadership, HarperConger, J. A. & Kanungo R. N. (1998), Charismatic Leadership in Organizations, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hazy, J. K. (2005), Leadership as an Organizational Meta-Capability: A System Dynamics Simulation of Leadership, The George Washington University

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