Fresh Perspective

Russ Volckmann

Leadership, Complexity and Development
An Interview with Sandra M. Martinez
by Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Russ: Sandra Martinez, you have had a varied career. You’ve told me that you once had an art gallery in Santa Fe; now you’re with a foundation in Honduras and in between you’ve been with the Naval Postgraduate School and the U.S. Army War College, among other things. Why don’t you fill us in a bit on your professional history?

Sandra: Sure. First of all, I want to clarify that I’m not with a foundation in Honduras, and I am still affiliated with the Naval Postgraduate School, currently as a visiting professor. I do teach a seminar in leadership development for fourth year students at Zamorano University, a Panamerican institution chartered in the state of Delaware. It’s a school of science and technology preparing students for careers in sustainable agriculture and agribusiness, biotechnology, and regional development, one of the most respected institutions of higher education in Central America.

Russ: What brought you there?

Sandra: The impetus was that my husband accepted a position as VP in Advancement at Zamorano University located east of the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. He works in development in higher education. He’s involved in a translation himself in developing the function of philanthropy in Latin America, raising funds through corporate donors, government grants, individual donors to support the university. Although it was a disruption to my career, I choose to encourage him in this professional move. Sue Higgins of the Cebrowski Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School based in Monterey, California committed to continuing to work with me. They are setting up a more global operation whereby people work remotely. I am in the process of developing my consulting practice from a base in Honduras.

Russ: Wonderful.

Sandra: So, let me start at the beginning. I’m in Honduras, but I have a Spanish name—Martinez—which is my maiden name, and I’m from New Mexico. I am fluent in Spanish, but I was the first generation in my family to speak English as a first language. My family settled in New Mexico when it was a colony of Spain in the early 1700’s. They were a colonial family in the area that is now part of the U.S. I bring that up because a lot of people wonder what my background is.

Russ: You don’t want people asking you for your green card?

Sandra: (Laughs) No, it has nothing to do with that. It helps them to understand who I am. I wouldn’t have any problem with that, although it would be unlikely that someone would ask for that.

The first part of my education and my early professional involvements were in the arts. I studied music. I have a degree in music from a small women’s college in the West—what used to be Colorado Women’s College. I stayed in Denver and started working in the arts. I moved back to my home state in 1985 and established a gallery in Santa Fe. My partner and I were committed to developing and supporting the careers of living artists who were doing what we thought was important work in the region. We were one of the first galleries to seriously represent and support Mexican artists.

The second part of my professional career began when I had a young child. I was divorced from my partner so I had to think of a new path. One of the activities in the gallery that had been very interesting to me was our involvement in public art. In the U.S., when there is money for public art, it’s a very collaborative and a community-focused activity, because the money comes from various sources, including public ones. So you engage the public—usually it’s a municipality or a state, but sometimes it’s an institution—in a conversation about the artwork, and it’s viability and meaning.

Russ: It becomes a very political process?

Sandra: It becomes a political process—very much so. You want to engage people to think about the artwork and to really make a commitment to it. When the artwork is controversial, it becomes even more difficult. Generally, public artwork is controversial.

So I was working with museums, municipalities, foundations, private individuals and inter-culturally, as well. We worked with Mexican artists and we sometimes worked with state governments and federally funded institutions in Mexico, while collaborating with municipal and state governments in the U.S. to support and mount public artwork. I also observed inefficiencies and poor management practices in nonprofits.

Russ: It sounds like by undertaking these activities, you yourself were moving into something of a leadership role. Is that correct?

Sandra: If you mean in regard to public art…I guess that is true although I’ve never thought of it in that way. I had to engage people in their meaning-making process. I brought people together and responded to different points of view, both positive and negative with the goal of creating a viable social and physical space for a public work of art. Yeah, I think that’s true.

I decided to pursue a doctorate in business, because I had a young son to support. I guess you could view that development as organic in that I maintained a strong interest in culture, but moved from a focus on artifacts to a broader involvement with organizational and national cultures and social systems. I was a recipient of a National Security Education Program doctorate fellowship, which was an program initiated when the Cold War ended.

Russ: Is this something you had to apply for?

Sandra: Yes, and it was very competitive. I received three years of support for doctoral study and research. The goal of this program was to develop expertise in Area Studies. Russ, you were an Area Studies expert if you studied Political Science and you have an expertise in South Asia. David Boren, the former Senator from Oklahoma, sponsored the bill that created this program. Anyway, it is a post-Cold War initiative established to develop language expertise and a deeper understanding of different regions of the world of strategic importance to the U.S. So I convinced their Board that we needed to understand Latin America better, specifically Mexico and the growing entrepreneurial business class, their mindset and that particular sub-culture and their influence in Mexico. That’s what won me the fellowship. I stayed in New Mexico for personal reasons. First, I earned a master’s degree in International Business and Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

I also have a PhD in Business Administration. I had to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where New Mexico State University is located, because it offered the only PhD program in business in the state. Las Cruces is a few miles from El Paso, bordering Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Russ: It’s quite a stretch from Las Cruces or any part of New Mexico to some of the most sophisticated training and education organizations like NSEP and the Army War College. How did that happen?

Sandra: At New Mexico State University, there were two professors that were working with Robert House of the Wharton School. One of them was my dissertation advisor, Peter Dorfman. He was working with House on the GLOBE Project. This is a multi-phase, multi-level, large scale, multi-national research project involving 62 societies—a comparative study. They recruited me to be part of the Mexican team, since I was fluent in Spanish and I had research money. I was part of the team that developed the instrument and conducted the comparative study by collecting and interpreting data from managers and organizations in Mexico.

Russ: So when I look at the House material published by Sage, some of the data that is relevant to Mexico might have come from you?

Sandra: It came from the team. So you’re looking at the GLOBE Book?

Russ: Yes.

Sandra: I contributed to that—the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Project. Then, just before I completed my doctorate, I moved to Pennsylvania, where I interviewed and was hired to teach leadership and teambuilding to undergrads at the Wharton School. I continued my engagement with the GLOBE Project, working more closely with Bob House. I did some research and I was also involved with Paul Schoemaker who works in scenario planning. I worked as a consultant in his group.

Russ: And you did that with private companies?

Sandra: My work with Schoemaker’s consulting group in scenario planning was primarily with non-profit organizations. However, I worked as a consultant in leadership development independently for publically held corporations.

Russ: Interesting. I have a curiosity about that. I’m publishing some material on scenario development as a leadership development process as opposed to a planning process, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

Sandra: Well that’s what attracted me to scenario planning, the cognitive facets, the ability to learn and create meaning as you went through a strategic planning process. It was the social process elements of scenario planning that drew me.

Russ: Right, because it’s not just about individual development—it’s about systemic development as well.

Sandra: Right, it’s about thinking about the trends and the uncertainties or shocks the future may present and in this way collectively preparing for multiple possibilities and shaping the future by influencing the probabilities. And it is non-linear in that it accounts for the uncertainty of the future, the lack of predictability and control and the interaction of multiple factors.

Russ: Exactly. So it’s leadership development in the sense that it prepares for dealing with the unexpected, the unpredictable, the unanticipated.

Sandra: I think it can be, but it’s not always used that way. It’s very open—that process can be exploited for leadership development in the best sense of the word.

Russ: I understand that many organizations really focus on the planning aspect which I think of as kind of a trap, mainly because then the focus gets on the plan and not on dealing with the changes and ambiguities going on in the environment as much.

Sandra: Right, in my work with Bill Torbert we understand that strategic planning—scenario planning—is important, but then the most important capability is your ability to act effectively in the present. One can only act in the present. From this perspective, the present is all you have.

Russ: When did you begin working with Bill Torbert?

Sandra: I don’t even remember!


Russ: It’s been that long ago? I know you’ve done an article with him. Has it been published?

Sandra: I haven’t checked recently. We submitted it to Action Research Journal and the last time I checked they were waiting for the critique of the reviewers.

Russ: Well, thanks to you I’ve had a chance to look at it a bit and I think it’s very apropos to what we were just talking about. You’re essentially talking about stages of development and the role of the individual as well as well as the systemic context of leadership. Can you give us a summary of that argument?

Sandra: The article makes the statement that social science has not taken temporal factors seriously. There are several important issues we highlight in the article. I would say that perhaps the most important is that 1st and 2nd person inquiry into the present and future needs to be interwoven with what is the more conventional approach to social science, the generalized, objective, 3rd person knowledge of the past, in order to help individuals, teams, organizations, and communities act in an increasingly timely fashion. 1st person inquiry being research we conduct within ourselves about our own intuitions, feelings, and mind-sets and their influence on others and the environment; 2nd person inquiry being the conversations and other actions we engage in within our immediate group with whom we are interacting. Temporal orientations are very important and impact our effectiveness.

Russ: Tell us more about temporal factors.

Sandra: On a broad scale, managerial and organizational science are limited in how they can be used to generate learning related to more effective action because of their focus on 3rd person knowledge of the past. How we translate knowledge into action depends on some type of 1st person inquiry and practice in the present because our own assumptions, feelings and mind-sets influence how we conduct our research and practice.

Russ:If we translate that into leadership then we’re talking about how, given different kinds of timeframes, different approaches to leadership may be appropriate. So for example, I recall stories about a unit in Vietnam. When they were deployed, they exercised a very strong top-down hierarchical form of leadership, but when they were away from the front, they had a far more democratic process that they used. Would that be an example of this? I think the time pressures changed under those two different circumstances.

Sandra: I’m not certain if you are talking about a normative or prescriptive leadership, but I believe what you refer to would be an example in the managerial literature, which identifies a temporal quality or orientation and how it might influence performance. The article that Bill and I wrote goes beyond this to address how to measure and develop leaders to reflect a higher level of complexity in their temporal orientation so that they are able to act in the present while having a consciousness of what brought them to the present, and being able to reflect in the moment about what might be—not to predict—the possible consequences of the actions they are taking at that point. This is a particularly critical factor for people involved in conflict and post-conflict operations right now; their ability to reflect in the moment and to make critical decisions effectively because they affect both the lives of their forces and the people that are involved in the other end in order to avoid any unnecessary violence and undesirable and destructive longer term consequences

Russ: Given Bill’s long history with adult development and the leadership development profile, if I’m not mistaken, that ability is linked to stages of development, is that correct?

Sandra: Exactly, and that would be one of the dimensions in which a person develops. Let me refer to some of our terminology: The Achiever is still a conventional stage. We have a lot of Achievers in our organizations and we need them. They work well in teams, focus on the outcome and the organization and its strategic goals, and they accomplish those goals. Some preliminary research shows, however, that in order for organizations to transform, there needs to be people in the executive team at the Strategist level. The Achiever, in order to develop to a Strategist stage, moves through the Individualist stage into the Strategist stage.

The Achiever is often focused on the future, so the individual, team, or organization acting from the mindset or action-logic of the Achiever sometimes misses an opportunity to respond effectively in the present. What are people around me thinking and feeling ? The Achiever is so focused on that goal that was established yesterday or several months ago or yesterday in the meeting that she may miss substantive changes the in environment that offer an opportunity or a challenge. To act effectively when critical factors or parameters change or a higher level of understanding is achieved, leaders may need to modify their strategy to accomplish the goal, perhaps to change the objective itself that was previously established, or even the assumptions that led to the goal and objectives. We call this last modification triple-loop learning.

As you move higher up in the developmental scale, you develop greater capacity to balance your temporal orientation between past, future and present.

Because of the complexity of the operations and engagements the military is involved with, the action of even a captain or a member of his team can have strategic consequences. So lower down in the hierarchy of young men and women, there needs to be higher levels of awareness to support effective decision-making in response to what’s going on around them.

Russ: That leads us into a fairly controversial aspect of adult development in the sense that we have an indication from Kegan and others about how long it takes to move from one level to another. His early estimates were five years per level, and there’s the whole question of nature and nurture—people’s inherent capabilities that are biologically grounded in terms of being able to undertake the kind of development you’re talking about.

So I’m wondering, in your work with Bill and elsewhere, what do you see as the challenges and the opportunities for developing individuals along the path you’re talking about?

Sandra: First, what I’m saying does not belie what Bob Kegan talks about in terms of the difficulty of moving from stage to stage and the type of support required. I’m not suggesting that soldiers in a company can be functioning at a Strategist level, but instead that the environment I describe calls for a lot of learning and developing knowledge by sharing of information, lateral communication, and mutual sense-making, rather than top-down communication.

Even though there were struggles working in a very hierarchical structure at the U.S. Army War College, working with the students was extremely rewarding. The students (in residence for 10 months) are those who are identified as future strategic leaders in national security, officers at the colonel level—some of them returning from combat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq—and civilians working in national security at a comparable level of leadership, including professionals from USAID, the State Department, as well as foreign officers from among our allies and coalition partners. Because of the complex and difficult challenges of national security at the time, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the frequent cognitive dissonances between what was happening on the ground and the rhetoric about the conflicts at home, factors that effected these men and women at both institutional and personal levels, there was a great deal of deep reflection on their part and much learning.

I participated in one of the seminars throughout the 10 months of resident work, taught a session within the course on Joint Processes and Land Power Development of the curriculum, and as Chair of Defense Transformation I taught an elective seminar on Transformation in which I used the framework of the Leadership Development Profile. This framework and profile had a high face validity for these professionals. It really made sense to individuals who had been working in dynamic, fluid, volatile, and dangerous situations and offered them a language by which to discuss their own development and understand it within the context of the systems in which they were operating. It also made sense to others who had not been on active duty, but had been working in assignments in U.S. Joint Forces, one of the other Combatant Commands, or within the Pentagon, dealing with the challenges of how to enact transformation and how to inspire change within a bureaucracy. It really helped them to understand why they might have been successful or why they hadn’t been successful, why people interacted in the way that they did and how they could develop themselves to become better strategic leaders and agents of transformation.

This was a really inspiring experience for me, because I observed these very competent leaders engaged in deep reflection, sharing observations, listening to very different perspectives, sometimes sparring, and learning in the context of their past and present challenges. Our conversations would start at the beginning of a seminar session and the discourse would fly during three hours of deep engagement during which time our conversation on a particular topic moved back and forth effortlessly between theory and practice and from individual, team, organizational and societal implications and their interrelationships.

Russ: That speaks to the awareness development aspect of feedback that they’re getting from the instrument. Is that what you’re referring to?

Sandra: That was one element of it. During the seminar I administered the Leadership Development Profile to the students, followed by individual, confidential feedback sessions. This was a critically important factor contributing to their learning and development. I also integrated the use of the Leadership Development Profile (LDP) framework and profile with literature drawing from complexity science. In line with all the constructive development work—and there are other instruments based on this theoretical foundation—I use the LDP because I think it’s most suitable in helping individuals, teams, and organizations to develop. The LDP is well supported by psychometric reliability and validity studies, but equally important to my work is its face validity with practitioners. The fact that the framework makes sense to the leaders with whom I consult helps me support their development. It helps operationalize an important underlying tenet of constructive development theory—that development is not just about opening your head up and pouring new knowledge in, but it’s about qualitatively changing the way you look at the world.

There’s literature on complexity of social systems, sometimes referred to as complex adaptive systems, that I use to support students and leaders in thinking about how diverse entities interrelate, how the individual relates to the natural environment, how all these different agencies and multi-national organizations interact and impact one another and outcomes. In the seminar we talked about systems operating in far-from-equilibrium states, systemic bifurcations, and innovation. How can you shape the environment? The students found that this theoretical leadership model or framework has real applications and these leaders recognized it as providing a valid way to understand the complex interrelating systems within which they worked. The officers readily translated this into a perspective that helped them understand an experience they’d had in the past and how they might work more effectively to address challenges in their future.

Russ: Part of the literature from that field has to do with the notion of emergence as well as drawing from biology the notion of self-organizing systems. Are those elements that you were working with as well?

Sandra: Absolutely. We discussed emergence and self-organizing systems with application to business enterprise systems in national security, national strategic planning for security and defense, and complex operations, including conflict and post-conflict and disaster relief scenarios. However, the challenges and dynamics that all organizations face today are the same. They may be more acute for international and national security organizations because more frequently the outcome of a poor decision can have far reaching destructive consequences and perhaps because the military mindset has been focused toward control, prediction and a hierarchical structure. However, in the past few years, organizations committed to national security have grown to increasingly understand the importance of learning in general and learning in real time and then how to transfer that learning across teams, across units, across agencies. There is an intellectual understanding about how that is important for our competitiveness and our very survival. Further, there is an explicitly stated emphasis on collaboration, shared power, and the importance of conflict prevention.

Russ: This reminds me of a metaphor I like to use: If you want to capture an individual who is in the process of leading, take a snapshot of an organization; if you want to understand leadership and all of its dynamics, which include individuals as well as the systems, you have to watch the movie. It sounds like you’re talking about helping people begin to formulate, identify or see the movie, rather than just focusing on the snapshots.

Sandra: Oh, they were seeing the movie. These were really bright individuals. We would move from theory into practice and application quite quickly. It was a self-selected group among approximately 340 resident students because they signed up for my transformation seminar. They were interested in the topic and they understood the need for transformation at all levels, personal, organizational and societal

Russ: But this whole notion of the relationship—we have such a history of thinking about leadership as an individual that we have people who are 24/7 leaders, heroes or scapegoats—and beginning to think about leadership in these more holistic terms seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Is that true from your perspective?

Sandra: I think it is. I know there’s the Complexity Systems Leadership Group who has had work published with ISCE. They’ve done some important work. I struggle with reconciling the paradox of it myself. I know some things I say are contradictory. We know that the individual leader is still important, but leadership can be provisionary and is often emergent. Emergent leadership needs to be supported within the hierarchical organizations that persist, that is, formal leaders in hierarchical organizations need to support the emergence of leaders, because the organization needs to learn, needs to be adaptable, needs to be resilient.

Did you read my chapter on leadership in the Global Commons [forthcoming from Stanford University Press]

Russ: Yes, I did.

Sandra: I tried in the discussion of Admiral Michael LeFever to highlight someone who I think is effective as a formal leader working in an environment requiring high levels of collaborative and emergent leadership.

Russ: Can you tell us a bit about that?

Sandra: He is presently the chief, Office of the Defense Representative-Pakistan, U.S. Central Command, Islamabad, Pakistan, in other words, head of military operations in Pakistan. In November he was nominated for appointment to vice-admiral, a three-star flag officer. The leadership period in his life that I used as a case study in the chapter you read was when he commanded Disaster Assistance Center Pakistan and was responsible for coordinating U.S. military response to Pakistan’s devastating earthquake of October, 2005. President Pervez Musharraf asked for assistance from the United States and within 24 hours, Admiral LeFever of the Pentagon’s Combined Disaster Assistance Center, and William Berger, a regional advisor with the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, were in Pakistan.

The Navy especially understands the need for collaboration. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the military recognizes that it is primarily engaged in what it calls complex operations. They’re complex because they involve working not simply between agencies in the U.S., but multi-nationally and with both civil and military personnel and organizations. A formal leader may not be the highest level of authority—they are operations that require collaboration and sharing power, sometimes with people that have a very different viewpoint than you. Effective leadership in these situations requires the capacity to form teams and develop relationships of trust and encourage authentic communication. Feedback needs to move up and down the hierarchy and laterally.

Admiral Lefever led the U.S. military personnel and participated in a larger and very successful operation. It was the longest U.S. disaster relief operation to date. They accomplished a remarkable amount in that time. They addressed multiple logistical problems involving transportation to and from remote areas, evacuated many injured Pakistanis, set up and worked from two MASH units, and attended to something like 34,000 people, and built several schools. They accomplished much, yet most involved believed that the most important legacy of the operation was the friendships that were built. Reviewing the efforts and success of this operation makes you feel good, because you understand the capacity that the U.S. has to be a friend.

Russ: One of the things I find interesting about this example is the phenomenon of people who need to come together to accomplish something who are not necessarily in the same hierarchical system. This is so relevant to many of the global challenges we’re facing today. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions or ways of thinking about this leadership phenomenon in such an ambiguous environment beyond what we’ve talked about thus far.

Sandra: I think that’s really well stated, Russ. It’s trying to accomplish a shared mission and objective when people are working laterally across many different hierarchical organizations—or even non-hierarchical organizations. There could be individuals that offer to help, or very small organizations that are interacting with others from very different culture systems—like NGO’s interfacing with the military. In that article, I tried to define and develop language about some leadership competencies and capabilities that could apply to those individuals, teams and organizations.

It’s not necessarily comprehensive, but I try to identify different dimensions and competencies of leadership that are at a higher level than we’ve frequently defined as effective leadership. One is called “Sufficient Cognitive Agility.” That is being able to reconcile multiple and diverse mental frameworks. Take Michael LeFever as an example. He needs to work with NGO’s and USAID, organizations that have very different cultures than the military. An NGO might come to a disaster relief mission with a different understanding of objectives to some degree, and certainly a different organizational culture. They might even be suspicious of the military. So how do you develop a relationship of trust and good communication with the people representing that NGO? Admiral LeFever is in Pakistan right now and might be working with individuals that were perceived as the enemy a few years ago. So you’re working with people that might have different values than you do, and you’re trying to develop enough of a mutual understanding of the situation to accomplish an initiative and a reach a goal together.

Russ: So “cognitive agility” is what in relation to that?

Sandra: It’s the ability to know what your framework is, to hold it apart from you in order to accept someone else’s framework, and to be able to be sufficiently nonjudgmental—to listen and work with that person, or just to reconcile the barrier by listening.

Russ: In the area of conflict, it’s often referred to as “conflict resolution.” I far prefer the term “conflict management” which means that there are other ways of engaging with others around conflict without necessarily resolving it. Is that part of what is involved here?

Sandra:I think that when you come together with someone who may be very different from you, that you’re not necessarily engaged in a conflict.

Russ: Yes.

Sandra: And so I think cognitive agility is to move between frameworks—maybe put yourself in that other person’s framework, maybe even learn from it.

Russ: It’s related to empathy as well as the cognitive process?

Sandra: Oooh, that’s a good question. Yes, it would have to be.

The agility part is to move between these frameworks and to then have the ability to reconcile them in your own mind, at least, as well as to reconcile them to the end of people of different perspective and values working together productively.

Russ: Great. So cognitive agility is one of them; I’m reminded of Joyner and Joseph’s book on Leadership Agility, which is trying to speak to that. What’s the second one?

Sandra: I didn’t cite them, but I probably should have.

Again, separating them and making them different, because I use a similar term called “cognitive complexity.” By that, I’m referring to what would be the social equivalent of requisite variety. In other words, having sufficiently diverse ways of looking at things as an individual, as a team or as an organization so that you can respond to a range of circumstances.

Russ: Yes, and I’m relating the term “requisite variety” to notions of adult development, especially models like spiral dynamics where the suggestion is that once you’ve reached a certain level, second-tier in the case of spiral dynamics, that you have the ability to comprehend and engage effectively with prior developmental levels or phases.

Sandra: Right, and that’s true of the Leadership Development Profile, so what I’m mentioning here can be measured by that profile.

Russ: Great.

Sandra: But that’s an interesting parallel that you bring up in terms of spiral dynamics. I categorize under this dimension of cognitive complexity the subset of a high degree of self-awareness, and the ability to identify and frequently assess one’s own assumptions related to the project or situation.

Russ: Okay, and the third one?

Sandra: A world view consistent with complexity.

Russ: That’s kind of what we were just talking about, isn’t it?

Sandra: Yes, but it’s a little bit different—it’s really having this attitude of not looking at uncertainty or ambiguity as a problem. And also, intellectually having some ability to see and understand this interrelationship between systems.

Russ:So we’re talking about systems dynamics as well as individual dynamics.

Sandra: Right! So these are interchangeable. The way I’ve developed them is for application to individuals, teams, organizations or even societies.

Russ: Is there another?

Sandra:This is sort of operational—the ability to harness collective intelligence by working in inclusive, collaborative ways to grow communities of trust. This capability requires reflective conversation, drawing from Senge’s work, enhancing connections to share information and developing systems to support mutual sense making. So at an organizational level, it’s creating the leadership culture and supporting technology so that your processes are collaborative. Collective intelligence involves pulling your knowledge from a lot of different sources, as you move toward accomplishing objectives.

Russ: You mentioned the leadership culture. Can you expand on that?

Sandra: An interdependent leadership culture, a term coined in a project of CCL about interdependent leadership, is at an organizational or institutional level, a culture that supports the development of leadership both formal and emergent, supports learning, enhances the potential for learning and the realization of transformation, adaptability, resilience—all those things we’re talking about.

Russ: And I’m reminded of work that James O’Toole did where he was also talking about the systemic support of leadership in organizations, where I think he had in mind such things as selection retention, reward systems as well as functions around communication, problem solving and the decision making processes that support effective leadership in an organization. Do you include those kinds of things here as well?

Sandra: It is part of the picture. Certainly organizational processes must support patterns and habits that are consistent with the leadership culture we are talking about. Another aspect is that even with all the technology we have available to us now, sometimes the most difficult facet of collaboration is developing sufficient trust between parties to be able to share information and knowledge. I can refer to the second case study in the same chapter I described earlier about the experience of establishing the cooperative agreement for governance of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore among the littoral states and users of the Straits. At a team level, it doesn’t have to involve that much technology. It could be an individual who emerges to develop a project and is especially talented in bringing diverse people together. Will that person be supported? Maybe some people have knowledge to offer and they’re reluctant or they don’t think they’re valued because of implicit values of the culture. The disposition and ability to harness collective intelligence is critical. Also, as you move up the scale to the organization, this involves a responsibility to make certain that your IT systems supports the constructive processes we’ve been describing.

Russ: So the information crosses boundaries appropriately so that people who need the information have access to it.

Sandra: Right—and the assumptions written into your IT processes. Sue Higgins and I often speak about this I think that Max Boisot writes eloquently about this. Often people think of technology existing separately from the very social systems and cultures in which it is embedded.

Russ: Yes.

Sandra: But really, how do you have communications processes unless they involve individuals or social systems? You don’t. We have this tendency to divorce the two as if communication systems exist outside the social system, when they are actually embedded. And learning patterns are embedded in that. Sometimes it is the IT people themselves who perpetuate this erroneous conceptualization. I think it’s an area of challenge for us, to come to a higher level of understanding about how we can use technology to develop collaborative processes.

Russ: That’s been a long-term project in systems development within companies for IT organizations that are sensitive to the issues you’re talking about in terms of not only user involvement, but also the relationship between the system development and executive leadership in the organization, cross-functional dynamics and all of that. I have a colleague who is involved in what I call “material management” but he calls it something else. Working on that same phenomenon when it comes to dealing with information technology, warehousing and the whole material management process. So this is phenomenon that I think includes both systems like the military as well as all kind of organizations and business systems.

Sandra: What is your impression? Don’t you think that’s still a gigantic challenge?

Russ:Yes, that’s the point. I’ve worked on the issue since the early 80’s in project management, and it’s still going on. I see many of the same problems are still prevalent.

Sandra: I can give you one example. When I was the Transformation Chair at U.S. Army War College during the academic year of 2007-08, I was one of several chairs who worked laterally across Department of Defense educational institutions as members of the Transformation Chairs Network to support transformation, funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This program was initiated and implemented under the leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld. However, the visionary who conceived of the program and directed the Office of Force Transformation from 2001 through early 2005 under Secretary Rumsfeld was Admiral Cebowski. The Cebrowski Institute for Innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School is named to honor his legacy and contributions to defense transformation. Admiral Cebrowski articulated the importance and challenges of cultural and systemic transformation across multiple interrelated dimensions and processes of technology, cognition, and culture in organizations. At that time there was money to be awarded in implementing the program and, incidentally, transformation is not a favored word in the military right now.

Russ: Why is that?

Sandra: Because of its association with Rumsfeld.

Russ: I see.

Sandra: And what happened is that a more substantive transformation in defense was to a certain degree hijacked by the financial support of hardware, equipment, and technology development disguised as transformation. People who sought support for project and material development found it useful to call their project “transformational” so it would get funding. This was not true of all projects and development supported by the initiative, but there was some misplaced focus. What happened is that substantive transformation—the difficult transformation of culture, changes in the way people think, communicate, interact, behave, and lead, the social systems and cognitive developmental of transformation supporting more adaptable responses to a complex environment—is still very much a challenge. This is not to say that there was not change, modernization, and development of new capabilities and that there was not a raised awareness of the necessity of transformation and learning about how it could be accomplished across all the agencies of national security and also among our allies and coalition partners. Because this did take place and there was progress. Also, many committed individuals in all agencies of government continue to work for transformation even though the financial support for these activities is considerably reduced. This is simply an example of how technology, when artificially separated from the social and cognitive systems in which it is embedded, can lead to a less than constructive outcome. An unfortunate outcome since so much money which is no longer available was put into the project called “Transformation.”

Russ: What this raises for me is the whole question of dealing with increasing complexity and ambiguity and relying heavily on technology. I’m reminded of—in far less complex times, presumably—efforts on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding by damming rivers, and the ecological damage that caused. We always have these unintended consequences.

Sandra: That’s a huge issue.

Russ: And so as you’re thinking about the approach to leadership that you’ve been describing, how do individuals who step into temporary leader roles address that kind of complexity and the possibility of unintended consequences? Is it presence that you’re talking about or something else?

Sandra: I think it is presence. It is beginning with a self-awareness about your assumptions, amplifying that to a heightened awareness of your surroundings and your impact on the environment, and then broadening this at a systemic level to an awareness of the imprint of your assumptions and actions, including the logarithms that are built in to the technology that you are relying on to make critical decisions.

I presented at a conference on international transformation in Sweden in June, and one of the presentations addressed this question. We’re now entering the era of robotics. If you place robotics in a strategic field, whether in a area of conflict or another area characterized by rapid decision cycles, you’re asking the robot to make a decision. How we deal with that dilemma will reflect and define our perspective regarding the relationship of technology and social and cognitive systems and perhaps our very humanity.

Russ: Are there any other competencies you’d like to cover?

Sandra: Understanding sense making and learning processes, and how they are applicable to an organization’s capability for innovation and adaptation. Some people in leadership positions do not have an awareness of sense-making and learning processes. This lack of awareness and understanding of these important social processes impacts the quality of their decisions. They talk about learning, but they have no understanding of the learning process.

Russ: So are we talking about multiple learning styles or something else?

Sandra: That’s part of it, but what I am talking about moves beyond that level of understanding. Its about the learning process whereby you bring forth your assumptions, assess them, and change them if they are not appropriate to the project or responsive to the environment. This assessment might lead to a change in your understanding of what the project should be. Changing your assumptions leads to changing in your behavior. Also, how do you share learning among individuals, teams or how do teams share knowledge with others from dispersed teams or units within the organization? Possessing an understanding that learning is a critical social process to which you need to be attuned as you design a process or structure, initiate or complete a project or mission is an important element of leadership.

Russ: It reminds me of the work of Vygotsky in Russia back in the 20’s where he was basically looking at development, both as an individual and a social phenomenon—that the individual doesn’t develop in terms of their monological relationship to the world, but more of a dialogical relationship to the world right from the beginning.

Sandra: And that relates to your understanding of sense making, part of which is, an understanding that your reality isn’t necessarily the reality of others. There is an interpretive process involved and that process can evolve at in individual, team-level, organizational or societal level. I operate more from a realist interpretist perspective, not a phenomenological interpretist. There is a point where we get to the tip of the sword.

Russ: What does a realist interpretist mean to you?

Sandra: Oh, Russ, your questions are so challenging!

Russ:Thank you.

Sandra: I think there is a reality out there that is being interpreted. I think there are multiple realities that can be expressed. But at some point, there is a reality. When the tip of the sword stabs you, you have physical evidence of its existence and its penetration can have an irreversible impact.

Russ: So we can think of you as a post-postmodernist.

Sandra: Yes! Thank you for helping me find the answer to that question!

Sandra: I was introduced to post-modernism in the artworld. It can be pretty nihilistic. Although I appreciate post-modern management theory, I was not overcome by its influence as I’d already experienced it and the extension and outcome of its logic.

Russ: We’ve been dancing around so many factors and variables that are spoken to and included directly by Ken Wilber and his work, and I have to ask—have you been influenced by his work at all?

Sandra: I only came to know Ken Wilber later in life, so I’m still reading his books He was not an initial impetus for my direction. It was through my work with Bill Torbert that I came to know Ken Wilber’s contributions.

The GLOBE Project was a great project, but it was a meta-project in a positivistic tradition. I could never fully get on board because I understood that it didn’t capture some critical elements of the reality I observed. There were compromises that were made in the richness of understanding and representation for the sake of generalizability. Nevertheless, the GLOBE project made some very important contributions to our understanding of comparative leadership mindsets and behaviors across many societies

However, I went on to explore scenario planning, Bill Torbert’s work, the Leadership Development Framework and the larger constructive development theory. I saw in this framework and approach something that captured more of the complexity and dynamism of what was going on in organizations and teams. It wasn’t static. Also, I also saw in this approach and theoretical framework something that could be used to support individuals and organizations in their growth and development It was more of a science that I could commit to.

Russ:That work with Bill in the area of developmental action inquiry—I mentioned dialogism a moment ago—they all go hand-in-hand. I think they are so important as an addition to some of the frameworks of integral theory that have come out of Wilber’s work and others. One of the things that is so difficult is to get our arms around, whether we pay homage to Whitehead or anyone else, is being able to have a way of understanding and tapping into dynamic processes. This is so important from a developmental point-of-view, from an action point-of-view and from a learning point-of-view, that I think we need to put much more emphasis in that area. I think that’s what your work is doing. Would you agree?

Sandra: I hope so.


Sandra: I also really like the space of action research—it’s really collaborative, you get your hands dirty dealing with real issues and problems—I like that dialog between theory and practice. I think that’s where it’s at—at least for me. It’s challenging to be on the fence all the time, between theory and practice, between two different cultures. I always feel like I’m a translator between two different worlds.

There is one other competency—that is to maintain perspective and act from multiple temporal realities concurrently.

Russ: And it takes a certain level of development to be able to do that. Is that correct?

Sandra: Right, and going back to the article you read that Bill and I co-authored, it was saying that science, in order to be effective in supporting learning and effective action has to take into consideration the first, the second and the third person. We have to work from all those different perspectives.

Russ: I see this as such cutting-edge stuff to be able to do research from a first-, second- and third-person perspective and report it. Is that your impression as well? There’s not a lot out there.

Sandra: Well, I honestly don’t know. I’m in Honduras right now…


Sandra: It’s all relative as to what’s mainstream and peripheral at this point. I haven’t been to an Academy of Management meeting in two years to make some sort of realistic assessment as to what’s peripheral and what’s mainstream. I think it’s a critical issue, though, and I think Bill Torbert struggled with trying to gain legitimacy for these concepts for decades. There has to be an internalization in order for real development to take place.

Russ: And for real learning to take place.

Sandra:Right. If it doesn’t change your way of thinking and behavior, it’s not learning.

Russ: Well, Sandra, there are so many things we haven’t even begun to touch on. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wish I had?

Sandra: I’m tempted to comment on what all this means related to the crisis we have recently experienced in Honduras, but I think it is better left for another article or conversation.

The major question for all of us is how do you support the development of leadership and leadership cultures to enhance this potential for learning and adaptability, resilience, and ultimately, sustainability I think that’s what we’re all trying to do, are we not? It is certainly what I endeavor to support in my consulting and research.

Russ: I think so, and I think you’ve added wonderful new dimensions to the conversation around that. I have such appreciation for your work, and thank you so much for engaging in this interview.

Sandra: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure and I very much appreciate the opportunity you have given me to share some of my ideas, work, and experience with others.

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