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Leadership in Complexity and Change


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Table of Contents




The introduction briefly introduces complexity science, the science of uncertainty, explaining why and how it is so useful to leaders. It then briefly outlines the structure for the book, explaining the focus of the three parts.

PART 1 – The changing landscape for leadership and change

PART 1 paints a picture of the changing landscape for leadership and change. It explains how the working world is qualitatively different now and why that matters for leadership and change.

Chapter 1 – In constant motion

This chapter sketches out the new landscape for leadership and change:

Is it just me? Challenges of a world in constant motion

From change to changing. From organisations to organising

The death throes of change management

Leadership assumptions that have had their time

What does this mean for leadership and change?

Chapter 2 – Complexity, straightforwardly

This chapter offers a straightforward view of key concepts from complexity theory by relating them to real-world organisational challenges facing leaders:

Help! Complexity is complex. Can we just simplify things? (Entanglement)

Avoiding nasty surprises. Your key leadership dilemma (Uncertainty)

Haven’t we been here before? The illusion of stability (Patterning)

Let us turn back the clock! Why complexity is a one-way street (Emergence)

What does this mean for leadership and change?

Chapter 3 – Leading in the midst of change

This chapter positions leaders in the midst of change and explores their leadership potency:

Yes, it does matter what you say and do

You’ve got to be in it to change it

Why change is every leader’s job

Making sense of the Dynamic Patterning of change

What does this mean for leadership and change?

PART 2 – Tools & techniques for leadership and change

PART 2 begins by considering how we can invigorate existing tools and techniques with a new mindset. It then offers some new tools and techniques for leadership in complexity and change.

Chapter 4 – Applying complexity thinking

Why how we think about what we do matters a lot:

Better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong




Questions, not answers

Chapter 5 – Noticing weak signals

It all starts with noticing:

For the want of a horseshoe nail

The power of small, human-scale data

Slowing down thinking

We each see part of the picture

Noticing at multiple levels

Chapter 6 – Spotting the vital signs of change

New tools for noticing:

Events and why they matter

Changing patterns of relations

Changing patterns of attention

Changing patterns of emotion

Taking a systematic approach

Chapter 7 – ‘Catching reality in flight’

Making sense of what is changing as it is changing:

Emerging issues and opportunities

Patterns, meta-patterns and false patterns

Paradoxical thinking – both/and

Power of other perspectives

Provisionality, again

Chapter 8 – Informing your leadership responses

Applying informed leadership:

What you say and do matters

Cues and signals

Managing the stage

Unintended consequences

Keep on keeping on


PART 3 – Leadership and change practice

PART 3 explores the practice and practices of leadership and change.

Chapter 9 – It starts with you

Leadership is personal:

Self-as-instrument – what it means and why it matters

Reflex, reflection and reflexivity

Responsible leadership

Ethical practice

Authentic leadership

Chapter 10 – Practices of leadership in complexity and change

Putting the thinking into practice. How practitioners are doing it:

Managing energy

Collaborative leadership

The art and science of nudging

Managing the stage

About the Author

Sharon Varney is a scholar-practitioner who specialises in developing people and organisations. Sharon developed her deep expertise in leadership and change working in large, complex organisations.

She was Vice President for international learning and development at a US bank, before joining a global engineering and construction company in the offshore oil and gas industry as their group head of learning and communications.

In the early 2000s, Sharon was bitten by the complexity bug. This changed the trajectory of her career and she left the offshore business to take a deep dive into academia. Her award-winning doctoral research, which has a very practical edge, explored the complex dynamics of organisational change and the role of change leaders within it.

Sharon now effectively bridges academia and practice. Working across a wide variety of business settings, she applies complexity science insights in her leadership and organisational development (OD) work. This includes bringing thought and practice leadership to The Henley Forum, an applied research centre at Henley Business School, and to Masters’ programmes at Henley and beyond.


"The book takes us on a journey into how this can enrich and lift the way we think and act while changing and leading organisations." --Bernd Vogel, Professor in Leadership and Founding Director of Henley Centre for Leadership at Henley Business School
"This is the best book I have read on complexity and leadership. It is very accessible and yet does not shirk from providing a clear account of the theory. The implications for change and leadership are nuanced and rich and practical at the same time. And I like the focus on the individual and what it means for personal practice. Highly recommended. This is a difficult topic to tackle as every author takes different meanings from complexity and weaves in different strands; there are some assertions I might argue with, but this is also a strength and an inevitability in tackling the complex topic of complexity. There is much to inspire, to engender debate and further study as well as to offer new perspectives, new insights and practical actions". --Dr Jean Boulton, lead author of Embracing Complexity "This book is a revelation and will be a must for anyone wanting to understand how to take an insider view of leadership and change in today's fast-changing and ambiguous times. With marvellous clarity Dr Sharon Varney lays bare the essence of complexity thinking as it applies to leadership, bringing theory vividly to life with rich case studies and key insights. The book challenges management orthodoxy - in complexity leaders are not in control of what happens, but like everyone else, leaders are active participants in the entangled web of formal and informal relationships, what Sharon calls the dynamic patterning of organisational life, full of paradoxes, power play and anxiety. Moreover, all models are wrong, including models of strategy and leadership because models are simplifications of our complex reality. And yet they have their place, as Sharon points out, when used appropriately to open minds. Sharon encourages the reader to embrace complexity thinking, to spot the vital signs, including weak signals of emerging trends and to truly notice the social patterning (i.e., the history of choices made in a particular context) that also enable and constrain behaviour. And, while complexity is inherently paradoxical and there are no easy answers, as the author suggests, this is good for the system because it spurs adaptation. Sharon's call to spread the thinking is well made: "Let us empower ourselves and others to bring leadership in complexity and change into the mainstream of thinking and practice. If not now, when?" --Dr Linda Holbeche, Adjunct Professor, Imperial College Business School

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