Department of Management


Date of this Version



Published in EMERGENCE 5:1 (2003), 54–76 Copyright © 2003 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Used by permission.


Recent events in the world are forcing us to restructure our understanding of leadership and organization. The al- Qaeda organization and its pervasive presence in the world demonstrated first-hand the power of a flexible, moderately coupled network of individuals brought together by a common need and aligned behind an informal and emergent leader. Its structure, which resulted from bottom-up coordination of individuals who voluntarily came together based on common need rather than from top-down hierarchical control, clearly demonstrates the power of a networked system based on relationships and shared vision and mission. To understand this and other types of network organizations, traditional models of leadership and organizational theory may no longer be sufficient, and may perhaps even limit our ability to realize the capabilities and resilience of such organizational forms.

To address such limitations, leadership theorists are exhibiting interest in new perspectives on organizing such as complexity theory (Boal et al., in press; Hunt & Ropo, in press; Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; McKelvey, in press; Streatfield, 2001). Complexity theory proposes that organizations are complex systems composed of a diversity of agents who interact with and mutually affect one another, leading to spontaneous “bottom-up” emergence of novel behavior (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; Regine & Lewin, 2000). Because of this, leadership in complex systems requires a shift in thinking from traditional “command-and-control” models that focus on control and stifle emergence (McKelvey, in press) to “complex leadership” models (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001) that enable interconnectivity and foster dynamic systems behavior and innovation. In this way, complexity theory helps explain organizational behavior relative to the “dynamic swirl” of social and organizational events that influence complex systems and their agents.

The purpose of this article is to derive propositions regarding complexity and complex leadership (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001) and to illustrate them using the case of al-Qaeda. We will argue that the conditions that led to the emergence of al-Qaeda were conducive to complex leadership, and that complex leadership helps explain the success of this terrorist movement. Although detailed data of the sort needed for rigorous qualitative analysis are obviously unavailable, we believe that the al- Qaeda example is such a powerful illustration of complexity concepts that it merits a nontraditional format for presentation.