Student Paper

June 2010 / Special Articles

The Dialogical Journey Towards a
Post-Conventional Resolution of Leadership Praxis

by David Holzmer
Union Institute and University

holzmerDespite the ongoing growth and development of leadership theory–an evolution marked by increasingly nuanced and sophisticated conceptions of leadership practice–there exists, within the deep foundations of leadership’s unfolding narrative, a disquieting tension. It is an ideological divide, arising from a growing disparity, felt by both scholars and practitioners, in which the acuity and elegance of the models and discourse found at the emerging vanguard are held as discordant, or even irrelevant, by a popular, “pragmatic” majority still deeply wedded to some form or other of the traditional, paternalistic notion of the leader as the all-knowing Great Man. Pauchant (2005), observing this very gap, has pointed out that “the myth of the heroic leader who personally empowers followers, while denounced by many researchers, is still very present both in scientific research and in the popular accounts of leadership” (214). While those of a scholarly bent may argue that relationally-based, non-hierarchical modalities of leadership are vital for (a) addressing today’s complex, paradoxical challenges as well as (b) fostering sustainable organizational objectives in an increasingly globalized arena, can we simply dismiss the prevalence of the top-down, leader-as-hero model as nothing but ill-informed, self-defeatinganti-intellectualism?

While for some it may prove convenient and strangely affirming to do so, such kneejerk dismissiveness can deprive us of the opportunity to discover the deeper collective drives and developmental utterances fueling the tenacity that has come to characterize the traditional Great Man model–and all its contemporary derivatives. So, despite more than a century of practical and theoretical achievement in the science and craft of leadership, we might wonder why such an admittedly problematic approach toward leadership practice still endures.

Certainly, the answer is not because scholars have failed to consider the value of an overarching metatheory of leadership, or its potential for unifying the field’s ever-increasing cache of conceptual models. For example, van Seters and Field (1990) declared that such a framework was needed to pave the way for a unified theory of leadership which, they argued, was crucial since “leadership effectiveness can be determined not from any one approach alone, but rather through the simultaneous interaction of many types of variables” (40). Since the time of this assertion, conscientious efforts to produce a comprehensive metatheory of leadership have been undertaken (for example, Goethals & Sorenson, 2006). However, in this writer’s opinion, few have proven as compelling–or as fertile–as those predicated on Wilber’s (2000) integral theory. While the reasons for this are diverse, Küpers and Weibler (2008) strike a resonant chord when they insist that an integrally-informed overview of leadership “is more in tune with the diversity, complexity and ambiguity of organizational life and corresponding intricacies of leadership practices.” These same two researchers go on to point out that an integrally-informed theory of leadership also offers unprecedented opportunities for ideological integration by “exposing conflicting demands on leaders as complementary, and by demonstrating that apparently opposing interests are actually interwoven in a process” (455).

Küpers and Weibler’s (2008) assertions thus serves as a springboard from which I will attempt to reconcile the advances of integrally-oriented leadership models with the enduring prevalence of the traditional heroic conceptions of leadership. Specifically, in the pages that follow I will begin to explore the potential for the emergence of a dialogically-grounded practice of leadership as a product of an emerging shift towards post-conventional, or 2nd tier, value systems. I assert that by forging a stronger alliance between the tenets of post-conventional leadership and notions of “dialogism” (specifically as detailed by Linell (2009)) scholars and practitioners may finally be able to initiate a reconciliation between traditional and advanced models of leadership. It is my contention that by working from such principles of interchange, post-conventional leaders would then become “conceptual mediators,” resolving the disparities between old and new forms while beginning to articulate an as-yet-undiscovered unifying “metapraxis” of leadership.

These are, of course, grand aspirations and as such are far beyond the scope of a prosaic essay; but such aspirations, even if eventually proven misguided and/or overstated, must germinate in a soil of some sort. These pages will serve as that conceptual garden. However, given the clear limitations of form, I must frame the ensuing argument with extreme parsimony. While my intention is for future research to offer a more exhaustive account of a so-called “dialogical metapraxis,” including a comprehensive survey of Integral Leadership modalities and the influence of developmental lines, this essay will serve as a partial foundation and precursor for that work to come. In this spirit the scope of all that follows will be limited to the correlation between the post-conventional stages of leadership development and the emergence–through those stages–of worldviews and practices that privilege dialogical exchange. Since even this could prove exhaustive I will focus only on the preliminary groundwork for future efforts, confining my present examination to highlighting examples of dialogical emergence as seen in the advanced developmental stages of Beck and Cowan’s (2006) model of Spiral Dynamics.

To begin, it is critical that one start with a clear understanding of what is meant by the term “dialogical” and exactly how this concept relates to the practice of leadership. While there are many approaches to the study of dialogism, I will employ a definition based on the work of Swedish linguist Per Linell (2007, 2009). In his most recent work, Linell (2009) frames the dialogical process as an epistemological practice of collaborative sense-making. As he points out, “this framework highlights the role of interaction and context, as well as the language and the contribution of ‘the other’” (7). In Linell’s view, this orientation towards active engagement with “the other” is a defining characteristic of the human experience and, as such, serves as a primary tenet of his conception of dialogism. Central to this ideology, then, is the notion that “our being in the world is thoroughly interdependent with the existence of others” (7); however, this “other-orientation” as he calls it stands in sharp contrast to the West’s more familiar empiricist assumptions about the world–assumptions generally rooted in traditional Cartesian thinking. Linell refers to this long-established, individualistic perspective as “monologism” and makes the case that such an orientation “assumes that the individual human being experiences and understands the world–objects as well as other persons–entirely from the vantage point of his or her own “ego” (13).

Ironically, it is from the more familiar vantage point of monologism that we can begin to understand the role of Linell’s (2009) dialogic theory within the context of leadership. According to Linell, monologism is characterized by relationships that only allow power to move in one direction such that “the powerful parties influence or constrain the less powerful by exercising their power” (216). Viewed as a practice of leadership, this form of paternalistic control exemplifies the strict hierarchical structures found in leadership models based on Carlyle’s (1841/2004) great man theory or Frederick Taylor’s scientific management (Morgan, 2007), models in which thinking and sense-making are the exclusive domain of the leader–a.k.a. the collectively-recognized sense-generator. More importantly however, by applying a developmental lens to not only these models of leadership but also the process by which power and discourse are utilized within them, we begin to see that monological forms of leadership are not, as some might argue, merely a pathological maladaptation of more suitable, highly developed practices. By applying a developmental perspective, we begin to appreciate that these conventional, or 1st tier, forms of leadership are in fact a necessary developmental precursor to the more sophisticated, 2nd tier dialogical leadership practices.

Theories of human development have proven exceptionally useful for understanding the processes through which human beings negotiate their environments and respond to challenges in ways that may not align with our own particular value system. Edwards (2010), for example, has recently pointed out that “[t]he developmental lens provides a comprehensive template for considering the stages of personal and collective development” (71). This sense-making ability is one of the reasons why the developmental perspective is so useful for conceptualizing the process of leadership in complex settings. Consider, for example, Cook-Greuter’s (2005) depiction of the conventional level of development and its positivistic world view wherein “fully functional adults see and treat reality as something preexistent and external to themselves, made up of permanent, well-defined objects that can be analyzed, investigated, and controlled for our benefit” (5). This notion of the conventional mindset correlates closely with Linell’s (2009) conception of a monological world view wherein meaning–which has been pre-determined–exists as a discrete entity, cleanly and completely partitioned, impervious to the actual exchange in question. From this perspective we may glean the tacit assumption that there is always a privileged “know-er”, be it human or inanimate, that imparts knowledge to a semiotically benign receiver.

With this understanding, we can see how monological practices would favor hierarchical relational structures and fixed distributions of power. This is why leadership practices that emerged through conventional developmental perspectives were so valuable during periods of extreme social and economic transformation such as the industrial revolution, when long-standing class, political and ideological structures were suddenly cast into a disorienting state of flux and ambiguity. Nonetheless, over time as those same social structures began to either stabilize or fall into more predictable cycles of change, the benefits of the conventional developmental perspective began to be overshadowed by a growing awareness of significant shortcomings. In noting the deficiencies of such a mindset, Cook-Greuter (2005) draws attention to “its acceptance of facts and the external world as real and its blindness to the constructed nature of beliefs.” However, in anticipating what lies ahead, she makes the point that “This attitude changes dramatically with postconventional development” (21).

As the conventional stages of development transition toward a postconventional mindset, meaning–as such–begins to lose its fixed, empirical grounding. Knowledge, in this sense, can no longer function as a solid, enduring commodity that is passed in an antiseptic fashion from an all-knowing meaning-maker to a uninformed meaning-taker. With the emergence of the postconventional stages, meaning becomes dependent on one’s perspective; and as information and/or experience move from person to person, sense-making–rather than fixed–becomes fluid.

Awareness of the socially-contingent nature of meaning stands as a central feature of Linell’s (2009) conception of dialogical interaction. From this we can discern how such interaction allows for the emergence of shared awareness which–at a particular moment of time, in a particular context–becomes cognitively prescribed as “meaning.” If this then describes–quite roughly–how meaning is ascribed within a particular moment in time, what then is the role of the dialogical process in determining how meaning is transformed across time and how does the transformation of meaning impact the process of systemic change and development? For example, if we are thinking about leadership, we can see that for many generations being a leader meant that the individual at the top of the clan, kingdom, guild, factory, etc. was the person (the male person, that is) who was born with dominant skills, traits, and/or power which naturally predetermined their endowment as a leader. This, in very simple terms, was the long-standing, dialogically-constructed meaning of that particular system of interactions we have come to call “leadership”; but as we all know, that system, as such, is not what it once was. The meaning it once had, while still popular in some quarters, has developed far beyond the meaning it once had. This then might lead us to ponder the role of dialogical engagement within the process of transformation that alters meaning and, thus, initiates a change on a broader scale.

Linell (2009) appears to suggest that such development takes place when the human mind comes into contact with those seemingly-fixed constructs we have come to regard as systems. “The mind, though embodied,” he points out, “is a thoroughly relational phenomenon, and works as interaction between systems” (148). This point is an important one which bears further inquiry. While systems, under particular conditions, may possess the capacity for flexibility, adaptation, and development, they are able to maintain strength and integrity from their fixed and predictable nature. In this sense we might say that a system’s effectiveness is its ability to maintain a constructive homeostasis between its fixed and fluid natures. Thinking back to our example of leadership, we can see how, for untold generations, the Great Man system of leadership encountered an untold number of crises and contingencies yet as a system was able to maintain relative homeostasis such that allowed this model of leadership to endure. Linell’s suggestion that the mind works relationally to mediate between systems would suggest that this Great Man model, as quasi-stable construct, endured and eventually developed as a result of the mind’s relational–or dialogical–ability to act as a mediator between the Great Man model and the other systems it encountered within its environment. In many cases, the result of this interaction was the maintenance of a homeostatic balance between fixed-structure and fluid-contingency states. However, viewed from a historical perspective, at a certain point around the mid- to late-19th century, the dialogical mechanisms mediating between the Great Man system and the other systems within its sphere of interaction, it began to respond to one another in a manner that sparked what eventually grew into a transformation in how leadership–or the meaning of leadership, actually–was collectively constructed. In one sense we might say that a shift of some sort occurred which resulted in the development of leadership–as a system of socially-mediated meanings–towards a system capable of embracing a greater degree of complexity than that which had preceded it.

Another way to view this process of systemic development is through the lens of Beck and Cowan’s (2006) Spiral Dynamics, specifically the authors’ conception–similar to that proposed by many developmental theorists–that development occurs as a process of growth through a fixed procession of increasingly sophisticated stages or systemic constructs. In the case of spiral dynamics, Beck and Cowan refer to those constructs as “vMEMEs.” Without venturing too far afield to explain their origin, Beck and Cowan based their notion of a vMEME on the work of earlier theorists such as Dawkins (1989), Csikszentmihalyi (1993) and Barlow (1994); and for the purposes of understanding how Beck and Cowan’s vMEMEs apply to leadership development, Barlow’s of explanation of a meme helpful. He describes these stages as

…self-replicating patterns of information that propagate themselves across the ecologies of mind, a pattern of reproduction much like that of life forms….They self-reproduce, they interact with their surroundings and adapt to them, they mutate, they persist. They evolve to fill the empty niches of their local environments, which are, in this case the surrounding belief systems and cultures of their hosts, namely, us.

A central feature of Beck and Cowan’s (2006) model of vMEME development is the notion that–just like physical predispositions that reside within our physical DNA–memes reside as latent potentialities within individual and collective belief systems, ready to be activated in a sequential manner when external life conditions call for their emergence. Key to this understanding is the distinction Beck and Cowan make between individual “meme” units–as advanced by Dawkins (1989) and Csikszentmihalyi (1993)–and the sequence of eight clearly-defined stages of increasingly sophisticated, aggregate value systems that Beck and Cowan refer to as “vMEMEs.” As they point out, vMEMEs function as “the amino acids of our psycho-social ‘DNA’ and act as the magnetic force which binds memes and other kinds of ideas in cohesive packages of [individual and collective] thought” (31).

The dialogic nature of vMEME emergence becomes evident when we consider the following passage from Beck and Cowan (2006) in which the authors describe the formation of a vMEME as:

a product of the interaction of the equipment in our nervous systems with the Life Conditions that we face. This interface of existence conditions-without (from nature and human activity) and latent capacities-within is…the primary driving force that has sculpted the Spiral. (52)

Given this highly interactive process of engagement, it would appear that the mechanisms underlying the emergence and stabilization of developmental stages is itself fundamentally dialogical. In this sense I will posit that the developmental stage, as a system of meaning, is formed through the dialogical engagement of the individual with the world he/she interacts with. While my full support for this assertion will be the focus of papers still on the horizon, I find initial confirmation in McCauley, Drath, Palus, O’Connor, and Baker’s (2006) observation that “[a]n order of development is a complex interaction between the individual’s meaning-making capability and the holding environment, which is the totality of the surrounding and embedding social and interpersonal world of love, family, work, and play” (636). Thinking a bit more deeply about this point, we might begin to see that–though initially subtle–the implications for leadership and its postconventional manifestations are significant. But to understand this properly, it is important to stand back for a moment and, through the lens of Beck and Cowan’s (2006) Spiral Dynamics, glean a more functional understanding of the inherent dialogism to be found in that model’s more advanced–or 2nd tier–systems of post-conventional awareness and interaction.

According to the way Beck and Cowan (2006) explain vMEME emergence, the YELLOW vMEME–the first of the 2nd tier levels–is characterized by a newly emerging appreciation for the contributions of all the levels that had come before it. As Beck and Cowan (2006) report, it is with the development of the YELLOW vMEME that, for the first time, each of the preceding vMEMEs “are seen as dynamic forces that, when healthy, contribute to the overall viability of the Spiral and, as a result, to the continuation of life itself” (276). While this does not yet suggest participation in a full-spectrum dialogical process, YELLOW awareness does acknowledge–for the first time–preceding systems as legitimate interlocutors. A more fully-realized dialogic engagement does not occur until the next stage of development, which Beck and Cowan label the TURQUOISE level.

The subsequent emergence of TURQUOISE awareness is, in turn, signaled by a dawning awareness that suddenly more is needed than just an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of a broad diversity of views. Some type of collaborative discourse must take place. Thus, according to Beck and Cowan (2006) , “collective imperatives and mutual interdependencies reign supreme” (289). Volckmann (2010)acknowledges this same awareness when he points out, “[t]here are interdependencies between dimension and between the individual and the world. Subject and object are separate but have meaning in relation to one another” (10). This awareness of the inherent interdependencies, and more importantly its application, is critical for the ensuing unfolding of human systems–a point underscored, per Beck and Cowan, by the arrival of a new class of leaders who they refer to as Spiral Wizards. When considering the following description we are able to discern the critical role such individuals play as facilitators of dialogic awareness:

Spiral Wizards instinctively roam over vast mindscapes seeing patterns and connections others do not notice because the First Tier’s filters do not allow them to. They can move through the spine of the Spiral awakening, unblocking, empowering, or repairing each of the vMEMEs in an organization. This Wizard appreciates chaos and thinks more like a creative designer then even a reengineer.

These leaders have the ability to assess and appreciate the variety of vMEMEs operating in a given landscape–even when that landscape may appear chaotic and incoherent to those inhabiting it–and then, via dialogical awareness, craft interventions which work towards the unification seemingly disparate systems. Küpers and Weibler (2008) clarify the guiding ethos of such leaders when they point out that these individuals embody an awareness that “chaos and complexity are not problems to be solved, but the triggers of evolution, adaptation and renewal in organizations” (451). While the idea awaits far more thought and development, we can also speculate how future leaders, endowed with the tools and practices of dialogic leadership, may work to broaden the meaning of leadership itself. Such agents of transformation, working as Spiral Wizards–or, perhaps, in some heretofore unrecognized form–will employ a dialogical awareness to reconcile disparities in the theory and practice of the leadership itself. By bringing passion and vitality to what is currently only theory and conjecture, these men and women will in effect become midwives of a much-needed realignmentand reconciliation as the awareness of the fundamentally dialogic nature of all leadership systems reaches out towards those in habiting every link in the developmental chain.


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About the Author

David Holzmer is in the 2nd year of a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Ethical & Creative Leadership at Union Institute and University. His primary area of interest is the integral weave of post-conventional leadership models and their emergence through transformative crisis. Of particular interest is how these phenomena can align with social technologies to foster cultures of mutuality and dialogue as suggested by Integral Theory’s 2nd-tier frames of awareness. David’s intention upon graduation is to work closely with established and aspiring leaders to develop the wider application of these ideas while exploring the boundaries of leadership’s potential for both individualand collective transformation. A true interdisciplinarian, David holds an MPA in Nonprofit Leadership, a BA in Theater Arts, is a published poet, a former massage therapist, and once spent many years working in a hardware store. He may be reached or @davidholzmer (Twitter).

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