I was asked recently how I was applying my thinking about Integral Leadership in my coaching with executives and others. Part of my response included the observation that I rarely talk about integral or the idea of Integral Leadership. Rather, I use language that is more connected to the culture I am working in. And I referenced the old saw, “You’ve got to start where the client is at.” I do believe that whether as consultants or coaches, we find that one of our biggest challenges is to bring the things we have learned to our clients in a way that they can use them. They can make our ideas, our models, our coaching and our advice actionable.
Chris Argyris continues to gift us with his insights in his book Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. He states, “Practitioners and scholars agree: twenty-first-century companies will be managed differently than twentieth century firms—especially in their approach to leadership, learning and commitment. Getting there from here, or so the consensus runs, will require change that is transformational, discontinuous, non-routine, step-function and creative. I agree. But with the advice commonly given on how to get there, I do not and cannot agree.”
Integral development is very much about the kind of change that Argyris indicates here. But what of our approaches to getting there. When we work from an integral perspective, what do we need to do to make it actionable?
Argyris continues, “In my judgment, most of that advice is – most of the time – simply not actionable. And even if it is implemented correctly, it will lead to consequences that run counter to the intentions of those providing it.” And it is no surprise that Argyris’s model of espoused theory and theory in use and the discrepancies between them plays a central role in his discussion.
In a series of articles, beginning with this one, I hope to address some of the issues of making the idea of Integral Leadership actionable. There has already been attention paid to this challenge in this journal. In addition to the Integral Leadership model that has been offered through these articles, interviews with people like Bill Torbert and Leo Burke have suggested particular methodologies. Torbert’s action inquiry and Burke’s Integral Leadership program at Notre Dame represent two approaches to making it real. Fred Kofman has an approach that combines consulting, coaching and education. But how are these methodologies truly different from those that have, according to Argyris, failed to be actionable?
In no way do I mean to impugn the wonderful work of these or any of the other leading thinkers on the integral path. Rather, I wish to point out how the approach I have been suggesting in these articles takes a step toward addressing the question of our work with clients being actionable.
Whether the pace of change is experienced by business leaders as the gentle waves of a lake lapping on its shore or like the staccato beat of heavy rain on a tin roof, business is about using awareness to create change. One way we do that is by getting clarity about what we want to create. We use planning, visioning, core value exercises, and the like to generate some sense of strategic direction. This is totally scaleable. It matters not whether we are talking about an independent professional practice or a global organization, these functions are served in some fashion.
If we are to start where clients are at, then we need to have approaches to help them make their visions, plans, etc. explicit and actionable. And we need to start with their own self-awareness and how to use that to leverage individual and collective change. The role of Integral Leadership in this is to assure that this happens in a way that supports the company in navigating the turbulent waters that Peter Vaill has written so elegantly about. Thus, any developmental process may begin with the idea that we need to know where we want to go. If we are to make Integral Leadership and our work with leaders actionable, I believe that is where we need to begin.
There are at least two paths in our work on Integral Leadership unfolding. One is to define what Integral Leadership is. We are working on that. Susan Cook-Greuter, Steve March and others are working on a book on this topic. The preliminary approach I offer is to see it as an AQAL function. That means that leadership is a function that is performed in a system by individuals with individual and collective dimensions that are interior and exterior and shows up in different ways at different levels of complexity. Further, these different ways transcend and include those found at lower levels of complexity.
Still further, we are using developmental models, (Kegan, SD, etc.) to help us clarify the nature of development in varying levels of complexity. This is a theory and research path that will support education and consulting. In each case we are learning from the application of the models. Kegan’s work in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work is one example. The work of Don Beck and others using Spiral Dynamics in the realms of nation building and international politics is another.
This second path is about making the theory and research results useful and actionable. The approach offered in this series of articles falls more within this category, as does some of the work of Fred Kofman, John Forman and his associates, Sara Ross, Mike Jay, James Flaherty and others. It is a path that requires that we start with where the client is and build from there.
An actionable path is about working with individuals and the systems in a developmental process. The idea of a leadership system in organizations has gained currency among consultants and theorists. Now the challenge is to make it real.