The Intersection of Punctuated Equilibrium and Leadership Emergence Within the Framework of Naturalistic Decision Making


  • Linds Moerschell State University of New York at Potsdam


Punctuated equilibrium, a theory of unexpected and sudden change arising out of evolutionary biology and paleontology, has been applied to decision sciences, physics, organizational theory, and group behavior but never to leadership emergence theories. The purpose of the study was to discover how leadership emerges during a period of punctuated equilibrium, a sudden and unexpected change event, using a naturalistic decision making framework. Thus, the research question probed how leadership emergence could be theoretically modeled in a critical event. In other words, the study offers insight into the mechanism of real time leadership emergence, that is, behaviors that appeared within seconds or minutes of a critical change event.In this study, change was not viewed as an incremental or continues process, but rather, a sudden and unexpected, almost catastrophic event. To frame this process I drew from 4 areas of scientific literature. The study was particularly unique because it drew from, and helped unify the four scientific foundations of complexity science, leadership emergence, punctuated equilibrium theory, and naturalistic decision making. Naturalistic decision making is the study of individual decision-making process that occurs in a situation that is unexpected, sudden, and often dangerous that is associated with a high cost of failure or success (Carroll, Klein, & Lipshitz, 2006). NDM helped to define and confine the event into a narrow time frame. Punctuated equilibrium theory, in physical sciences, posits that evolutionary change is not gradual; but rather, quick and sporadic change that occurs after long periods when nothing changes (Drazin et al., 2004; Gersick, 1991; Gould, 2002). For this study, a critical incident simulated a punctuated event but its relationship to leadership emergence was yet to be defined.There is much research accumulating in the area of complexity science and leadership that posits an entirely new way of thinking about leadership. This study defined leadership as a confluence of skills, motives, behaviors, and characteristics that quickly assemble in an individual for the purpose of service to the common good of others, and not themselves, often triggered by a crucible experience (Bennis, 2007; Sternberg, 2007). Complexity science is the study of interrelationships and interconnectedness among microcosmic or macrocosmic parts. It is a way of seeing, similar to a kaleidoscope lens, that brings into focus elements that were not visible before. Complexity science illuminates order beneath chaos and complexity that integrates ideas that “transcends the physical, biological, and social sciences†(Schneider & Sommers, 2006, p. 351) that has recently entered into the study of change, innovation, and leadership behavior (Poole & Van de Ven, 2005).