Reflections from Prague: The International Leadership Association’s 11th Annual Conference
by Jonathan Reams
“Leadership for Transformation” was the theme, and the setting was just right – Prague on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Concerns that holding the conference away from the US, with the current economic constraints possibly restricting attendance proved unfounded, as 650 students, scholars and practitioners of leadership filled the facilities to capacity. Pre-conference events gave people a chance to experience the history of the Velvet Revolution from those who participated. As we settled into the main hall for the opening, anticipation was high, people making new connections and reconnecting with old ones. The question lingering in my mind was what notions of transformation would prevail?
As with any group, there was a diverse and complexly interacting range of understandings in play. I watched as various presentations elicited different responses in me in order to get a feel for what the range of consciousness was in the group. Here in this reflective essay, I will both narrate a bit of what I saw going on and reflect on some of the challenges I perceived.
The International Leadership Association (http://ila-net.org) has worked hard over the past decade to further the field of leadership studies. It has attracted serious scholars, practitioners and students all committed to better understanding this phenomenon we call leadership. The conference is the annual highlight of their activity. Getting a good opening speaker to set the tone can be critical for such an event. Being where we were when we were, there was really only one choice, but could such a group get through the layers of gatekeepers to even make such a request, and then would they be successful? It was a mark of hard work and perseverance that enabled us to have Václav Havel speak to us (albeit by video, as he had to be in Brussels to speak to the EU at that time). Listening to his voice while reading the English subtitles, I was impressed by the quality of his unassuming presence and the message of his words. While many assume a leader of a revolution much be bold and decisive, Havel spoke much more of quietly supporting the work of others through creating a space of moral support and trust. He spoke of leadership in a manner that brought to life all of the quotes and attributions I have heard from and about him. Thus a space was opened for those attending the conference to engage in a process of transformation, however was possible within a three day event.
My first take on how ILA would approach their stated theme came the morning of the first full day of the conference with the opening panel. It was hosted by Thomas Beech, president/CEO of the Fetzer Institute, which has continued to partner with ILA to support their work. It included Prasad Kaipa, Eliane Ubalijoro and Juana Bordas. After some opening comments they showed video clips from some speakers including Desmond Tutu and Parker Palmer. The panel discussion was lively enough, and they had the audience talk among ourselves for a period and took some comments and questions from us near the end. While I resonated with some of the video clips (mostly from Parker Palmer) and panelists, I was at times struck by a feeling of the “green meme” in some of its less mature, feel good manifestations.
This stimulated in me an ongoing mode of examining a trend in the field at large, and how it showed up in the conference in particular, to move beyond the strictly traditional approaches to leadership and into new areas that include spirituality. What I looked for in particular was how much this was leading to what I perceive as a more pre-rational than trans-rational approach to the subject. Thus when I feel like presentations are moving into the emotional swamps of feeling good about all the right things and bad about all the other old things, I get a bit queasy. So my response to the opening panel was mixed.
In conversation with a colleague on Integral Review’s editorial board, this issue arose further, in terms of how to move beyond the rational approaches and keeping the rigor of them as one moves into exploring and even applying principles from a “spiritual” perspective to leadership. I experienced at least one major session which I would describe as “a feel good” session, where caring dialogue and emotional presence were emphasized. I wrestled within myself about how much this was a healthy and even necessary step for the advancement of the field, learning to open to the “sensitive self.” It is clear that elements of emotional sensitivity, presence and intelligence is a key element in an integral approach to leadership. It seems to me that developing this requires a certain amount of getting familiar with the territory, thus creating the need for sessions like these. The challenge seems to be the ability to then integrate this with more foundational core values to be able to keep an appropriate rigor. The peril if you will is that it feels so good that people want to stay put, framing what disturbs their state of mind as foreign and marginalizing it or worse, demonizing it.
However, for the most part I would say that the presentations I popped in on were of the more traditional type, necessary to help give the field a level of academic rigor that it constantly faces challenges around. This was apparent in a roundtable discussion with the editor-in-chief of theJournal of Leadership Studies, which comes out of the University of Phoenix. From the view of many of us associated with Integral Leadership Review, the field of leadership studies cries out for an integral framework to help organize it. The inherently trans or multi disciplinary nature of the subject leads at times to colleagues in the academy brushing leadership studies off as not being a real discipline, or not being able to define itself appropriately. In our discussion, this theme resonated deeply and the view of needing a new way to understand the nature of the field of study in its own terms rather than more traditional academic terms became clear. How to accomplish this is of course a longer term project, but from this and other various conversations I had at the conference it is clear that many are persevering in the work of helping make this happen.
Aside from the traditional presentations and the “feel good” ones, there were spots of “integral” at the conference. My presentation of work with my doctoral student introduced some integral principles and descriptions of their application in our teaching. My introduction of Fowler’s work on stages of faith in my respondent role on a panel on religious worldviews and leadership helped to reframe the thread of the panelists within a developmental perspective. Finally, Laura Santana’s presentation of her dissertation research, recently completed, that used an integral framework to explore work on leadership development at the Center for Creative Leadership made explicit references to integral. There may have been more presentations touching on integral, but I did not catch everything.
Of interest for me was watching Ron Heifetz discuss issues in the work of the Qatar Foundation’s Education City (http://www.qf.org.qa/output/Page17.asp) with Denny Roberts and Dr. Abdulla Bin Ali Al-Thani. This was a fascinating examination of how highly complex issues of culture change are being undertaken in Qatar through bringing Western universities in to provide top quality education for residents from Qatar and around the region. The dialogue was wonderful, and it was very much a private conversation held in public to allow us to see how Heifetz would approach applying his ideas on leadership and culture change to such a situation.
The final keynote speaker was unable to come due to illness, so Heifetz and his colleague Alexander Grashow stepped in and spoke about their recent work described in the new book (along with Marty Linsky) on Adaptive Leadership. They highlighted how change is really about understanding what to keep, and it is only small amounts of the complex mix of conditions that people or organizations truly want or need to change. The work of adaptive leadership is helping people sort these things out.
Listening to Heifetz, and reflecting on my opening question about what notions of transformation would prevail, I felt that the approach to transformation being presented at the conference was healthy and grounded. It primarily drew on an adaptive approach to leadership, requiring not merely external fixes or rescues from heroes, but the kind of evolution of mindsets that those of us with an integral view will appreciate as necessary. It was also anchored in a solid understanding of the complex dynamics of such change. In this view there is hope that the ILA can continue along this vein to gradually move towards a more fully integral understanding of leadership and transformation.
About the Author
Jonathan Reams is Bureau Chief and Assoicate Editor for Integral Leadership Review. He is also a leading Editor of Integral Review. Jonathan is an associate professor in the Department of Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. I teach organizational counseling, coaching and leadership, and am pursuing research in the areas of leadership, dialogue and counseling.