1/15 – Is True Integral Leadership Possible?

Linda Shore

Linda Shore

Linda Shore Integral Leadership

Linda Shore

 I am thrilled about the potential that exists in a world that finds us moving from green to integral yellow on the Spiral Dynamic map of human growth, where all four burners of the AQAL map of human possibility are fully ignited. Hail to the 4 voices! And while I am integrally jazzed, I wonder – how do we actually DO integral? More specifically, if I came across integral leadership how would I know it, and what would I experience from an integral leader?

I find the exploration of the competencies required of those who will help us to evolve to the next stage of human development compelling because, quite frankly, time is of the essence. With the advent of historic innovations such as the computer chip and digital technology, and the deep impacts from world-wide political shape-shifting, international financial restructuring, and population growth and its effects on the natural and built environments (and the list goes on), our world not only experiences constant change, but the omnipresent change we live with is becoming quantum in both its pace and impact. To thrive, no, to exist, in this hyper world, we will need integral conductors who can help envision and steward a path that will provide crucial stepping stones to a healthy, vital and sustainable future. The battle cry is loud and clear – “Calling all Integral Leaders, whoever you are!”

From what I have learned about integral theory, I have the sense that true integral practice is boundaryless. This is the essence that comes to mind when I contemplate the ability to think and act in multiple disciplines and cultures, to operate in an expansive dynamic flow around human engagement, to be a transformative force that illuminates interrelationships while honouring values, worldviews, the mind, body, soul and spirit. What an astounding set of leadership behaviours, perhaps even, dare I say, super human, well if not, then certainly exhausting! So I find myself speculating – is true integral leadership really possible?

Where do I look for the answer? While there are many reference points that I could access, after some soul-searching, I think my quest is best served by focusing on my own experience – musings from my 30 years as a working professional in the private and public sectors.  During my career I have been fortunate to work for, and alongside, many leaderful and leadership-needy colleagues (learning happens from watching those who can and those who can’t). I have held program management positions in the private sector working for small and large organizations in profit-driven cultures, as well as middle and upper management positions in the public sector working for regional governments that were guided by a service-driven mission. But it is my local government experience that I wish to reflect on and explore, as this is where my most meaningful leadership learning has taken place.

Somewhere through the middle of my career while working in regional government, my manager at the time (the functional head of the organization) spoke with me about what his vision for the future of the organization was and what actions needed to be taken to get there.  He went on to say that one of these actions was the pursuit of a new direction for how the organization supported its people, and that he wanted me to take that on by accepting an appointment to a new role – the Director of Human Resources. Happy dance – this was a pivotal moment in my career to be sure! But more importantly, it was a significant moment for the whole organization and all of the people who worked within it.

This new direction involved building a different relationship with the trade unions which was to be based on a partnership-centered model (a truly novel concept for the labour environment at the time). It also included development of an approach to employee training that was designed around individual leadership development versus a singular focus on technical proficiency. Another new direction that he espoused was the creation of a more open, fair and robust set of business processes for the emerging human resources issues of the day: workplace harassment and mental illness. In essence, a more progressive approach to attracting and retaining an enlightened and engaged workforce was now a prime directive.

Totally juiced, I immediately recognized that to be successful with this hefty shape shifting mission I was going to need some help, on a personal and corporate level. I would need to first develop my own skills, and then I would need to form a distinctive Human Resources department, and to build and source more talented resources within the department. My manager’s reaction to all of this was his unconditional support for my enrollment in a Master of Arts degree program focusing on Leadership and Adult Training, and the ‘go ahead’ to organize and structure a department dedicated to the Human Resources function. Ah, congruency – the matching of actions with words – who could ask for anything more? Well, more was to come.

The thesis for my Masters Major Project was the co-development of a framework for a leadership development program within my organization – a program that was premised on the notion that every employee is capable of demonstrating leadership, no matter what position they hold or what organizational strata they operate within, and if this capacity can be nurtured and unleashed, then positive change is sure to follow. This premise was philosophically and financially supported by my manager, with the allocation of a new budget to fund the enterprise. From this work, I, along with my colleagues in the Human Resources department, co-designed a competency-based leadership development program that was, over time, opened up to all employees – a program that began in 2003, and evolved over time with expansions to include apprenticeship, mentoring, and coaching initiatives. My manager then went further to echo the need to build leadership skills and strong working relationships in other realms of the work of the organization.

The organization operated within a political environment in that the public servant staff reported to a Board of Directors (upwards of 40 elected politicians representing over 20 member municipalities). One of the Chief Administrator Officer’s most important roles was to ensure that well-informed staff recommendations came to the Board for review and approval. This could be a challenging task at times given that the Directors wore two hats: not only did they represent the interests of the regional members as a collective, but they also represented the interests of their respective local municipalities. These dual interests were not always harmonious, and when they weren’t the staff, aka the CAO, was required to suss out and leverage common interests while honouring the different agendas and respectfully trying to advance the regional mission, all the time working hard to avoid losing trust and credibility with the Board (envision integral ‘dancing’ at play here).

One of the ways the CAO felt that he could help to build and maintain this trust, was to demonstrate to the Board that it could have absolute confidence in the work of the bureaucracy. He decided that one of the most effective ways to do this was to ensure that the annual budgeting process was as transparent as possible (approval of the annual capital and operating budgets was one of the Boards’ largest responsibilities). To this end, the CAO commissioned a more open budgeting process designed to expressly illustrate to the Committees of the Board how approved budgets were directed, and what deviations from these budgets took place during the course of the year and why. This new process also required for the first time that staff responsible for various programs meet with the Board Committees and personally deliver the budget presentations. Aside from being more transparent, the other benefit to this new budgeting approach was that it allowed for more skill acquisition for the affected staff in the areas of presentation, communications and interpersonal relations with political representatives, which up until that point in time were roles exclusively reserved for the CAO and the CFO. This shift in the budgeting process was considered to be a fairly intrepid initiative for the CAO to take on given the Board’s sacrosanct view of the public budget.

Another innovative and shape-shifting project that the CAO took on was the presentation to the Board of a new operating framework for the organization – a sustainability framework based on a triple bottom line construct where all program decisions would be required to demonstrate incorporation of economic, environmental and social considerations. This was a bold move because contrary to the organization’s mandate at the time (a traditional focus on the delivery of cost-effective and efficient programs), a triple bottom line approach could potentially see the approval of publically-funded programs that may not be the most cost-effective options, if the environmental and/or social impacts of the programs did not meet prescribed sustainability standards. It was a risky proposition to expect the political overseers to accept and shoulder the public fallout that could take place if a more costly economic burden on the public purse resulted from program assessments that placed an equal value on environmental and/or social benefits.

Like many organizations, the regional government I worked for depended on multiple parties finding common ground in order to ensure long term success of the regionally-focused programs. Public interest groups with a variety of environmental and social agendas, First Nations with land claim interests, other levels of government (provincial and federal) with interests of their own and sizable budgets to match (read ‘transfer payments’), just to name a few. So, the ability to build strategic alliances was critical to the success of the organization. The CAO recognized that acting alone was sure to fail, and that a systems network approach would identify interconnecting interests within the organization’s constellation of relationships. So, he commissioned an action plan to identify organizations with mutual strategic interests, this included meeting with the key personnel within these organizations, and an ongoing outreach and consultation program as the vehicles with which to share knowledge and best practices, and to create opportunities for joint futures.

Good stuff huh? Well, it may not come as a surprise to learn that not all of these good intentions met with the imagined success. A distinct Human Resources department with a multi-disciplined staff was firmly established, and developed into a robust corporate service function that provided traditional HR services, as well as a full complement of organizational development and employee wellness initiatives – hooray, chalk one up for the ‘good guys’!

The partnership approach with the trade unions however was slow in taking root and, at times, the organization acquiesced to the traditional confrontational model when tough labour relations issues surfaced. The successes that could be identified were small in scope which made it difficult to keep all involved committed to the process of change. Reinstated union/management standing committees were seen by some managers to be a platform for the unions to continually negotiate agreements, and some union representatives described joint union/management leadership initiatives as setups designed to coopt the union. This does not mean that the partnership approach was a failure it does, however, make clear that those still involved must endure and continue to strive for labour/management interactions that seek common ground and a greater degree of equanimity.

There have been many employees who graduated from the 18-month leadership development program. Many of those have infused their work with more leaderful influence throughout the organization, and continue to be life-long learners modeling a new way. And there are a few who have demonstrated that either they were not good candidates for the program or that the program failed them, and this has prompted the program stewards to review their intake and mid-term evaluation processes – continuous assessment and improvement if you will. That said, the program continued to be a popular initiative within the organization, and was redesigned to embrace and anchor the triple bottom line sustainability principles.

Attempting to keep local interests separate from regional interests remained an issue at the Board. This is not surprising as the governance model didn’t provide for any mechanism to address this dynamic. Regarding the revamped budgeting process, it did, over time, gain more favour with the Board and, as a result, became less of an issue.  The sustainability operating framework became well engrained within the organization, and with triple bottom line elements embedded in all existing and new programs, sustainability became the heart and soul of the work of the organization. Finally, working relationships with partnering organizations did see some progress, and it was evident that ongoing efforts were needed in order to keep the lines of communication open and individual interests respected which in turn would make possible the exploration of joint opportunities.

So, did I witness integral leadership during my time with the organization? Well, let’s recap. The foresight to set a new course for the organization which was based on a vision to establish sustainability as the core tenet, and to be courageous enough to advocate for this in light of the need to shift political expectations that viewed economics as the only measure of success to expectations that also valued the ‘softer’ environmental and social impacts on society – well, my view of this is that it emulates a deep capacity of awareness and consciousness – the basis of the concept of ‘greatness’ in integral theory.

The direction to establish, adequately fund and thoughtfully design people support systems within the organization, such as individual leadership development initiatives and robust business processes to ensure a safe and respectful workplace where the well-being of the individual is valued, speaks to the capacity to honour the dignity of all employees. While it may seem a stretch to some, I see this as akin to the integral ethic of compassion for humanity. As well, a system that provides opportunities for a path of personal development makes it possible to tap into the super human potential that is integral.

If we consider that one of the purposes of integral leadership is to be a transformative force, then the intentions to foster a mutually respectful working relationship between management and labour, and to assist the political overseers in discerning between their local and regional responsibilities without marginalizing the undertakings of either, could be viewed as 2nd tier practices. While negligible success was experienced in both of these realms, the intentions were honourable and served to act as the all-important first steps in setting the stage for future improvements.  Experience within the organization showed that these bridge building practices can be elusive and, as such, proponents must stay committed to the desired future state and fan the flames of small wins in an effort to fuel bigger ones. This is the integral practice of energetic flow around human engagement.

One of the higher callings of integral leadership is the creation of exceptional communities of practice. The capacity to recognize the importance of the web of entities within the system, versus an approach that puts the focus on the interests and the success of the one, is the integral capability to illuminate relationships in an effort to form a whole. The initiative to establish strategic associations with entities that were part of the same web as the organization is an integral endeavour that strives for this completeness.

Ken Wilber suggests that 1-2 percent of the population is in the 2nd tier of integral evolution, and about 20 percent is in the green human bonding stage of development poised for transformation into integral yellow. Given that the imperative for new world views and practices is clear, how do we catalyze the 20 percent to make the leap to 2nd tier thinking? As I consider my own experience, I can see that I have indeed witnessed and been inspired by leaders who have demonstrated integral practice and, what I notice about the work of these leaders is that transformation requires certain prerequisite conditions before it can be fulfilled.

In order for a leader to influence transformative change he/she must have a profound curiosity and passion for what is possible. This includes the ability to envision a desired future state, recognize what degree of effort will be required to accomplish this, appreciate the intended and unintended impacts, activate deep listening to hear what must happen next, have an enduring respect for the needs of the community, and possess the will to dance with the many challenges that come when trying to take others to a new place. Leaders that have this degree of creative space are also conscious learners who are committed to their own development and transformation.

In my work, whenever we looked at developing a new human systems initiative, we always discussed the organization’s ability to embrace the intended change. The integral leader has to deal with the organizational and cultural readiness for change. The question for integral change agents is what does leadership propose under the best of conditions and how does this mesh or not with those impacted? The transformational leader must be adept at reading the audience and the receiving environment, and understand that in order to bring about something new, a program, system, or culture must cease to exist as it did before. This demands the integral leader’s full commitment to the change mission, as a significant amount of time will be required in order for any sustainable affect to be realized, and this period of revolution will take place amidst chaos and uncertainty.

Are we demanding super human potential in our integral leaders? Perhaps, however if we embrace the notion that we have a highly developed evolutionary capability, then we know we are up to the task of transitioning to the 2nd tier pathway, and all we need to do is support those who are integrally ready to show up for these demanding roles in our society, or indeed, show up ourselves!


Wilber, Ken. (2001). A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

About the Author

Linda Shore is a Human Resources and Organizational Development Planner.  She served as Director of Human Resources for a metropolitan regional district and held various line and functional positions during her 21 years with the organization. She oversaw the organization’s human resources and organizational development, was responsible for collective agreement negotiations with trade unions, and chaired joint management/union leadership initiatives. Prior to her work in human resources, Linda worked on solid waste reduction and management programs for the private and public sectors. This included sustainable solid waste management master planning and consultation, and the design and delivery of residential, commercial and industrial waste reduction, reuse, and recycling initiatives. She is currently working with Integral City Meshworks on initiatives designed to advance policies and programs for city and eco-region resilience.  Linda also provides coaching services to individuals and dispute resolution for groups. She has an MA in Leadership & Adult Training, and is certified with the Justice Institute of British Columbia in Conflict Resolution.


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