How Leaders Think: Measuring Cognitive Complexity in Leading Organizational Change
Keywordsmultiple case study
adult cognitive development
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AbstractThe ability to lead complex organizational change is considered the most difficult leadership responsibility. Habitual linear thinking based on sequential procedural decision making is insufficient when responding to ambiguous and unpredictable challenges and interpreting systemic variables in the context of unforeseen problems, risks, and invisible interrelationships. The purpose of this exploratory multiple case study was to expand our understanding of the structure of the thinking employed by executive leaders as initiators and enablers of complex, large-scale organizational change. The researcher integrated knowledge of adult cognitive development and organizational leadership to examine the higher forms of reasoning abilities required for dealing with the complex and nonlinear nature of change. By using Laske‘s (2009) dialectical thought form (DTF) framework, the researcher explored the existence of dialectical thinking through structural analysis of interviews with 10 senior leaders who successfully transformed their respective organizations. Specifically, the study explored: (1) To what degree do the sponsors of organizational change engage in dialectical thinking in their work? (2) Is complexity of thinking related to complexity of sponsorship roles? (3) What phase of cognitive development must sponsors of transformational change attain to become effective change agents? (4) Does a higher level of dialectical thinking lead to more effective sponsorship of transformational, complex change? The results revealed that all 10 effective leaders were fully developed dialectical thinkers and that each one had a unique pattern of dialectical thinking. Data illustrated how metasystemic thinkers, despite their surface similarities, have deep epistemological differences that indicate profoundly different areas of strength and developmental needs. The potential application of the DTF framework as a developmental tool for expanding cognitive capabilities to deal with complex change is addressed and explored. The study opens an array of opportunities for another, richer way of looking at adult development. The electronic version of this dissertation is available in the open-access OhioLink ETD Center, www.ohiolink.edu/etd.