9/24 – Fresh Perspective: Nancy Southern and Transformative Learning

Fresh Perspective / August - November 2014


Russ Volckmann

Nancy Southern

Nancy Southern

Russ:    Nancy Southern, I want to welcome you to Integral Leadership Review.

Nancy:  Thank you. Good to be here.

Russ:   This is not your first appearance. You were lead author of “Shifting from Knowledge Power to Generative Inquiry: Creating the Field for Transformative Learning in Healthcare and Business” with Jorge Taborga, and Mara Zabari (August-November 2013).

Before we get started talking about transformative learning, I would like to come clean about the background that we share so that people can put our conversation into context. If memory serves, I met you probably in the late 1990s at the Society for Organizational Learning in the San Francisco Bay Area. I do not recall whether we ever met before that. Do you?

Nancy:  I don’t think so. It seems to me that that was our first encounter when we met through Bay Area SoL.

Russ:    And you, at that time and for years to follow, were the bright light that kept that organization flourishing. You were the one who invested time and energy into making sure the events happened and getting whatever support you could from the rest of us in the process. I’m deeply appreciative of that because I got exposed to some really wonderful thinking on the part of a number of people like Alain Gauthierand others.

Nancy:  Yes. And I have to say that my colleague, Elizabeth Doty, and I were the two that really held the organization for a number of years, so I wouldn’t want to take credit myself. I was so grateful to have a partner in that process.

Russ:    I would be one of the last people in the world ever to want to take credit away from Elizabeth Doty for anything. I appreciated her book, The Compromise Trap: How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul published by Barrett-Koehler.

Years later, I proposed a PhD seminar on Integral Leadership at Saybrook University, because at the time – I believe this is the time you were the chair of the Organizational Systems Department at Saybrook.

Nancy:  Correct. I was chairing the Organizational Systems Masters and PhD programs after taking that role over when John Adams stepped down.

Russ:     And in the four or five years since, I’ve had the opportunity to teach the Integral Leadership Seminar there a number of times. I’ve enjoyed it. Yet, the Saybrook organization seems to be going through some major changes. Saybrook is moving its offices from San Francisco to Oakland, my goodness!

Part of the transformation that has been going on with Saybrook is that the Department of Organizational Systems has transformed, has grown.

Nancy:  Well, for many years, our program has wanted to move out from under the umbrella of the Psychology programs at Saybrook, which, of course, were the bedrock of why Saybrook was formed.

Russ:    Because it was the Humanistic Psychology Institute, originally.

Nancy:  Yes, that was when it was first formed.

We didn’t really have an opportunity to have much presence, particularly around the areas of management and leadership, as long as we were under the umbrella of Psychology.

So now we have our own school, the School of Organizational Leadership and Transformation. And within it, we have the Leadership and Organizational Development Program up in Seattle that was originally a part of the Leadership Institute in Seattle. It has over 40 years of history in developing leaders with the focus on organizational change and transformation.

And we are just bringing on a new MA in Management Program with a focus on Global Workforce Collaboration, which we hope will make a real difference in helping people who are working in virtual and dispersed global workforces learn how to do that in a much more effective way. It will help leaders understand how to engage with those workforces effectively. So we’re excited about that program launching.

Those two programs, along with our MA and PhD in Organizational Systems, are currently what we have under the umbrella of our new school.

Russ:    Are there also partnerships or strategic relationships with other universities outside of the United States?

Nancy:  Yes. Currently, we have a partnership with Osaka Prefecture University (OPU) in Japan. I’ve been over there two summers now teaching in their program. We’ve been instrumental in helping them develop a program that they call Systems-Inspired Leadership for the Material Sciences.

Russ:    Wonderful! How transdisciplinary!

Nancy:  They had their first group of doctoral students enter last spring. I had a chance to work with them this summer when I was over there. These are incredible scientists – people who are studying nanotechnology and real high-level science – who are now being exposed to ideas of leadership, innovation and transformation. It’s being supported initially by the Japanese government, because they recognize that they need to look more broadly at what’s needed in the world in terms of innovation. The Japanese faculty I work with at OPU recognize that exposing students to ideas of transformative leadership can be powerful, and also that transformation often requires some level of cultural change. It is exciting to be working to help create leaders and innovators who can create transformative change in the world.

Russ:    It sounds like Saybrook is on the move.

Nancy:  I hope so. My goal is see where we can go with it. Being the Chair in the School is exciting and also challenging. It wasn’t what I had in my field of vision. I was happy to be primarily a faculty member focused on leading one program. I do appreciate this opportunity to have greater influence through developing and leading a school that is focused on transformational change.

Russ:    Well, I wish you luck, and just to make sure that there’s full disclosure, you’re my boss at Saybrook.

Nancy:  And, I don’t think of our relationship that way.

Russ:    Well, neither do I; but if I had to have one, I’m glad it’s you.

Nancy:  Thanks.

Russ:    One of the things we noticed last semester – because we shared some students between my Integral Leadership Seminar and your Transformative Learning Seminar – was that we were getting feedback from students that there was a lot of overlap or mutuality, if you will, mutual support, in the themes that we were addressing in those courses.

My impression is that it mostly had to do with the mental models that people were walking around with, how they made meaning out of those mental models, and how they develop them over time. In the Integral Leadership seminar, essentially what they’re being exposed to is the notion of the mental model and the challenge of trying to bring about some level of integration of the various perspectives and worldviews and ideas, in this case, specifically about leadership. We look at how a mental model can help us put those together more from a both/and perspective rather than an either/or perspective, which I think is the bane of much of academic work.

I’m wondering what experience you had with students around that? Were you getting similar feedback?

Nancy:  Yes, I think it’s very interesting and I’m glad we’re exploring the interconnections between these two courses. My course, the seminar on Transformative Learning, presents both the theory and practice that has evolved out of the Columbia School of Education and the work of Jack Mezirow. That has become a vibrant field of study that explores what enables people through educational learning processes to create a more meaningful life. The field of study emerged in the ’70s when we had a number of adults going back to school, some of which were mid-career, and others who were women looking to build a career after raising children. This was the time when adult education emerged. What was seen as particularly interesting was that these adults were looking for more meaning in life and they were looking to education to help them create it.

So, Mezirow and his colleagues began researching and studying how we can create the conditions or enabling factors that support transformative learning in adult education. They are looking at more seasoned adults, compared to those straight out of undergraduate school. The field continues to evolve and is active internationally.

Russ:    What might be some examples of conditions that you’re referring to?

Nancy:  In terms of conditions, we’re talking about how do we teach in ways that create a learning environment, that begins to help people challenge their assumptions, really begin to recognize some of their mental models and begin to explore what’s meaningful to them. How do we help others explore the connection between the values they hold and the aspirations they have in life, what they’re seeing in the larger context of what’s happening out there in the world and where they see they are needed? Essentially, what are the conditions that allow me to explore how I am called to my work in a way that supports a meaningful life?

I wrote an article for the Journal of Transformative Learning a number of years ago that explored the relationship between the teacher and the student as a key condition or enabler for this kind of meaningful and transformative learning to occur. I discussed how we need to get away from the traditional teacher as authority figure, the person that puts out information, and the student as somebody who feeds it back in ways that are satisfying to the teacher. But what is that relationship? How does the teacher begin to have a relationship that is more intimate, that is more caring, that really holds the student in a way that enables them to go to a place of vulnerability, which is the bedrock of this kind of learning? When I begin to explore and challenge my own mental models and really think about what’s important to me, there’s also a reflection on what I haven’t done as yet that can be challenging and difficult as well as consideration of where I still need to go or what I still need to experience or achieve.

The relationship between the student and the teacher is critical. Other conditions include what kinds of approaches to teaching are really important to enable this kind of reflective and reflexive learning that needs to take place to support what we call transformative learning. This is a significant shift from traditional education and learning. Jack Mezirow talks about it as a shift in meaning schemes.

Russ:    I have a quote that I took out of everybody’s favorite, Wikipedia, by Elias. It was published in Revision.

“Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self. Transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analyzing underlying premises.”

Now, I’m sure there are many, many different definitions – as seems to be the pattern in academia that we’re going to come up with a long list of definitions and then quibble about them. In any case, the part I want to start with here is this all sounds so psychological and you began by talking about the movement of the Organizational Systems program out from under psychology. Yet, it’s clear in your work, and I hope in mine, that the world of psychology is very important in terms of how we not only create ourselves as learners and as producers of knowledge but as students, as faculty and so on, in those relationships. What was the rationale behind including a course like Transformative Learning in an Organizational System’s program as opposed to having them take a course like that in the psychology department?

Nancy:  First of all, they wouldn’t find it in psychology. I do think that there is a significant difference between how this field holds their work and what we find in psychology departments, even those that are nontraditional like Saybrook’s. While it draws on some of the areas from psychology, it really is a very different language and approach to how we understand who we are as human beings and how we interact socially, how we create meaning. We could probably draw a little bit back to some of Rollo May’s work. However, psychology is not really referenced that much in the field. It’s interesting. 

There’s a strong reference to Habermas’s work, which has a lot of emphasis on critical thinking. Through critical thinking we begin to create more of an understanding of who we are as engaged citizens in our lives and work. You might say that this work is, in context, much larger than the individual. It’s the individual in relationship to the world.

Russ:    I’m reading Kenneth Gergen’s Relational Being right now. I love where he’s going with his work. Is that related to what you’re talking about?

Nancy:  Yes. Gergen’s work is related. He’s had a lot of movement towards the relational over time, from what I can see. He is one of the psychologists who is beginning to bridge that gap between what has been primarily focused on in psychology – the more inner work of the person – to how people connect to others and to the world through co-creating relationships and meaning-making in the context of their life, their work and the world.

Russ:    His approach revolves around the notion of co-action. The developmental learning process, if you will, is one of getting past the individualism constraints into the collective, or what people like Vygotsky and others in European psychology would label the monological versus the dialogical.

The thing I’m trying to get my arms around is – and I think you have spoken to this quite well but I’d like to just really emphasize it – is that when we were talking about transformative learning, we’re going beyond the skin of the individual, if you will, aren’t we? The learning that’s taking place is not something that is contained within some fantasy of the brain or the mind of an individual, but of the individual in context, in relationship.

Nancy:  Well, I think that’s also a very alive and interesting debate that is going on in the field of transformative learning. Mezirow’s original work has been critiqued over the years because it was too overly focused on what’s happening in the mind of the individual. It was very cognitively oriented and not necessarily what one would say would be holistically oriented. But the wonderful thing about the transformative learning community is that Mezirow, who is now in his 90s, has welcomed the critique and the engagement of different perspectives. So, the field has been filled with this sort of debate and dialogue as to how and where this learning takes place, how much context plays an important role. If you talk to the folks that are in this field from Europe and other countries outside of the US, they are really much more focused on context and the relational aspect.

John Dirkx is also a key figure in the field. And Patricia Cranton really began to blend some of the psychology work, and particularly the work of Jung, into the transformative learning aspects. Robert Kegan’s work, of course, supports moving some of the transformative learning ideas into the understanding how individuals develop through stages of their lives. So there are those crossovers with psychology in various different ways. But I would say the definition you read earlier with the focus on the unconscious and consciousness expansion didn’t fully resonate with me.

Russ:    Might we hear your definition?

Nancy:  Well, let’s see. Transformative learning is our ability to seek a greater understanding of who we are in relationship to others and in relationship to our world. (I’m making this up as we go along, obviously. I don’t have any pre-packaged definition, as yet.) It is a continual meaning-making process. Transformative learning is a process that we’re engaged in throughout our lives. We are both thrown into, and can choose to enter, contexts that create, what Mezirow calls, disorienting dilemmas. We can develop the capacity to put ourselves and be present in situations that stretch our mental models, and help us rethink and reflect on who we are and what’s meaningful to us. As a result of building our capacity for transformative learning, we can consider alternative perspectives and value systems and shift our own as desired. This results in an expanded worldview and what some might refer to as a higher level of consciousness.

Russ:    Let me share with you a little bit about some work that I’m doing that I’m still trying to learn how to articulate.

In the field of leadership studies, as complex as that has become, there’s a feeling of sameness, a feeling of boundedness in the work that I see done in the field. Not all of it, but most of it. It’s like we’re operating from a monological paradigm that keeps us constrained in terms of how we can think about, how we can make meaning of the phenomena, the occurrences of leadership in human systems over time. And time is such an important variable. Not just context but context with time.

And so it seems to me that if the field is going to move forward – and this is the work I’m doing now and why Gergen’s work is such a valuable contribution – we’re going to need a paradigm shift. One of our challenges (in English) is that our language isn’t going to support that. The very concepts and the language we use – and others are talking about other languages – act as meaning-making constraints as well as opportunities to communicate. What we need to begin to do is shift the way we’re building our understanding, our knowledge and our relationships within the context of leadership. We need our own development as individuals in our theoretical orientations. We need to find a way of communicating exactly what you were talking about, which is what I think of as a dynamic systemic interplay of variables in changing context and over time.

And Gergen’s approach to that is to lay out his premises and then invite the reader to take the language stuck in the old paradigm and reframe it in their own minds as they read his work to help them shift their meaning making into what I would call the new paradigm that I’m pointing toward. I’m wondering, as you hear me say these things, what comes up for you around your work in transformative learning?

Nancy:  Well, absolutely. My doctoral study was in hermeneutic philosophy – a major focus on language and the way we construct language to make meaning and foster our social relationships. I think you’re right in the sense that we do have in the English language some real major limitations. Just the fact that we have subject-verb-object as the core of sentences is a problem.

Russ:    At least in transitive sentences.

Nancy:  Right. So we’re kind of stuck to some extent. The English language really fostered the idea that the individual is doing something to others. I think that we can get around it though. I think that language is important. I also think that we have to be cautious about how we try to shift language. We can alienate through too radical of a shift of language. It’s like working with any person or organization from our organizational development backgrounds that we both have, knowing how one has to work with each person and each organization given where they are at a time, and then really try to foster a shift.

The core, from my perspective, of transformative learning, is how we do that. That’s how I have come to focus on how we hold others and ourselves in relationships of care. When I think about the relationship of teacher and student, whether within the academic environment or outside of it, we need to be in relationships of care, relationships that support the vulnerability that comes along with transformative learning and change. We are all teachers and learners throughout our lives. Those are not just roles; they need to be embraced as aspects of self.

One of the challenges I have with some of Gergen’s work is it sometimes is not as connected to reality as it needs to be. We need to say, “Yes, maybe we can look at that as the ideal,” but in reality, what’s needed is how we make this shift from where we are now to where we need to go.

Russ:    One of the things that is critical to what we produce out of this is exploring what is the process we engage in and do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The current language, the current paradigms, have much value to offer. I love Ken Wilber’s statement. “No one’s smart enough to be wrong all the time.” There is value added in virtually every model and theory. When I talk about shifting paradigms, I don’t mean that it’s replacing the old paradigm; it’s about bringing in a new perspective, a new way of making meaning – or an old way, for that matter – that can be held in conjunction with the more linear structural paradigms that we’ve been used to working within.

One of the things in your work, and in your interest in transformative learning, that seems really valuable and important to me, is the perspective on the process that not only takes place in the meaning making, but also in our own development and capacity for that meaning making. And so you reference Kegan who basically said that it takes five years to shift from one stage in his developmental model to the next stage – and I believe that’s five years of concentrated intentional work. There is also the work of people like the late William Perry, who developed a far more complex stage model but was able to track the stage development of students, particularly in engineering programs in universities, and see how their shift in the locus of control and meaning making – this is the way I like to think about it – emerged over a four-year educational process. It went from, “I’m looking for the expert to give me all the answers,” to recognizing that there are multiple experts to recognizing that “I’m the one who’s going to have to mediate among these experts in my own mind and meaning-making.”

Kegan’s work has shown, at least in some research that was done at West Point, that quite a few of the cadets went from one stage to the next during their four year experience; it took them four years of work at West Point. Frankly, with the way the plebe year is, I’m amazed it didn’t jump two levels in that one year, having gone through that myself. In any case, they also found that in the course of the career of senior army officers up to the Lieutenant Colonel level, I think, that from the time they graduated from West Point up to that stage in their career, they moved another level of development. So it doesn’t stop when we’re young. It doesn’t stop when we’re in the university. It’s ongoing. And what’s exciting to me about what you’re doing is the idea of fostering this “both/and” developmental lifelong journey.

Nancy:  It really is as you described. It’s learning how to learn that is at the core of this process of becoming a better person, more capable of creating not only the life we want for ourselves but contributing to the good of society and what’s needed in the world. I find that is a focus I have in the transformative learning area. I’ll have to say that my relational orientation leads me to place greater emphasis on context than some of my colleagues in the field. As I mentioned, the scholars in the field outside of the U.S. place more importance on context. Gergen’s work, and that of others such as Maturana, is really beginning to influence more people in the U.S. towards a relational orientation.

To me, that is the core of this shift we have to make here, and that’s where I find it still a bit of a challenge: to figure out where this all fits in the field of psychology. I think the field of psychology is still, for the most part, grounded in the meaning-making and learning process as cognitive. There is still a strong orientation that becoming a better person is interior work, primarily. And I think my perspective – and it sounds like your perspective to a great extent – is that it is both interior and exterior work and the connections in between.

Russ:    Absolutely. The Bodhisattva lives!

Nancy:  And that interior work has a lot to do with shifting our understanding of being relational, rather than separate individuals.

Russ:    Have you given any thought to the implication of that for, what we call in the leadership industry, leadership development or leader development?

Nancy:  At the core of all my writing and my work is that when people can make that shift to understanding self as relational, they experience transformative learning. I’ve seen it with a number of our Saybrook students, because being in a doctoral program provides enough time, along with the right conditions and relationships, to support them in making that shift both cognitively and in their way of being. When they make that shift from the individual to the relational, it changes their whole approach to life, to their work, to how they show up as leaders. Out of my doctoral work came the understanding of being in care, which I mentioned earlier. It seems to be a difficult concept for many to understand. It is influenced by Heidegger’s work. As a leader, I need to be in care, meaning I hold others in this space of care in a way that I am always attentive to and aware of, as much as possible, the needs of the other in the context of the situation and how can I both support them and learn from them.

It’s very different from being a servant leader, because I think being in care – particularly when you’re trying to foster transformative learning – has a lot to do with challenging. We have to be in a place where we are comfortable pushing others – and I think it is a push – into that space of questioning who they are, how they’re doing their work, to enable them to see themselves differently, to see themselves in their work and in their world, differently.

For the most part, students go along with me with this work, but I know it’s very hard. Our students are people who are very experienced, most mid-career and very successful. One of my students is a very experienced consultant who has done a lot of work around the world. I’m working with her to challenge and shift her assumptions. A lot of assumptions come from that which you described as thinking that they are experts. A lot of people who come to PhD programs think they’re experts already. They may initially think they only want to get a credential that allows them to take that expertise and go out and further their work, to get the degree that they deserve. The similar situation exists with leaders, who often are confident in their knowledge and skills, and don’t see the need for learning. Our challenge is creating the conditions that shake their core assumption of who they are as experts, while not shaking their confidence as leaders.

In reality, I like to see folks recognizing that they’re not really experts at all, that they are really learners for life. They have something to offer, but not so much from a place of expertise. The core of transformative learning is always that questioning of “Do I really know?” I am hesitant even to use the term “know,” because I would rather say, “This is what I understand at this point in time that makes sense to me, but I may learn something tomorrow that totally shifts that.”

Russ:    We’re living in a world of gerunds instead of nouns.

Nancy:  Yeah, exactly. So speaking about language, one of the language shifts that I impose on my students is replace the term knowing with understanding – helping them recognize that we’re very rarely coming from a place of knowing and that it’s about seeking to understand.

Russ:    Excellent. What’s next for Nancy Southern? Where are you going with your academic work given all the incredible commitments and time that you’re spending on development of programs at Saybrook and the like? Are you doing any research, any writing? Any new interest coming up for you?

Nancy:  Well, I had a new research interest that came up during recent travels, and I’m hoping I can find the time to develop it. I just took my first trip to Scandinavia and I was particularly impressed with what I saw, especially in Sweden. There is such a strong social fabric in Sweden. I’m very interested in trying to research the interconnections between the social systems and the social fabric in the country.

Russ:    Could you clarify what those terms mean to you?

Nancy:  When I think about social fabric, what I saw in Sweden was the way that people connected with each other in ways I’ve never seen anywhere else around the world, not that I’ve been in that many places. But I’ve been to a number of places around the world, mostly in Asia and Europe, but I’ve never seen that level of connection among people. I rarely saw people alone there. There seemed to be such a desire to be together, to play together. It was just a powerful sense of interconnection and I would like to understand more about how it has evolved and how it is supported by the social systems.

I imagine that social fabric is influenced greatly by the culture in Sweden, but I suspect from talking with people, it’s very much influenced by the social systems, the security, the downplay of competition, the equality they try to achieve, the support they give to parents as they’re raising children. There are a lot of things that I’ve heard and read about the Swedish way of life that I think contribute to such a strong social fabric.

And I think we could learn a lot from this research that relates to what we need in the US, as I believe we have the opposite movement going on. Our social systems are destroying our social fabric. It’s going to be difficult to build that back unless we are willing to move in a direction of a society that provides greater support for people, that fosters relationships in families, communities, and organizations.

While I have lots of research interests and am excited about the research our students are doing, I would like to further our understanding of our relational being and how we create social systems that support us in co-creating a better existence for all life. And, of course, I live my life through exploring and interpreting what’s happening through a cultural lens. That’s one of the things that came out of my doctoral study – a very strong cultural lens, grounded in an understanding of who we are in the context of our environments and our world. So I plan to continue to travel the world and study different leadership orientations and ways of being.

Russ:    Nancy, is there anything I haven’t asked you wish I had?

Nancy: “What is the question that drives us toward transformative learning and change?” I would say it is a question we all need to hold all the time and bring into conversation with others. What do we really care about? That leads us to consider how we live our lives in care, how we care for others and for the natural environment. When we live and take action from a place of care, I think it changes our sense of who we are and can support us in coming together across the great divide of perspectives. When we recognize that, as people, we are a small part of the universe, that carries its own mystery that we will be trying forever to understand, thus leading to recognizing the need to be life-long learners.

Russ:    Nancy, thank you. I think this has been an outstanding conversation from my point of view, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it as well.

Nancy:  Yes! It’s been fun. Thank you.



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