Learner Paper: Coaching with an Integral Lens

Learner Papers / June 2011

When we can find them we publish PhD student papers from various institutions. These papers are typically done as part of a class in leadership, integral leadership or other related topics. Learners and professors are invited to submit papers for publication.

Coaching with an Integral Lens

Lynn Harrison
Saybrook University


Lynn Harrison


Leading successfully in today’s fast-paced, dynamic, and competitive work environment can be a daunting challenge. With expanding workloads, increased complexity, and growing demands from stakeholders, leaders need to develop not just “human capital” (the ability to acquire needed technical skills) but “social capital”, networked relationships among individuals that will enhance cooperation and resource exchange (Day, Harrison, & Halpin, 2009, p. 163). Without this, leading can be a very isolating existence and the pressure of “going it alone” can be immense.

In this paper, I will describe the story of Laura*, a senior executive at an international communications firm who was struggling in her role as leader. While she brought valuable business to the organization and delivered exceptional results for clients, her anxiety and intensity often leaked out in damaging ways, creating the perception among many of her co-workers that she was a bully, a tyrant, and someone generally to be avoided in the office.

My role in this story is that of the coach, brought in to assist Laura to develop into a more effective leader. In describing the case, I will draw on integral leadership concepts, including Wilber’s (2000) four-quadrant model and constructive-developmental theory, specifically Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) action logic levels. My aim is to provide a multi-lens view of an executive who is struggling and how in this situation an integral approach supported by individual coaching assisted in the process of leadership development.

To begin with, I will provide a brief overview of integral leadership theory, including the link between leadership development and theories of adult development.

Integral Leadership Theory and Adult Development

Leadership is a complex social phenomenon and the desire to understand it and how it can be developed has generated a wide array of concepts and theoretical approaches. Integral theory, with its attention to both external and internal aspects of leading as well as individual and collective experiences, offers an elegant model in which these different perspectives can co-exist, without a requirement to forge them into shared understanding. It is a comprehensive, inclusive framework that provides a map for exploring the intricate territory of leadership. As Wilber (2000) has pointed out, “Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody – including me – has some important pieces of the truth, and all those pieces have to be honoured, cherished and included….” (p. 140).

Wilber’s (2000) four-quadrant integral framework is described by Pauchant (2005) as having both “width” and “depth” (p. 212). In terms of width, the model includes four different realities, which can be explored individually and then in relation to one another. The first quadrant, located on the Upper Left side (UL), refers to the interior reality lived by a person, the reality of the “I”. It is less visible to the external observer and accessible through intimate dialogues, interviews with her/him and close associates, or access to her or his private writings and speeches. This realm includes the person’s meaning and experiences, subjectivity, dreams and intrapersonal thoughts. According to integral leadership theorists Hatala and Hatala (2005), this is the point at which meaningful change begins, with individual and then the group, the organization, the community, and nation (p. 66).

The next quadrant, the Upper Right (UR), refers to the reality that is perceived externally, through the senses, technology, or a tool. This is the objective world of the individual “It” and includes organic matter, brain, synapses, and body as well as actions and interpersonal behaviours. It is discerned by use of empirical observation, surveys, or various modern scientific methods.

The third quadrant, located in the Lower Right (LR), also refers to the concrete reality, but is a collective experience. It consists of institutions, systems, technologies, laws, rules, and management or leadership tools. This is the realm of “Its” and can be expressed at group, organizational, national or global levels. It also includes the complex relationship between humans and nature. To study this area one can observe the physical structures that exist as well as documented forms, processes, and reports.

The final quadrant, the Lower Left (LL), again expresses the subjective, interior world, like the UL quadrant, but this time in a collective fashion. This is the “We” realm of group consciousness comprised of values, norms, taboos, cultural elements, common language, signs, and shared meanings. It is often not immediately discernable to the outside observer and in fact may not be well known by those in the collective. Similar to the LR quadrant, this dimension is expressed at various group levels, such as in a team, an organization, a society, or the entire world.

Pauchant (2005) points out that despite Wilber’s (2000) intention that the quadrant model be applied from an integrated perspective, much of the present research continues to focus on the right hand side of the model, and in particular, the leader’s behaviour and its impact on others (p. 214). To try to address this bias, several researchers (albeit the minority) have emphasized the relational nature of leadership and the more active role that so-called “followers” actually take in the process (Pauchant, 2005, p. 214). As Day et al (2009) note, “… leadership exists in the connections between individuals and is a function of the quantity and quality of relationships among a group of individuals” (p. 159). The notion of the “hero at the top” is anachronistic in the view of integral theorists and leading is described rather as “a phenomenon widely shared in the system” (Volckmann, 2007, p. 31).

At the same time, the significance of the role of leader (and the act of leading) is not to be underestimated. As Rost asserts in his interview with Volckmann (2007), “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes….” (p. 13, italics added). Day et al (2009) emphasize the value of a leader developing, pointing out that “when the changed person is a formal leader, there is often greater hope for … organizational change” (p. 161).

The complexity associated with the leader role is reflected in the depth offered in the quadrant model. Within each of the four dimensions, Wilber (2000) describes a series of stages of development in consciousness, wave-like levels that represented distinctive shifts in understanding and worldview. His AQAL model (All Quadrants, All Levels, All Types, All States) offers different ways to interpret the inner and outer experience of individuals and groups in each of the four quadrants. (For integral thinkers, the world is anything but flat).

Based on years of research and training military and other leaders, Day et al (2009) assert that leading is an extremely difficult skill set that evolves over a lifetime of development. As these researchers put it, “Becoming an expert leader involves a complex set of evolving skills that start out relatively basic and simple and develop into complex and interrelated competencies over with practice” (p. 182). In their view, areas for development include epistemic cognition (e.g., how people make sense or meaning of things), moral reasoning (e.g., what people believe are the proper limits on behaviour), and identity formation (e.g., how one sees themselves and the world). Through maturity, a leader gains greater awareness and therefore the opportunity to be more at choice in reacting to challenging circumstances. To use the words of Hatala and Hatala (2005), it is an inside-out, outside-in kind of process. The individual evolves on the interior and expands his or her experience in the environment around him or her. Hatala (2008) reminds us that this is a deeply human experience of personal discovery and, often, of “awakening” (p. 7). Indeed, as leadership theorist Kofmann described it in his interview with Volckmann (2007), “Leadership is a personal commitment to life” (p. 31).

It is this perspective of leader development as an ever-evolving process that ties the topic of leadership to the field of adult development or constructive-developmental theories. According to constructive-development theorists, people go through a process of development across their life span in which qualitatively different meaning systems evolve, both as a natural unfolding and as a response to the limitations encountered using existing ways of making meaning. Each meaning is more complex than the previous one in the sense that it is capable of including, differentiating among, and integrating a more diverse range of experience.

Although various constructive-development theories abound, there is some agreement in the field that three broad successive orders are useful for describing the meaning making of most adults: Dependent, Independent, and Inter-independent. In the “Dependent” stage, a person’s sense of self is derived primarily from connections to others and therefore approval, respect and affiliation play key roles. In the “Independent” stage, the self is understood as a self-possessed identity, with reliance on internally generated standards and values. In the “Inter-independent” stage, which theorists assert is rarely achieved, the self is independently created by the person but influenced in its form by contingencies (McCauley et al., 2006, p. 638).

In terms of leader development, what is noteworthy in constructive-developmental theory is its perspective that the way in which adults construct and interpret their experiences affects their ability to transform to another level of development. This also helps explain why different leaders will approach their tasks in different ways. A person’s current order of development influences what he or she will notice or can become aware of, and therefore, what he or she can describe, can evaluate, and then change. Reflecting on Rost’s view (previously referenced in this paper) that the leader’s role is to influence the effort to bring about change, it is clear that a leader’s level of development is an important factor impacting the possibility of personal and/or organizational transformation.

Pointing to the constructive-development theory’s tenet that developmental movement happens in response to new challenges that impose limits on the usefulness of a person’s existing meaning structure, Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that certain experiences will trigger and support a leader’s transformation or movement from one development level to the next:

  1. personal changes that ignite the search for new perspectives (i.e., health concern)
  2. external events (i.e., a promotion, threatened demotion)
  3. changes in the leader’s work environment (i.e., new focus)
  4. planned or structured developmental interventions (i.e., coaching, a 360 feedback )

To assess a leader’s current level of development, Rooke and Torbert (2005) identify a series of what they call “action logics”, stages of consciousness based on ways in which leaders interpret their surroundings and react when somehow threatened. Originating in Loevinger’s (1974) model of ego development, there are seven distinct levels, with the first stage, “Opportunist”, being pre-Dependent in the constructive-developmental framework. The next two levels, “Diplomat” and “Expert”, fall within the Dependent category, while the two after that, “Achiever” and “Individualist”, are examples of the Independent phase, The final stages of the Torbert et al (2005) model, “Strategic” and “Alchemist” would be part of the what constructive-developmental theorists call Inter-independence.

As mentioned previously, Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) model is just one of a number of stage-theories available to be used in conjunction with the AQAL framework. Others include Kegan’s (1982) Orders of Consciousness, Kohlberg’s (1981) Stages of Cognitive Moral Development, and Beck and Cowan’s (2006) Memes in Spiral Dynamics, influenced by the work of Clare Graves. Each of these models contributes a valuable piece of the picture of how adults develop as well as the complex phenomenon of leading others.

In the story that follows, I will access the width of Wilber’s quadrant model by first briefly describing the situation from the lens of each of the four dimensions. I will then enter slightly into the depth of the UL quadrant, using Rooke and Torbert’s model (2005) to reflect on the protagonist’s level of development. At this point, I should note that while Rooke and Torbert (2005) have an instrument to assist in such assessments, I did not use it in working with this client, so the evaluation will be based on my observations, colleague interviews, and coaching conversations. In reviewing this case, I will also describe the role I believe that one-on-one coaching played in helping to support the leader’s transformative process.

The Story of Laura – A Leader in Crisis

It is often when a leader bumps up against a limiting perspective, what transformative learning theorist Mezirow (2000) called a “disorienting dilemma”, (p. 22) that the process of change begins. Laura, a vice-president of a very successful communications firm, had long been a star-performer in the company. She had started at the front desk as a receptionist and based on her quick mind, drive, and tenacious spirit, had steadily progressed to senior management. At the time that we first met, she had just finished working on a very high profile client file, which had brought the firm a great deal of revenue. She had also recently received an award from the head office in New York, acknowledging her exceptional leadership.

Laura worked hard and expected as much of herself as all those around her. Client satisfaction was a priority and she would do whatever it took to deliver results. People admired her deep industry experience, her sharp eye for details, and her ability to endear even the most demanding customers.

In her spare time, Laura was an active in sports, competing in Iron Man Triathlons, training for long and challenging cycling trips, and working out regularly at the gym. While she had a life partner, they did not have any children and were both avid athletes. Laura’s pace at home, then, was not unlike it was at work—always fast and characterized by strong self-discipline.

At the office, Laura was quick on her feet, full of ideas and ready to execute on plans. She did not have much patience for those who could not keep up in conversation or who did not have the same standards of performance. While she could be extremely charming and engaging and certainly was this way with clients and other senior leaders, she did not spend much time in the office with colleagues or direct reports. Business was business in her mind and she did not have a lot of time for socializing when there was work to be done.

Laura started to perceive that something was amiss when she noticed that her staff would often seek out another leader in the company for mentoring or assistance, thus by-passing her. She also discovered that some of the younger staff, those in their twenties, had asked not to be put on projects that she was leading. There was talk that people wanted to leave the firm because of her. Some colleagues were intimidated and uncomfortable in her presence and tried to avoid seeing her in the hallway. Eventually this was brought to the attention of the managing partners of the firm and the alarm bell starting going off. Here was one of the top performers in the firm, one of its most prized executives, who was failing miserably in her role of leading others. If she did not make changes to her leadership behaviour, talented junior employees would be leaving for the competition.

And so began my coaching relationship with Laura, who was understandably embarrassed, hurt, and angry about the allegations of poor leadership behaviour. She was also probably in no small measure feeling scared about the prospect of needing to change.

Through an Integral Lens

In examining this case from an integral perspective, I will start with the UR quadrant, the exterior-individual dimension, as the story begins in many ways with the external signs that something was not working in her leadership. In the 360 interviews I conducted colleague after colleague described Laura’s abrasive, domineering interpersonal behaviour, which included yelling at people, slamming her fists on the table, and telling people they were stupid. An employee showed me a document where Laura had edited with a red pen almost all of the copy that she had written. I observed Laura myself in the office setting, noticing that although she was always gracious with me, she would neglect to thank the receptionist who brought us water, a small signal of where she placed her social effort. I also noticed that she was always well groomed and fit-looking, organized and on time for meetings.

From a LR quadrant perspective, where the focus is collective and externally oriented, I learned from my conversations with firm members that the organization placed client acquisition, retention, and satisfaction as the key priorities. Reward systems were linked to business development efforts and the ability to deliver a project within scope, on time, and on budget. There was little leadership development in the firm and senior staff members were expected to mentor the junior employees, while carrying large client loads themselves. The organization structure was relatively flat, with the experienced professionals leading project teams on an ad hoc basis. Based on this project-based model, it appeared that employee engagement was to flow from the learning opportunity and creativity associated with the various client files.

In terms of the LL dimension, the interior collective quadrant of the integral model, the firm’s culture was very much one of delivering results. Those who got ahead were the employees who worked hardest and longest, and met the challenging deadlines. Productivity, efficiency, and reliability were clearly important values. Paradoxically, the company was also a magnet for creative people, mostly younger professionals seeking career development opportunities. The hard-driving efforts of the company members had created opportunities to work with many interesting clients and the organization was reputed to be one of the best in the industry. The high standards that they upheld meant that junior staffers would learn strong skills and, if they did well, could be promoted in the company. In some ways, Laura was for some of these employees an example of “the Canadian dream”—she started out at the bottom of the company and by her early thirties, had progressed to a senior leadership role.

Unfortunately, along the career passage to the executive team Laura did not receive any training in how to lead other people. She was extremely skilled in the technical part of her role and in the management of clients. However, she had also developed some bad habits in her interactions with fellow employees and had not been given feedback about the impact she was having.

As McCauley et al (2006) point out, the “holding environment” or context in which a leader operates is an important consideration in examining the possibility of progression to another stage of development (p. 636). As is suggested in this story, sometimes the culture of an organization can confirm (or disconfirm) a person’s current order of development. In many ways Laura was the product of her fast-paced, task-oriented environment (although she was clearly operating in an extreme and dysfunctional way). At the same time, she was a leader in the firm and therefore in a position to potentially help shape a new cultural direction. Sometimes, I reflected, it seems that it takes an outlier (or irritation on the outer edges) to stimulate new possibilities and shift the gestalt of an organizational system.

In examining the UL quadrant, where the focus is individual and internal, it would appear that Laura was operating at a “Dependent” level of development. More specifically, in Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) model, her behaviour reflected the action logic of an “Expert”, which can be described as follows:

Experts are great individual contributors because of their pursuit of continuous improvement, efficiency, and perfection, but, as managers, they can be problematic because they are completely sure they are right. When subordinates talk about a my-way-or-the-highway boss, they are probably talking about someone operating from an Expert action logic. Experts tend
to view collaboration as a waste of time and will frequently treat the opinion of people less expert than themselves with contempt. For these hard-driving professionals, emotional intelligence is neither desired nor appreciated (Rooke & Torbert, 2005, p. 6).

As this description suggests, there are strengths associated with each of the action logics, and one of the talents of the Expert is getting things done and done well, something valued in Laura’s organization. At the same time, similar to the “Red” meme in Spiral Dynamics in its blocked or arrested forms, the Expert can be exploitative, rough, and harsh, conveying to other employees that they are lazy and must be forced to work (Beck & Cowan, 2006, p. 13).

As part of the process of coaching with Laura, I thought it was important that she hear from her manager that her abrasive behaviour would not be tolerated in the organization. As it turned out, when I began working with this client, her previous boss was just departing the firm and a new leader was assuming the role. With some coaching, this new person did take a stand with Laura about the imminent need for change. This too was an arresting moment and helped my client to see that “what got her here would not get her there’ (wherever “there” might be). In constructive-developmental terms, she bumped into a realization that her assumptions and ways of operating in the world were no longer working effectively. The boss expressed a willingness to provide support and encouraged Laura to use her strengths in new and different ways.

Laura is not unlike many leaders who can be described as aggressive, abrasive, or even bullying in the workplace (Crawshaw, 2005). Based on what they have learned so far, their focus is on “getting the ball across the line”, in other words, delivering results, sometimes at huge personal effort. As a triathlete, Laura knew how to push herself as hard as she could go, sometimes to the point of numbness. Any anxiety about failing or making mistakes was overridden by pressing forward with the task at hand. And, often there would be collateral damage. Co-workers who worked too slowly or who did not catch on quickly were ridden over and demeaned. Hijacked by her own anxiety to perform, Laura did not even realize the threat she was to others, the hurt that she was causing, or the fear that she invoked. When learning about her negative impact in the 360 report provided after the interviews with colleagues, she was mortified, ashamed, and deeply disappointed in herself. As a person ever bent on doing things well, she was aghast to see how far she had fallen short as a leader.

In all of this, as coach I saw that Laura cared deeply and felt truly badly that she had caused such angst for those around her. I was struck by her courageous determination to face her critics and begin anew. She began the coaching process by thanking her colleagues for their candid feedback and apologizing for her behaviour. Although she realized that many co-workers would not trust her anytime soon, she requested that they continue to provide her data about how she was progressing against her development goals.

As Rooke and Torbert (2005) and other adult development theorists point out, one of the first steps to developing a more effective leadership style is to recognize the level of development in which one currently resides. They advocate that the person bring to the next stage of consciousness their strengths from the previous phase, but then look for ways to develop the areas in which they have been deficient as a leader. For Laura this meant continuing to deliver good results, but to do it in a different way. At the next level in the Rooke and Torbert (2005) model, this is the action logic of the Achiever, where the leader is still in action, but works interdependently with others, creating a positive team atmosphere.

The Path Forward

I noticed that Laura’s goal orientation and tenacity, used constructively, could be an important asset to her seeking to be a different kind of leader. Her desire to succeed and her skill in reaching a target were still there; she just needed to change the focus of her efforts and adapting the set of values she held, placing greater emphasis on people and leading others over accomplishing tasks.

Of course, changing values and assumptions, those deeply held beliefs that often have accompanied an adult for a lifetime, is not easily or immediately accomplished. As Kegan and Lahey (2009) point out, we have a built-in “immunity to change”, a set of countervailing forces that seek to preserve and sustain the status quo (p. 36). It is here that the coaching relationship, with its atmosphere of trust and openness, provides the container in which transformation can occur. The intimate work of change in the UL quadrant, not easily seen from the outside, requires an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, profound dialogue, challenging conversation, as well as exploration of new paradigms, all of which a skilful coach can help occur.

From an integral perspective, change also involves trying new behaviours and perhaps new physical practices, such as meditation, breath work, and pacing. As part of the coaching process, Laura began to consciously slow down when things felt tense or warm in her body. She began taking time in the morning to be present and thoughtful about the day ahead. She would stop and contemplate how she would like to be experienced in a meeting with colleagues before opening the door. In interactions with others, she would pay attention to their reactions and the impact she was having. And, as she started to pay attention to her own moods and feelings, increasing her awareness of her inner state, she realized that she could choose her behaviours more carefully.

On the personal side of her life, Laura began to attend counselling with her father, as their relationship had long been strained. Near the end of the coaching process, she told me that she and her partner were considering having a baby.

In terms of the collective aspects of the quadrant model Laura began to lead changes in her organization’s practices around leadership. At first, it was difficult for her to influence, as she was not respected for her skill in this dimension. However, over time, she encouraged the senior leadership team to examine and revisit its values, systems, and processes around people, inspiring a culture that would be more participative and supportive of employees.

Perhaps most importantly, through this process, Laura learned to live her whole life differently, more gently and more joyfully. As Hatala (2008) writes, “Integrative leadership is about awareness, about finding inner peace, and then choosing to act from the place of wholeness” (p. 3). She concludes her article in the Integral Leadership Review with this message:

…the greatest leverage to becoming a better leader is awakening and developing a connection between our mind and our body with our heart and soul, and then allowing that connection to influence our roles as leaders in all aspects of our lives (Hatala, 2008, p. 8).

Indeed, it is helping someone succeed in this journey that makes my heart sing.


In reflecting on this story, I see the great value that holding an integral perspective in the process of coaching. Leading is a complex, very human endeavour and to help a leader develop requires a comprehensive approach that honours both the internal struggle that often accompanies leadership development as well as the external demands that of a leader’s environment. While leadership is very much a relational phenomenon, it is also one that calls for individual courage, wisdom, and consciousness. The integral model with its interior-exterior elements, its collective and individual perspectives, and its depth in terms of levels of development within each dimension, offers a coach many different avenues through which to help a leader grow. And, as described in the story of Laura above, this can bring health and well-being not only to the client, but to all those people whose lives he or she will touch.


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About the Author

Lynn Harrison is an executive coach and organization development consultant with over 25 years experience in management/consulting.  Her background includes co-founding an international, franchised training organization, leading at the senior management level, and consulting to a wide range of organizations. She is a principal in Black Tusk Leadership Inc, and based in their Vancouver, Canada office.

Lynn has a Masters Degree in Applied Behavioral Science and enrolled in the PhD program (Organizational Systems) at Saybrook University.  Lynn is a certified professional coach (CTI) and has also completed the advanced program in ontological coaching through Newfield Network. Her undergraduate degree (B.A.) is from the University of British Columbia. She is the former chair of Justice Institute of B.C. and is former Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors for the Vancouver Chapter of the International Coach Federation.

One thought on “Learner Paper: Coaching with an Integral Lens

  1. Anne Acosta

    What a terrific article! Wonderful, concise summary of the AQAL model, and an even more wonderful illustration of how you used both the quadrants and levels to work with your client. I especially valued your linking Rooke & Torbert’s model to your assessment of the strengths and limitations of your client, and how you helped her build on the former to overcome the latter. I’m an executive coach and also teach in an MBA program, will use your reflections in both contexts — thank you!

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