08/15 – Entering the Flow: Exploring A Model of Integral Leadership

Scott Pochron

Scott Pochron

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

— Heraclitus

Scott Pochron

Scott Pochron

Note to Readers: As a new contributor to Integral Leadership Review, I thought it appropriate to share some of my personal journey that has shaped my understanding of leadership. I present this in the form of an interview.

Entering the Flow – What does this mean to you?

Taking a transdisciplinary approach, I have come to see human organizing as an ongoing process of interactions that create the context in which leadership, as a dynamic process, emerges. Like Heraclitus’ river, human interactions are constantly changing. I am using entering the flow as a metaphor for conscious participation in the leadership process that takes place in these interactions.

How did you become interested in leadership?

Over the course of my career, there have been specific events that have served as milestones in my own leadership journey, and have shaped my current understanding of leadership. The acquisition of my consulting company by a national consultancy spurred interest in Peter Senge’s work. I applied learning organization principles with my team of consultants as a way to adapt to a new culture.

A few years later I was serving as CIO for a company that was to be acquired by a larger multi-national firm. The acquisition was touted as a great opportunity for synergy between the companies. As due diligence continued, I realized that there was likely to be little synergy. I was very aware of my emotional response to the uncertainty of what was to come. In my role as an executive, I was also concerned about the impact to our employees and took steps to initiate programs to address the stress of associated with mergers and acquisitions. My concerns became reality the day after the acquisition was finalized when we learned that operations were to be shut down. One-third of the employees were let go that day, and only a small number of employees were offered positions going forward. These events raised awareness of leading as a process of responsive action to events that are unfolding — making sense of what is happening, or may happen, serves as the catalyst for action.

I did go on to work for the newly merged company. I was excited and curious to work for a larger organization, but that excitement quickly dissipated. I was brought in to serve as a change agent within the newly merged business unit only to discover that there was very little interest in change. During my tenure with the company, I spent significant time reflecting on the patterns of behavior I observed, how leadership was enacted in the organization. My observations led me to begin questioning traditional views of leadership that focus on the role of the leader as an authority figure, influencing the actions of followers.

I also studied Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and a related field Neuro-Semantics (NS), both of which provide models for understanding the structure of subjective experience, how language and emotional states shape our beliefs and models of the world and frame our choices for action. NLP and NS also provide generative models for enabling change.

In 2008, I rediscovered the work of Robert Quinn[i]. In his book, Building the Bridge as You Walk On It, Quinn describes the Fundamental State of Leadership and the Normal State as emotional states — states of flow — that reframe the individual’s perception about self and others, enabling different ways of responding and taking action. Integrating Quinn’s Fundamental State of Leadership with NLP/NS and their respective models for managing states and creating states of flow was the basis for my graduate work.

What disciplines have framed your understanding of leadership?

There were several key disciplines that have informed my understanding of leadership as a dynamic process. The models of NLP/NS are themselves transdisciplinary, drawing from the works of Korzybski, Chomsky, Miller, and Bateson among others. Postformal adult development in the works of Kegan, Torbert, Jaques, and Commons has played a critical role in understanding the multiple expressions of leadership as defined by the stage of development at which individuals are performing, as well as the role of accountability hierarchies in coordinating the execution of work at varying levels of complexity within an organization. Positive organizational scholarship[ii] – an emerging discipline – also served to frame leadership as a catalyst for generative organizational behavior. Complexity leadership theory provides a rich area for ongoing research, particularly the work of Ralph Stacey in understanding the dynamics of human communication and interaction in the complex responsive process of relating. In this model, human interaction itself serves as the context in which innovation and leadership emerges.

How would you summarize your understanding of integral leadership?

Human beings are a semantic life form[iii]. Our physical neurology[iv] and use of language[v] enable us to operate in both perceptual and conceptual frames of experience[vi]. Stages of human development constrain the way in which perceptual and conceptual frames are constructed, and modulates the options and the action logics available to an individual[vii]. Leadership emerges in the interactions between individuals[viii] within communities of practice.[ix] The process of making sense[x] of perceptual and conceptual feedback produces semantic reactions[xi] – felt bodily sensations – that prompt responsive action within the community. Such action, through communicative interaction, may serve as an attractor[xii] for others who experience their own semantic reactions to the feedback, intensifying the attractors within the community that shape the direction, alignment and commitment of the participants[xiii], performing across all stages of development, and such actions take place contemporaneously in the flow of everyday life.

Taken through this lens, integral leadership is a process that is continuously being enacted as we engage in daily life. Moment by moment we are confronted with new feedback to which we choose to respond. It is in that moment of choice that leadership emerges as embodied action. My choice of action (or non-action) may in turn provide feedback for others in the context to experience their own semantic reactions and choice to respond. From this point of view, what have traditionally been viewed as leading and following are actually expressions of the same process.

There are three additional distinctions that are significant to this discussion. First, the process of leadership is considered distinct from power relationships. The separation of leading and governing processes enables a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between power dynamics and the process of leadership. I would argue that traditional views of leadership that emphasize the leader as a person in an authority role often confuse the distinction between these two processes and how they interrelate. Recognizing that leadership is potentially occurring continuously in all participants within a community (inasmuch as we are continuously taking in new feedback, making sense of it, and responding to take some form of action and enabling others to respond the feedback our action invokes in them), provides greater opportunity for exploring nuances between what leadership is as a process, and what makes leadership effective within a context. Further, it creates a new frame for understanding the leadership process for those who are in roles of authority. As Drath and Palus observe,

Seeing leadership from the meaning-making perspective involves forming a new understanding of one’s role as a person of authority who is to be held as accountable for the performance of others…. because leadership is seen as a process residing in the community of practice… the person with authority and power will not so much see his or her role as taking charge as participating. The key movement is from I need to make things happen to we need to make things happen and I need to figure out how best to participate in the process of us making things happen.[xiv]

Second, this view recognizes developmental implications on the process of leadership. Our ability to make sense of feedback will be filtered by the stage of performance at which we are operating, in turn constraining the semantic responses that can be invoked and our ability to respond. As Kegan[xv] has indicated, we are “in over our heads” when it comes to our ability to make sense of the complex issues that we must address for the sustainability of our planet and future generations. On one side, this raises awareness of the need to develop the overall capacity of individuals (and communities) to operate at higher, more complex stages of development[xvi]. That said, the participatory nature of integral leadership within a community recognizes that sense-making is taking place at all stages of development that are available within the community. Not all tasks encountered within a community require higher stage thinking capacity to make sense of them. Hence, the model recognizes and appreciates all members of the community and their unique contribution to the whole.

Finally, taking the viewpoint that integral leadership is enacted as responsive action in the process of sense-making opens new opportunities for inquiry to explore the dynamics that encourage or discourage leadership action. This is a significant different inquiry than exploring what constitutes effective leadership, which tends to be the focus in much of the literature. In any organization, leadership and anti-leadership (influences that countermand or constrain leadership action) interplay in the flow of daily interactions. It is in this interplay of leadership and anti-leadership that potentialities within the community enable innovation and emergence of new choices for action; this interplay can also lead to dysfunction and, at the extreme, the death or dissolution of the community.

In future articles, various facets of this model will be examined more closely along with practical applications for engaging consciously in the process of leadership. Everyone is invited to enter the flow!


[i] Quinn, Robert E. Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004. Print.

[ii] Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) brings to research in organizational studies the perspective first taken by Martin Seligman in framing positive psychology. Rather than focusing research on what is wrong in an organization, POS focuses research on generative behavior and processes that positively impact organizational development.

Cameron, Kim S, Jane E Dutton, and Robert E Quinn. Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003. Print.

[iii] Korzybski, Alfred. Science and sanity: an introduction to non-aristotelian systems and general semantics. Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 1993/1995. Print.

[iv] Damasio, A.  Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

[v] Dilts, R. B., & Delozier, J. A. Presuppositions of NLP. In Encyclopedia of systemic neuro-linguistic programming and NLP new coding (pp. 1000–1004). Scotts Valley, CA: NLP University Press, 2000. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from;

Hall, L. M., & Bodenhamer, B. G. (2003). User’s manual for the brain, vol. II: Mastering systemic NLP. Williston, VT: Crown House Publishing, 2003. Print.

[vi] Todes, Samuel. Body and world. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2001. Print.

Shotter, John. Conversational realities revisited: Life, language, body and world (2nd ed.). Chagrin Falls, OH: The Taos Institute Publications, 2008. Print.;

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. Print.

[vii] Kegan, Robert. The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

Kegan, Robert. In over our heads: The mental demands of modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. Print;

Torbert, William. R., & Associates. Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004. Print;

Jaques, Elliott. Requisite organization: A total system for effective managerial organization and managerial leadership for the 21st century (2nd ed). Baltimore: Cason Hall & Co Pub, 2006. Print;

Commons, Michael. “Introduction to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and Its Relationship to Postformal Action.” World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution 64.5-7 (2008): 305–320. EBSCOhost. Web. 26 Nov. 2008.

[viii] Griffin, D., & Stacey, R. (Eds.). Complexity and the experience of leading organizations. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

 [ix] Drath, Wilfred. & Palus, Charles. (1994) Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-Making in a Community of Practice. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, 1994. Print.

[x] Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sense making. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421.

Drath, W. & Palus, C. Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-Making in a Community of Practice. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

[xi] Korzybski, Alfred. Science and sanity: an introduction to non-aristotelian systems and general semantics. Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 1933/1995. Print;

Bateson, Gregory. (2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press;

Hall, Michael. (2008). Metastates:Mastering the higher states of your mind (3rd ed.). Clifton, CO: Neuro-Semantic Publications, 2008. Print.

[xii] Goldstein, Jeffrey, James K. Hazy, and Benyamin B. Lichtenstein. Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation. NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. Print.

[xiii] Drath, Wilfred et al. “Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Toward a More Integrative Ontology of Leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly 19 (2008): 635–653. EBSCHost. Web. 22 May 2011.

[xiv] Drath, W. & Palus, C. Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-Making in a Community of Practice. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership. Print. 18-19.

[xv] Kegan, Robert. In over our heads: The mental demands of modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. Print.

[xvi] Commons, Michael, and Sara Nora Ross. “What Postformal Thought Is, and Why It Matters.” World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution 64.5-7 (2008): 321–329. Print.

 About the Author:

Scott Pochron is president of Bridge Catalyst, a coaching and consulting firm specializing in organizational change through project execution, leadership coaching and development of high performance teams.  He holds an M.A. in Organizational & Leadership Dynamics from Antioch University. He is a master practitioner of NLP/Neurosemantics, certified project manager (PMP) and Meta-Coach. Mr. Pochron lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and two daughters. He can be reached at


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