Few leaders would refer to their organization as a complex adaptive system (CAS)--one that is irreversible and unpredictable. They might say their organization contains diverse elements and is constantly learning--the other two aspects of a CAS. Few top leaders rarely are able to identify the self-organizing patterns as they emerge. This study involved 58 senior leaders in five 5 market sectors who were guiding their organizations during times of rapid change. Using a Delphi method, the intent was to identify what simple rules the leaders used to shape the speed, direction and outcomes of self-organizing patterns. A simple rule expands beyond principle and values statements, starts with a verb and informs behavior, decisions and actions at all levels of the organization and in most incidences. During the 2 two rounds, the leaders were able to identify the simple rules they used and evaluate them by usefulness. During the 3rd round, the leaders applied the Eoyang CDE Model (2001) which describes the conditions necessary for self-organizing as those that create containers, ensure differences and foster transformative exchanges. With descriptions for each of these conditions, the leaders identified simple rules of which 11 aligned with the descriptors of creating containers, 7 with the descriptors of ensuring differences needed for creativity or innovation and 19 aligned with the descriptors of transformative or 2-way exchanges. One conclusion of this study was that simple rules are not a simple process and the CDE Model was an effective guide for evaluating simple rules. Three rules emerged above all others: (a) focus on mission and the organization's best interest before anything else (container); (b) think beyond the expected (difference); and (c) listen before responding or speaking (exchange). Simple rules guide individual responses, builds trust that others will respond in a similar manner and ensures coordinated action. By investing up-front, applying the basic principles for developing simple rules and evaluating them against the Eoyang CDE Model, the organization will have established the conditions for greater resilience and adaptability needed to sustain itself when self-organizing is needed during times of rapid change.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Organizational leadership; Organizational change; Leadership

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Davis, Kay D.;