12/21 – Innovative Leadership Approaches for Compassionate-Ecological Development

Robertson Work

Robertson Work

Robertson Work

More and more people are becoming aware that we live in a critical moment of human history and evolution. We are facing system-wide crises including climate chaos and ecological collapse; patriarchy and misogyny; economic and social deprivation; oligarchy and corporatocracy; racism and xenophobia; and perpetual warfare and violence. In order to save humanity and much of life on Earth, we must do what is necessary to realize a sustainable and regenerative environment, gender equality, socioeconomic justice, participatory governance, cultural tolerance, and peace and nonviolence. To accomplish this transformation, we will need to make use of integral, facilitative, social artistry, and mindful leadership approaches.

Today, the dominant style of leadership is command-and-control. The leader is seen as superior and to be obeyed and is usually male. Leadership is seen to be about strength, authority, and control of others. One of the problems with this approach to leadership is that it does not seek or value the views, intelligence, and participation of other people. It is therefore less intelligent and does not reflect the ideas and needs of other people and causes them harm.

A compassionate civilization will be created through and embody innovative leadership. Leadership will have evolved beyond the authoritative, bureaucratic, and pragmatic to principled and system-wide leadership honoring multiple perspectives. Leadership will be understood as an art of human behavior and interaction that can be practiced by anyone in any position. Leadership will be facilitative, participatory, inspiring, systemic, and creative.

Integral, Facilitative, Social Artistry, and Mindful Leadership

To move from our time of crisis toward a new civilization of compassion, we need to provide innovative leadership of the movement of movements (MOM) and in governments, corporations, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), academia, and media. There are many methods of effective and innovative leadership. I would like to share four that I have found to be particularly powerful: (1) integral systems thinking, (2) group facilitation and participatory planning, (3) social artistry, and (4) mindfulness, ethics, and servant-leadership.

Integral Systems Thinking (four quadrants)

The innovative leader engages in integral systems thinking in four dimensions based on Ken Wilber’s integral quadrants—the interior (consciousness) and exterior (the material world) and the individual and collective. By analyzing and planning within four quadrants at the intersection of these dimensions, the innovative leader is aware of and is addressing all aspects of any issue or situation. She knows that every situation has an interior-individual dimension, an exterior-individual dimension, an interior-collective dimension, and an exterior-collective dimension. The interior-individual dimension includes people’s mind-sets, attitudes, values, and assumptions, which as a leader you must be aware of and help evolve. The exterior-individual dimension includes people’s behaviors, speech, and interpersonal relations that need new skillful means. The interior-collective dimension includes culture, myths, symbols, rituals, and norms that influence people, some of which need to be transformed. The exterior-collective dimension includes systems, policies, institutions, organizations, and communities that need to evolve continually. For example, in dealing with climate change, the innovative leader must employ strategies to change individual mind-sets and behaviors, as well as collective cultures and systems. When I was a policy advisor at UNDP, I used integral systems thinking to help design new policies and programs. (For more information, contact the Integral Institute.

Group Facilitation and Participatory Planning (ToP)

The innovative leader uses group facilitation techniques and processes to enable people to engage in participatory conversations and planning. The facilitator asks question after question to provoke the best thinking and cooperation of the group. For example, in the Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology, created by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), the innovative leader facilitates group conversations in a four-part sequence called ORID: Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decisional. This allows the group to go from an objective appreciation (“What do you notice?”), to delving into their emotions and memory (“How do you feel about it?” or “What does it remind you of?”), to telling a story or identifying the meaning (“What is the significance?”), and finally to making a decision concerning what actions are needed (“What is your decision?”). In the ToP strategic planning process, the facilitator leads the group to (1) articulate their practical future vision, (2) analyze current underlying obstacles to the vision, (3) create strategic directions to deal with the obstacles and move toward the vision, and (4) decide on an action plan and timeline for realizing the strategies. I often facilitate online and face-to-face conversations using the ORID method. In ICA, UNDP, and in my consulting, I have used these participatory strategic planning methods to develop policies and projects around the world. (For further information, you may contact the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Social Artistry (four levels)

The innovative leader uses social-artistry techniques and processes developed by Dr. Jean Houston to enhance people’s creativity and commitment. The social artist enables people to become aware of and involved in social change on four levels: sensory/physical, psychological/historical, mythic/symbolic, and unitive/integral. At the sensory/physical level, people deepen their awareness of the physical situation using their five senses. At the psychological/historical level, people look at their memories, feelings, and associations. At the mythic/symbolic level, people explore the stories and symbols that give meaning to their lives, and they also create new stories concerning new possibilities. And at the unitive/integral level, people experience the sense of unity or oneness with the group or reality that they are dealing with. If the social artist can expand and deepen people’s awareness on these four levels, there is greater likelihood of achieving creative, inspiring, and lasting change. When I was in UNDP, I was involved in training people in several countries in social artistry so that they could be more effective in decentralizing the Millennium Development Goals and, later, the Sustainable Development Goals in their countries by enhancing their human capacities. (To explore and learn further, contact the Jean Houston Foundation.

Mindfulness, Ethics, and Servant-Leadership

The innovative leader uses mindfulness exercises and ethical practices to call people to a profound sense of being servant-leaders. Mindfulness exercises include relaxation, meditation, contemplation, and yoga. By enhancing and deepening their awareness, people gain detached engagement, understanding, compassion, and wisdom. Ethical study and practice help people live lives based on their deepest values and principles, such as compassion, truth, justice, equality, and understanding. Learning to be a servant-leader is a lifelong journey of letting go of one’s ego and focusing one’s energies on helping and serving others. I meditate daily and teach my NYU grad students all four of the above leadership methods.

These four approaches to innovative leadership, among others, are needed to propel organizations, movements, and the movement of movements (MOM) toward the realization of a compassionate-ecological civilization. These innovative leadership methods can be learned, practiced, and applied in organizations, communities, and whole societies.

Let’s catalyze a compassionate-ecological community, nation, and world through the use and embodiment of innovative leadership!


(This article is based on and excerpted from the author’s book, A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism – Reflections and Recommendations, which is available at bookstores and on Amazon.


In addition to being an author, Robertson Work is a climate/justice activist, and facilitator of the Compassionate Civilization Collaborative (C3.) He has worked in over fifty countries for over fifty years and was formerly UNDP principal policy adviser on decentralized governance, NYU Wagner adjunct professor of innovative leadership, and the executive director of the nonprofit Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) conducting leadership, organizational and community development initiatives in five countries. He lives near Asheville, NC, is currently writing his autobiography, and working to strengthen the movement of movements (MOM.). Find his blog here.

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