A Holistic View for Responsible Leaders
Review of Peter Merry, Evolutionary Leadership
Pacific Grove: Integral Publishers, 2009
by Antonio Marturano
Britisher Peter Merry calls himself a synnervator (from “Syn-“ to interconnect, and “-nervate” to vitalise) who spent much of his life moving around, living in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ghana, and currently he is in the Hague, the Netherlands, with his Dutch wife. From 1999 Peter “felt in love” with Spiral Dynamics Integral (indeed he was trained on that by Don Beck) and started studying the integral approach. According to Peter’s biography, “The Integral approach blends personal development, social change, and creativity in one seamless whole, providing a framework of reference from which to do his work and live his life in the world.”
He is working with evolutionary transformation in organisations, designing strategy for the emergence of societal and global resilience, and teaching and training in integral thinking and practice. In 2005 he founded the Center for Human Emergence (CHE) which is a vehicle for exploring how to apply an integral perspective to societal and cultural transformation in a country ripe for the next step. Consequently, a network of integral practitioners has emerged, called Synnervate, and with it the School of Synnervation was established. In 2008 Peter founded The Hague Center for Global Governance, Innovation and Emergence to support, learn about and promote innovative integral approaches to the global challenges that humanity faces today. In this capacity he is playing a key role in the State of the World Forum’s 2020 Climate Leadership Campaign.
His book, Evolutionary Leadership provides a picture of how all the bits and pieces Merry worked with during his professional life fit together in order to make it systematically accessible to the reader. Evolutionary Leadership is structured into three parts: an introductory part (notably including a Foreword by Fons Trompenaars), seven chapters that are the very book’s heart and a final part including bibliography, reference and a useful short biography of people referenced in the book.
Merry’s introduction has an analytical role: indeed, it briefly explains some crucial terms Merry will use in the book, such as yin-yang dynamics and, very importantly, Wilber’s four quadrants and their implications when dealing with ontological questions. In Chapter One Merry further explains some epistemological problems entailed in his theory and how they impact on some basic theoretical questions, such as the evolutionary tendencies that apply to each of Wilber’s quadrants and their interaction. Chapter Two looks in more detail at the situation we find ourselves in now on Planet Earth. The next four sections take each quadrant in turn and explore what it means to lead from an evolutionary perspective in that quadrant. So what is the inner experience of connecting to this perspective, and how can anyone develop the inner qualities needed to act from it (this is explained in Chapter 3)? Chapter Four takes on the question of how can anyone consciously nurture their body to support themselves in such work? What does it feel like to be in a relationship with others from this perspective (question in Chapter Five)? What systems and structures could support our being together in this way, and what are some of the tools we can use to facilitate their emergence (in Chapter Six)? Finally, Chapter Seven explores how we might get started as we engage the world.
Throughout the book Merry includes stories from his personal experience to better illustrate the point being made. Interestingly, he is drawing primarily on two cases. One is that of a leader Merry was supporting over recent years who leads a business unit in a multinational technology corporation. The other is that of his own experience of leading the Centre for Human Emergence. Occasionally, Merry introduces other one-off stories, too. At the start of each chapter there are—quite eccentrically—poems written by Merry’s brother that are designed to link to the theme of the section it is in. Finally, the book is richly accompanied with coloured tables and figures in order to help the reader to better understand this book’s key concepts.
Merry’s book—I agree with Trompenaars—is a clear map of the landscape that we are currently navigating, a helicopter view of the dynamics of individual and collective development. Peter Merry, indeed, mixes instances from developmental biology and complexity theory that provide a fresh view over a general reiteration of old and consummated maps. In particular he explains why and how we have to move from a linear ways of thinking to a holistic way of thinking, as it is otherwise more difficult to effectively deal with contemporary dilemmas. Evolutionary Leadership is thus the result of a very personal spiritual journey. Sometimes it appears even too personal—so much of an artwork— that I wonder if it offers a replicable methodology.
Much of the quite technical language used throughout the book is explained very clearly in Chapters 1 and 2. However, sometimes terminology seems to be quite esoteric. Terms such as “Alpha fit”, “Gamma trap” and “Beta surge” could be replaced with a more mundane and dry terminology as they do not need any special magical aura to be appealing for any reader.
I would like now to focus on three interesting aspects related to Merry’s approach. On page 21 Merry explains, following Wilber (Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Gateway, Dublin, 2000.), that when we are shifting from an old to a new system we are in a very delicate moment:
For a healthy transition to occur, we must not only transcend the old, but also we include the best of it in the new. Once we have differentiated from the old, we need to re-embrace the healthy parts of the old system and bring them into the new. After all the old system initially emerged to solve new problems and must have succeeded in doing so well enough for us now to be in place where we are ready to move on. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the new system not only differentiated from the old one but goes a step further and dissociates itself from it.
This passage is very illuminating and shows some similarities with the notion of paradigm and scientific revolution as expressed by social scientist Thomas Kuhn and explains changes in systems in a way which is similar to philosopher of science Imre Lakatos account of research programmes.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas S. Kuhn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) Kuhn wrote, “Successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science” (p. 12). A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. It is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them. There are anomalies for all paradigms, Kuhn maintained, that are brushed away as acceptable levels of error, or simply ignored and not dealt with (a principal argument Kuhn uses to reject Karl Popper’s model of falsifiability as the key force involved in scientific change). When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis, according to Kuhn. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual “battle” takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm. After a given discipline has changed from one paradigm to another, this is called, in Kuhn’s terminology, a scientific revolution or a paradigm shift. It is often this final conclusion, the result of the long process, which is meant when the term paradigm shift is used colloquially: simply the (often radical) change of worldview, without reference to the specificities of Kuhn’s historical argument.
The new paradigm includes good elements of old paradigm into such a new worldview. Lakatos (Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.) indeed, showed that in some cases one research programme can be described as progressive while its rivals are degenerating. A progressive research programme is marked by its growth, along with the discovery of stunning novel facts, development of new experimental techniques, more precise predictions, etc. A degenerating research program is marked by lack of growth, or growth of the protective belt (or auxiliary hypotheses) that does not lead to novel facts. Therefore, we can see what Merry calls repressing systems are similar to what Lakatos calls pseudoscience. Indeed, Lakatos based his criterion of science on the view that the aim of science is the growth of knowledge of phenomena, whereby a theory is pseudoscientific if it does not even attempt such and makes no novel predictions (that is it doesn’t fit with the world that theory aims to explain).
Finally, Kuhn argues that the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities. Such an approach is largely commensurate with the general historical school of non-linear history.
A second interesting aspect is that Merry’s mixture of complexity and evolutionary biology leads him to an idea of responsibility and therefore of ethics which is in tune with Spinoza’s ethics (However, Spinoza was a monist about the mind-body problem, while Merry seems to have a dualistic approach. The mind-body problem canonically plays an important role in ethical theories. [Baruch Spinoza, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, 1677; http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/sp.html (accessed 19.12.2009)]. Merry, in the introduction, explains
We are part of that co-creation. So as we look to reconnect, the world we find ourselves part of is an evolving one. In order to reconnect to our world, therefore, we need to connect to evolution. Looking at what we know about evolution, we can see some general trends in how it works, some patterns of behaviour. Connecting to evolution involves aligning ourselves with those trends (p. XXV).
Merry seems to conceive the universe as an organic unity in which everything is interconnected. Spinoza, similarly, proposed a pantheistic and immanent conception of the universe. For Spinoza, our universe (cosmos) is a mode under two attributes of Thought and Extension. He contended that everything that exists in Nature (i.e., everything in the Universe) is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality which surrounds us and of which we are part (or according to Merry, “We are part of that co-creation”). Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality, namely the single substance (meaning “that which stands beneath” rather than “matter”) that is the basis of the universe and of which all lesser “entities” are actually modes or modifications, that all things are determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex chain of cause and effect is only understood in part (which is compatible with Merry’s idea of evolution). His identification of God with nature was more fully explained in his posthumously published Ethics. Spinoza contends that “Deus sive Natura” (“God or Nature”) is a being of infinitely many attributes, of which thought and extension are two. His account of the nature of reality, then, seems to treat the physical and spiritual worlds as one and the same. The universal substance consists of both body and spirit, there being no difference between these aspects. The consequences of Spinoza’s system also envisages a God that does not rule over the universe by providence, but a God which itself is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part (or as Merry puts it, “Connecting to evolution involves aligning ourselves with those trends”).
In the universe anything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects. According to Spinoza, reality is perfection. If circumstances are seen as unfortunate it is only because of our inadequate conception of reality. While components of the chain of cause and effect are not beyond the understanding of human reason, human grasp of the infinitely complex whole is limited—Spinoza warns—because of the limits of science to empirically take account of the whole sequence. Spinoza and Merry seem therefore to agree about the necessity of a holistic knowledge of the universe.
Finally ethics plays an important role in Merry’s book. Similarly to Spinoza, Merry seems to identify ethics with the concept of impersonal self-enlargement. Merry claims:
As our awareness develops from birth, it expands out from being focused purely on our self, to those immediately surrounding us, to various forms of group we identify with (from football club or music sub-culture, to regions or nations), and then if the conditions are right, on the awareness of ourselves as part of the global family of human beings and potentially even all sentient beings, all the way awareness of ourselves as part of the universe—and outwards, as more continues to unfold (p. 23).
According to Spinoza there are three kinds of knowing: knowledge through sense perception and imagination, which are sources of all inadequate and confused ideas; rational or deductive knowledge whose conclusions are necessarily true or necessarily false; and, intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva) which penetrates at once to the essence of things and thereby avoids the steps of ratiocination. Through intuitive knowledge we are able to understand the very Spinozian concept of intellectual love of God. The intellectual love of God involves the following elements: (1) the order of the universe is believed to be a determined necessary one; (2) this order is the object of contemplation; (3) contemplation is a passionless activity; (4) to the extent that a person contemplates, he is impersonal; (5) impersonality in contemplation is identical to the enlargement of self (that is putting in your own moral horizon more and more ontologies); (6) the impersonal, contemplative activity of the mind results in profound feelings of peace. Therefore the key term in Merry’s ethics appear to be (when translated in Spinozian terms) that of self enlargement: that is, nurturing the growth of interests outside your own self and thereby enlarging your own self. Such self-enlargement—through a kind of union with the world—is impersonal (as it moves away from a self-centred I), because, as Spinoza suggests, it is devoid of the personality-individuating characteristics. Or, quoting Merry, it is “moving away from being focused purely on our self (…) to the awareness of ourselves as part of the universe—and outwards, as more continues to unfold”.
In conclusion, this book represents a very successful attempt to bring things together not only from contemporary integral literature but also from classical philosophical literature, which outcomes are still to be fully understood: a modern book with an ancient heart. Merry also shows us that promoting a holistic view over leadership does not imply to put responsibility into the background. On the contrary, because a leader should fit with world/God/nature, it means to be responsible for followers.
About the Author
Dr. Antonio Marturano is an adjunct professor of Business Ethics at the Sacred Heart Catholic University of Rome and Visiting Lecturer in Leadership and Communication at the LUISS University of Rome. Previously Dr. Marturano has worked at the Jepson School of Leadership, University of Richmond (first semester 2007) and at the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter (2003-2007). Antonio is a trained philosopher and his PhD is in Philosophy of Law. He is the Associate Editor and Bureau Chief for the Integral Leadership Review.