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Conference paper

Introduction: Amidst more than two decades of a discourse calling for third sector organisations to be more ‘businesslike’, there has been relatively little research about the strengths of being ‘nonprofit-like’. This paper draws on recent research which was grounded in theory-building with civil society practitioners in two Aotearoa NZ leadership learning contexts to draw out their tacit wisdom about leading amidst complexity. The research challenges dominant, implicit assumptions about leadership, for example as strong, heroic, decisive, visionary heroes and heroines. An alternative understanding of leadership is explored, drawing on complexity thinking constructs, to see leadership as a whole, multi-layered, dynamic learning system. What may look to the outsider as messy, disorganised or contradictory leadership responses, are instead understood as polarities within a complex adaptive system that is always in movement.

This paper highlights some of the learning for civil society practitioners, researchers and educators from this collaborative inquiry research, in particular:

  • four interwoven layers of leadership – personal, relational, cultural and structural – and some of the polarities that are in ongoing movement
  • complexivist leadership strategies that help leading amidst the complexity of civil society contexts
  • three core interactions to pay attention to, to enable leadership learning in everyday complex contexts
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