In A Theory of Everything Ken Wilber (2001) makes the point that “catalytic factors from several dimensions need to be present in order for transformation to occur”(p. 33). As Wilber goes on, he makes the point that conditions and/or circumstances from multiple quadrants of the AQAL model need to simultaneously be aligned in order to support movement into a new phase or stage of development. Considering the dynamics of creative tension—such as that described by Csikszentmihalyi (1997)–it could be said that to undergo a phase transition into a more complex or sophisticated state of consciousness, it is important that a critical balance exists between coherence (of consciousness or objectives) and diversity (of quadrants or perspectives)–enough coherence to ensure substantive engagement while, simultaneously, enough diversity to provide a degree of tension sufficient to propel emergent motion. Transposing this notion into a more “real world” context, I would propose that for scholars and practitioners of leadership, academic conferences might be a contributive setting for such transition. Thinking of conferences places where Wilber’s “catalytic factors” come together to provide both the coherence and diversity needed to spark transformation helps us when considering their function as sites where more complex, post-conventional forms of leadership can start to take root. In this spirit, I would like to reflect on own recent attendance at the 13th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference and briefly consider how this occasion offered me a glimpse into the creative tensions that could possibly inform participants’ experience of such conferences. Like many others who attended, I found that the ILA conference offered a rich and relevant opportunity for engaging with like-minded others from across the globe (I met people from New Zealand, Australian, India, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, just to name a few); but I also wonder how organizers and those in attendance balance the desire to gather with like-minded others while simultaneously allowing for the kind of rich creative tension that comes from the introduction of ideologically-, or developmentally diverse ideas and experiences? In this, I am focusing less on how we approach thinking about difference and more on how we approach different thinking on common interests and problems.
Before moving ahead, I will offer a small caveat: as I am new to professional leadership conferences, my thoughts may a product of my own inexperience rather than a reflection of a larger need or imbalance. This year’s ILA conference was my first major leadership gathering so there may be obvious point to which I am oblivious. Moreover, I also want to be careful as to not create the impression that I am dismissing or disparaging the enormous commitment and effort expended by the ILA in designing and executing what was, for me and many others, an extremely gratifying event. My point is simply to share a bit of my own experience as a first-time attendee and presenter while also considering some of dynamics that might be at play in moving towards a more fully integrated conference experience—one that blends the most effective traditional leadership practices with best thinking and practices drawn from post-conventional practices such as integral theory, complexity thinking, and transdisciplinarity.
The 2011 annual conference of the ILA was held this past October 26-29 in London, England at the stylish Park Plaza Westminster Hotel and Conference center–just a block away from the River Thames and in the shadow of Big Ben. According to reports from conference organizers, over 800 ILA members from 57 countries came together to explore this year’s theme of One Planet, Many Worlds: Remapping the Purposes of Leadership. Over the span of four days, participants gathered in keynote presentations, workshops, panel discussions, roundtables, poster presentations, as well as many informal gatherings and hallway conversations, to share some of the latest thinking and research on the current state and anticipated future of leadership from across the globe. Through this year’s theme, the conference explored redefining the purposes of leadership within a world that is, on the one hand, growing more polarized and fragmented, while, on the other, is being forced through circumstance to join together and address the common threats, such as widespread systemic collapse and global destruction. I must say that from the beginning two things were clear: first, the global nature of this event was unmistakably evident in the number of seminars and presentations dedicated to strengthening leadership practices across cultural, generational and gender divides; second, the unprecedented challenges our planet now faces demand not only that we able to come together, but once we do so we will need to develop new resources for creative thinking and innovation. This demand challenges us pursue new approaches to leaders that can help transcend long-standing barriers.
This year’s conference chair was the well-known British scholar Jon Gosling, Ph.D. Dr. Gosling opened the conference with an address that reminded the audience of all the critical issues at stake in the world at this time and the crucial role leadership can play in helping to facilitate constructive outcomes. His comment that “change needs to happen at the systemic level” was inspiring for it let me know that leadership practices were needed that recognized complexity and deep interdependencies. Gosling’s discussion also alerted me to the necessity of transdisciplinary collaboration—the need to step outside the security of a particular mindset or practice in order to trust that new, more effective forms of collective action can emerge in the spaces between what is known and, too often, vigorously defended. As the conference got underway I was left with a sense of kinship with both established and emerging scholars while simultaneously feeling challenged to stretch my own thinking and aspirations towards places I might not have otherwise expected.
The conference’s three keynote speakers, Stef Kranendijk, CEO of industrial the Netherland’s flooring manufacturer DESSO, British lawyer aUnd environmental activist Polly Higgin, and the renowned British scholar and journal editor Dr. Keith Grint, were each inspiring. While, in each case, I wished they had gone a bit deeper into their own respective experience with integrating new paradigms into established systems, their presentations helped move my thinking towards what leadership can do to help foster a more unified, sustainable planet. For example, Stef Kranendijk shared his experience instituting “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing standards in DESSO’s processes of fabricating industrial flooring products. Unlike traditional methods of manufacturing–which generally start with “virgin” materials to creates products that, once used, are then discarded for good– cradle-to-cradle focuses on starting with second generation materials and processing them in such a way that they may be later extracted and used forever through unlimited iterations of the recycling process. Interestingly, Kranendijk also showed how by doing this he was able to generate even more profit than had he stayed committed to traditional manufacturing methods. The conference’s closing keynote, Dr. Keith Grint, spoke from a academic perspective and presented research in support of the idea that, to effectively steward innovation in the years ahead, leaders must be willing to challenge long-held “truths” and embrace the principles of disruptive innovation.
It seemed that Dr. Grint’s point about disruptive innovation really struck a chord with a number of those in attendance, including me. As an interdisciplinary doctoral student in leadership, I have often experienced great benefits by being confronted with thinking that was, initially, somewhat outside my comfort zone. For example, I remember being both utterly confused and fairly dismissive the first few times I was exposed to Integral Theory; but, of course, over time Integral Theory not only began to make sense, more importantly, it allowed me to see the world from an entirely new perspective . This new worldview was, for me, profoundly more complex and inclusive in such a way that I have not been the same since. More recently still I had a similar, albeit less dramatic, experience during the first few weeks of a leadership seminar I recently took part in. This course focused on an interdisciplinary weave of performance theory and leadership studies. Here again, I was initially flustered until new realizations began to emerge. (I should also add that these realizations were supported in large measure by the awareness of post-conventional frames of cognitive development I had acquired through the reading of theorist Robert Kegan (1982, 1994) and integral thinkers like Ken Wilber (2001).) Like my earlier experience with Integral Theory, the thinking on leadership and performance theory afforded ma a much richer understanding of the human condition than I had previously assumed. Over the years I have to come to highly value these paradigm-shifting encounters and while there were several occasions during the 4-day ILA conference when new, or out-of-the-box thinking helped me see deeper possibilities, I found myself wishing there had been a bit more of that. As I mention below, it may be the case that I was not the only one at the conference who felt this way.
In addition to the keynotes and a number of special gatherings and presentations, the conference offered dozens of smaller breakout sessions that featured the presentation of papers, panel discussions, workshops, and roundtables. I attended a number of these and, for the most part, found them really well done, smartly researched and often compelling. Yet (and here is where my own bias may start to creep in) I also found in many of the cases that the ideas presented often relied on assumptions and models of leadership based on the same kind rational thinking and linear structures that typically found in more conventional, hierarchical approaches to organizations and leadership. And while I have little interest in the wholesale abolition of hierarchical ideologies or practices, I do see great value in the development of new forms that feature a blended approach of both traditional and leading-edge knowledge. (For example, Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey’s (2007) Complexity Leadership Theory offers what is, in my opinion, a strong example of a unified approach to leadership places equal on both traditional and leading-edge perspectives.) I can also report that a handful of the conference breakout sessions did lean in a more integrative direction. One of these sessions was entitled Archetypal Journeys of Successful Leaders with Barbara Mossberg, Carol Pearson, and Karin Jironet and another was Leadership for Creativity and Innovation with Lucy Gilson and Mary Uhl-Bien. In both cases, the scholars demonstrated how they were pushing beyond traditional ideological barriers and mapping new terrain by challenging traditional positivist models of leadership as well as the boundary between the rational and non-rational sciences.
For example, Drs. Mossberg, Pearson, and Jironet’s panel offered ideas drawn from transpersonal psychology and the work of Dr. Carl Jung, while Dr.’s Gilson and Uhl-Bien’s presentation discussed ongoing research into disruptive innovation through the lenses of team creativity and complexity science. Given my deep interest in complexity-based leadership processes, I found Dr. Uhl-Bien’s to be extremely relevant for my own upcoming dissertation. During her talk she discussed the relationship between leadership, interpersonal engagement and large-scale emergence in organizations and other complex adaptive systems. Just as was the case with Drs. Mossberg, Pearson, and Jironet’s panel, the audience reception to Drs. Gilson and Uhl-Bien was highly engaged and enthusiastic with conversations continuing long after the presentations ended. In both cases, some in the room were already somewhat familiar with the topics being discussed, but interestingly, there were many there who—although not familiar–were hungry to learn more. For example, after the Gilson/Uhl-Bien panel several people expressed that they had never thought about the interdependent dynamics of dialogue, complexity, and emergence, yet now saw how important this notion was for their work in organizations. I will add that these topics were also a central part of my own presentation that I had the privilege of delivering the next day. This, in particular, offered me another opportunity to see how open and interested the larger leadership community was to new modes of thinking that looked beyond traditional leadership epistemologies. (I should also add that, as the result of an unfortunate scheduling conflict, I was not able to attend a panel session by integral scholar and Integral Review editor Jonathan Reams. Surely, given what I know of Dr. Reams’ integrally-informed work there is little doubt it would have also been an intellectually stimulating experience.)
My presentation was one of four in a panel entitled One Complex Planet, Many Emerging Worlds: Remapping the Purposes of Leadership in the 21st Century. The focus here was on applying the lens of complexity science to the practice of leadership in 21st-century organizations. While each of us panelist (myself; Heather Davis, a doctoral candidate from Australia; Julie Davies, a leadership trainer and doctoral candidate from England; and Tim Harle, a leadership scholar also from England) approached the topic of leadership and complexity from a slightly different angle, we all presented theory and/or data to suggest that complexity-influenced models of leadership were needed in order to help organizations move towards a more integrated and inclusive understanding of human beings and their environments. We argued that this was needed in order to move break free of the inherent limitations embedded in the rationalist, atomizing perspectives common to most conventional approaches to leadership. The general thrust of my own presentation, Structure, Emergence, and Dialogue: A Complexity View of Organizations as Turbulent Containers for Change was that complexity had a significant influence upon organizations and the efforts of leaders to facilitate the development of post-conventional thinking. My presentation drew heavily from tier-based models of cognitive development, such as that found in Beck and Cowan’s (2006) Spiral Dynamics, or the post-formal orders of Kegan’s (1994) five-stage framework. Specifically, I proposed that as those in leadership respond to tension and disruptive dynamics through a perspective known as “deep empathy” (cf. Glazner, 2006; Hart, 2000) they are better able to facilitate emergence—or collective “aha” moments—that further the establishment of more sophisticated worldviews. (Since the ILA conference, I have also become aware of how this preliminary model may also correlate with features of the AQAL framework; however, that exploration will have to wait for another time.)
Even though none of us four had the reputations or extensive lists of publications like, for example, Drs. Mossberg, Pearson, or Uhl-Bien, we were very happy to find that our panel presentation was met with a similar level of engagement and enthusiasm as those of the far more established scholars. We had decided early on to keep our individual presentations short in order to allow time for questions and comments and, during the Q and A, the 60 or so in attendance seemed, on the whole, to enthusiastically resonate with the material discussed. Some were challenged by the non-linear perspectives and interdisciplinary nature of our talks, but in the main they were intrigued and wanted to know more.
Now it is more than a month after the conference, I am back home in the U.S., and with a bit of time and reflection I am able to see how the conference theme of One Planet, Many Worlds: Remapping the Purposes of Leadership was able to offer an important challenge for those who attended. That challenge is, in large measure, embodied in the words of a truly great leader who was very adept at uniting diverse paradigms, Vaclav Havel. Yesterday the news reported that Havel passed away. His spirit and insight, which will be dearly missed, are captured in this statement from 1994:
Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble…
It seems that for those of us within the broad and diverse community of leadership, are finding ourselves in the unique position of helping to steward the concurrent processes of decay and rebirth. Although there will certainly be increasing awareness in the months and years ahead, is seems that from today’s standpoint, helping shift between the old and the new is one of key purposes on our new map of leadership. And as the conference title suggests, all that lies ahead will be bound by the seemingly paradoxical notions of unity and difference. For me, one of the most encouraging discoveries was just how hungry the broader leadership community was for the approaches that might be considered post-conventional or “cutting edge”. Just as exciting, if not more so, was my realization that there exists a great need for scholars and practitioners who are able to bridge ideological and epistemological boundaries in order to help expedite the emergence of new forms of thinking about organizations and leadership.
In closing, I found that after attending this year’s ILA conference, the various gatherings and presentations helped to convey a vision of how leadership is already changing to accommodate a more sustainable and collaborative future. To this end, integral theory, developmental approaches, complexity-based models, and transdisciplinarity—just to name a few—offer great potential for bringing us together to pursue a common aspiration to address our current challenges and build a better future. The 2011 ILA Conference helped me recognize that by becoming more open more towards that which is different, we are afforded far greater opportunities to experience the kind of disruptive tension that, in turn, sparks the transformation that Wilber (2001) once described.
The full abstract for our panel, along with the individual summaries, can be found here: http://www.ila-net.org/Conferences/2011/Program3.asp?ProgramDBID=87 . In addition, videos of our presentations can be found here: http://youtu.be/6tdbBe23vUc and here: http://youtu.be/nD7aQCCe_W0
Beck, D. E. & Cowan, C. C. (2006). Spiral dynamics: Mastering values, leadership, and change. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention. New York: Harper & Row.
Glanzer, P. D. (2006). Psychological approaches to deep empathy. In G. Walz, J. Bleuer, & R.Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling Perspectives on Counseling 2006 (pp. 125-127). Washington, DC: American Counseling Association.
Hart, T. R. (2000). Deep empathy. in T. Hart, K. Puhakka, P. Nelson (Eds.), Transpersonal Knowing: Exploring the horizon of consciousness (pp. 253-270). State University of New York Press.
Havel, V. (1994, July). The need for transcendence in a postmodern world. Liberty Medal acceptance speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problems and processes in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Uhl-Bien, M, Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 4, 298-318.
Wilber, K. (2001). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.Bottom of Form
About the Author
David Holzmer is a third year doctoral candidate in The Union Institute and University’s Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Ethical and Creative Leadership. He currently works as an administrator in a nonprofit social service organization and looks forward to a career assisting organizations in all sectors develop leadership that is more in tune with both the disruptive and sustainable patterns of change during these complex and uncertain times. A true interdisciplinarian, David holds an MPA in Nonprofit Leadership, a BA in Theater Arts, is a published poet, a former massage therapist, and he spent a number of years working in a hardware store. David’s primary interest is in helping human and organizational systems discover how a combination of complexity dynamics and deep empathy can help them better navigate the inherent “messiness” of organizational life and develop more resilient states of awareness.