The world is complex and so are the environments that leaders navigate. New environments require leaders to be adaptive and adjust their behaviors to overcome multiple demands. At present, the literature is weak on understanding the theoretical implications of complex leadership styles. The researchers Thatcher, et. al (2013), discuss a model of association between the leader’s self-concepts (the mind) and the neuro-scientific basis of this complexity (the brain). They found that complexity of thought, effectiveness, and brain differentiation work together.
Because of the increasing ambiguity of world factors, a number of scientists have begun to discuss the adaptive complexity that leaders display in order to make effective decisions (Denison, et. al., 1995). The nature of that complexity of thought is mixed integrally with adaptive decision-making. In this case, adaptation “refers to the process by which an individual achieves some degree of fit between his or her behaviors and the new work demands created by the novel and often ill-defined problems resulting from changing and uncertain work situations. (Chan, 2000, pg. 4)”
The ability to think through the varying scenarios and situations to come to proper conclusions is based upon the meta-cognitive deep-seated abilities of the leaders that influence their self-concepts. Over time, these skills integrate to create complex mental constructs that are integrated with concepts of self to make it easier for such leaders to make decisions that are more effective and thought out (Lord et al., 2011). It is a process of experiencing that allows deep perception to differentiate key aspects of the environment and then integrate them into a complex and information laden framework. Some may call this the conceptual blend of environmental stimuli.
Adaptive decision-making is a process of self-awareness that allows individuals to see various situations and social influences that weigh on any particular decision (Endsley, 1995). It comes from a development of the concept of self that understands the underlining themes of various cultures and how this self fits within those cultures. It can traverse the complexities of culture and its various aspects to adjust behavior when the times call for it. It is not a surface skill that’s learned by the majority of the population, as it requires an ability to see self in time and space and have the following characteristics (Endsley, 1995):
1.) Perceive changes that are occurring in the environment,
2.) Interpret environmental information and integrate it into goals while understanding the implications of those changes on self.
3.) Make predictions of future events and the systems that develop under the new context.
The researcher’s model argues that the leader develops a battery of selves they can access in any given situation. Those who are not complex will simply not comprehend many aspects of a situation and rely on a single or few concepts of self to interpret their environment. The ability to think complexly with multiple self-constructs is based in the neuro-connections of the brain. Research has indicated that complex concepts do not map themselves to one spot within the brain but to multiple areas (Cacioppo, et. al, 2008). Therefore, those that can draw from multiple areas can think at level deeper and richer levels when compared to others.
It is believed that these processes of the brain create effective leadership. The prefrontal lobes are responsible for executive control and behavior (Chow & Cummings, 1999). It is this part of the brain that regulates the internal states as a response to environmental stimuli. Those that function well processing emotion, stimuli, goal directed behavior, and social awareness are able to succeed in other leadership possibilities.
As the brain processes information its complexity will determine what types of memories it can access based upon its neural wiring. These memories and experiences direct behavior. Complex thinkers have complex brains that are able to access multiple parts of their brains, adjust which processes they are using, and find alternative strategies to achieve their objectives. Such brains are seen as the highest form of leadership and human functioning (Smith et al., 1997).
Thatcher, et. al (2013), conducted a study in which 103 military members were used to study the psychological neurological aspects of decision-making. They used an EEG system to determine neural activities within the brain. Participants were given a military scenario in which they would have to create adaptive thinking to make it through appropriately. They found that leaders that are more complex demonstrated greater adaptive thinking, decisiveness, and positive actions as they interacted with task demands in response to evolving four-part scenarios that escalated throughout the trials. The EEG machine showed that such leaders had differentiated activities throughout the brain when solving complex problems and responding to events making them more accurate and effective.
The report furthers the concept that leadership is partly hardwired into the brain and that experience and skill can be used as a method to draw out such leadership. The nature vs. nurture debate becomes more defined as basic neurological adaptability processes match with experience and skills to create effectiveness in responding to environmental stimuli. The study of the brain and its ability adds to the possibility of selecting those students with the highest possibilities for leadership.
Cacioppo, J. et. al. (2008). Neuroimaging as a new tool in the toolbox of psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 62–67.
Chow, T., & Cummings, J. L. (1999). Frontal-subcortical circuits. In B. L. Miller & J. L. Cummings (Eds.), The human frontal lobes: Functions and disorders (pp. 3–26). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Chan, D. (2000). Understanding adaptation to changes in the work environment: Integrating individual difference and learning perspectives. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 18, 1–42.
Denison, D. (1995). Paradox and performance: Toward a theory of behavioral complexity in managerial leadership. Organization Science, 6,524–540
Endsley, M. (1995b). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors, 37, 32–64.
Lord, et. al. (2011). A framework for understanding leadership and individual requisite complexity. Organizational Psychology Review, 1,104–127.
Smith, et. al. (1997). Building adaptive expertise: Implications for training design strategies. In M. A. Quinones & A. Ehrenstein (Eds.), Training for a rapidly changing workplace (pp.89–118). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10260-004
Thatcher, et. al. (2013). The psychological and neurological bases of leader self-complexity and effects on adaptive decision-making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (3).