Feature Article: The Integral Model of Leadership Meaning Making: Integral Leadership – Part 19

Feature Articles / October 2002

In a report on research about leadership, the authors defined their study as “meaning making in a community of practice.” [Ospina, Sonia et al, “Co-producing Knowledge: Practitioners and Scholars Working Together to Understand Leadership,” Building Leadership Bridges 2002, Cherrey and Matusak, eds., International Leadership Association.] They went on to write,

“Leadership is perceived as a process in which people come together to pursue change, and in doing so, collectively develop a shared vision of what the world (or some part or corner of it) should look like. The role of articulating the vision may be taken on by one individual or by several. It may be rotated or shared. The emergence of leadership is, therefore, always a collective process of meaning making.”

What, exactly, is this meaning making that they refer to? It is at the heart of the upper left quadrant for individuals and the lower left quadrant for collectives, be they organizations or societies. Ospina and her associates described the lower right aspect of this as a process of co-production. This process of CO-production is intended to lead to collective meaning making that alters lower left, culture. The product is some level of shared purpose, the invisible leader of Mary Parker Follett.

And the individual must make meaning in this context. How do individuals make meaning in the context of leadership in our businesses and organizations? They do so in a number of ways, each of which relies upon their senses.

To the extent the individual is “attuned” to their senses they are able to gather information that they can use to create meaning. A question that gnaws at me a bit is what about all of that information that is not available to our senses? And does this matter?

The implicate order of David Bohm provides us with a sense of this. Mike Jay discusses this a bit in the interview below. And so do Ben and Roz Zander in their book The Art of Possibility. Is tapping into the implicate order a spiritual process, a developmental process and/or simply a process of meaning making? Does the implicate order matter?

And here step in the developmental psychologists, the Kegans, Graves, Loevingers et al. Their models are essentially about developmental levels and meaning making. The thesis is that one’s meaning making is determined by one’s level of development.

Developmental theory suggests that every new level of development has more information, potentially. Every level has important information to bring to decision making, problem solving–meaning making. What drives development may be the hope that new learning, development of consciousness, will lead to new ways of perceiving and understanding the world, the universe. As we develop we begin to see life with a capacity for including more and more of the complexity. Each new level of learning does not replace the lower level, but provides a context for it.

In situations requiring some form of leadership we are always dealing with incomplete or imperfect information. If leadership is about change then leaders are always operating in a zone of ambiguity and uncertainty. I have been arguing in these articles that a major reason for adding a collective perspective to our understanding of leadership is that the diversity that is included makes it possible for us to engage more effectively with the challenges of complexity.

Perhaps a better question is what senses are we developing that will enhance our capacity for meaning making? The answer is, “All of them!” But what are they? We know about some of them: seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling (sensing). Then there is this idea of a six sense, be it described as intuition or ESP. If intuition is really a way of meaning making, i.e., seeing the patterns and possibilities among phenomenon, then that leads us into the realm of senses of which most of us have very little awareness. Nor can we find particularly strong evidence of reliability of those who claim to have access to these senses.

It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, however. And, again, if we are on a developmental path, if leadership is to develop, what is the path for increasing the access and reliability of these senses? If it is not an individual path, only, then it is also a collective path. And we are challenged by it.

Michael Jones, pianist and lecturer writes [“The Leader’s Journey and the Imaginative Life,” Cherrey and Matusak, eds., Building Leadership Bridges 2002.]

“…to truly see the gifted nature of the world means catching it out of the corner of your eye. Thus, sensing comes before understanding, ‘what’ and ‘when’ comes before ‘why’ or ‘how to,’ and imagining comes before the reasoning mind.

“Therefore, in living organizations, everyone is a leader to the extent that they possess the ‘imaginative sight’ to see what the mind cannot see. That is, for leaders to lead living organizations they need to think as nature thinks. This means to think aesthetically. What gives us this’aesthetic capability’ is the quality of attentiveness that comes from seeing the poetry in the world of another.”

There are various ways we can access the world, indeed the universe(s), for meaning making. Growing consciousness of how we do so is essential to the leadership journey, individually and collectively.

“Consciousness precedes being: consciousness, yours and mine, can form, deform, or reform our world. Our complicity in world making is a source of awesome and sometimes painful responsibility – and a source of profound hope for change. It is the ground of our common call to leadership, the truth that makes leaders of us all.” Peter J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 2000.

And just to make sure that no one takes this as some abstract notion meant for those who are spiritually inclined, consciousness is about all aspect of life, all aspects of being. It requires a Newtonian perspective and a quantum perspective. It requires attending to meaning making at all levels of the spiral that we can individually access. Then this critical awareness, so vital to the survival of the earth as we know it and the evolution of sustainable societies within it, can be served by bringing the collective talents and capacities for consciousness together to meet our requirements on all levels.

Thus, we have the challenge for integrating individual and collective leadership.

> Russ Volckmann