Feature Article: Seeing Integral Leadership through Three Important Lenses: Developmental, Ecological and Governance

Mark Edwards

Mark EdwardsThis article looks at the issue of leadership within three multilevel contexts. The first context relates to the developmental context of leadership as a process of ongoing growth through various stages. This context focuses on things such as values, cognitive capacities, interpersonal skills and all those abilities that mark off the requirements of effective and authentic leadership. The second context relates to leadership as it exists in its relational and embedded forms throughout the whole organisation. This view sees the leader as a reciprocal role of leader-follower. It emphasises the socially nested nature of organisations and organisational decision-making. The third context considers the issue of power regulation and broad governance within an organisation and how leadership manifests that from the aspect of organising.

These three lenses provide their own unique window into the complex world of leadership. Because these views are multileveled they can be represented as holonic systems, that is, as multilevel systems of part-whole relationships. The developmental view sees leadership as a temporal process of including former stages of human development within later stages. This developmental lens looks at how “the leader” develops over time and with experience. The socially-nested or ecological view sees leadership as the network of leader-followers embedded within structured organisational settings. I am using the word ecological here in the sense of human ecology, that is the study of human groups in their social environments. And thirdly, the governance lens sees leadership as a functional process of leader-followers embedded within a system of power, decision-making and regulation. Governance refers to more than just executive or board governance, but to the whole system of self-regulation and decision-making that occurs throughout an organisation. These three holarchical views of leadership have much in common and yet are very different in their explanatory focus. These similarities and differences give rise to many confusions and conflations between these three explanatory lenses.

This paper discusses i) divergences and convergences between these three lenses, ii) common forms of confusions that have been associated with these three lenses, iii) how these three views might be combined to describe more comprehensive meta-theoretical frameworks for exploring organizational leadership.

1. Introduction

The multilevel nature of organisational life is a reflection and reproduction of the stratified nature of social reality. Leadership can also be represented as multilevel phenomena. This article looks at how the issue of the leadership role within three multilevel contexts. The first relates to the developmental context of leadership as a process of ongoing growth through various stages. This context focuses on things such as values, cognitive capacities, interpersonal skills and all those abilities that mark off the requirements of authentic and high performance leadership. This developmental lens looks at how “the leader” develops over time and with experience. The second context relates to leadership as it exists in its relational and embedded forms throughout the whole organisation. This view sees the leader as a position within a network of ecological relationships. The socially-nested or ecological view sees leadership as the network of leader-followers embedded within structured organisational settings. I use the word “ecological” here in the sense of human ecology, that is the study of human groups in their social environments. It emphasises the multi-levelled and socio-ecological nature of organisations and organisational decision-making. The third context considers the issue of power regulation and broad governance within an organisation and how leadership manifests that aspect of organising. I use the term “governance” here to refer to more than just executive or board governance but to the whole system of self-regulation and decision-making that occurs throughout an organisation.

These three views of leadership can be represented as holonic systems, that is, as multilevel systems of part-whole relationships. The developmental view sees leadership as a temporal process of including former stages of human development within later stages. The ecological view sees leadership as the spatial and ecological situation of roles embedded within structured organisational environments. In the governance view leadership is a functional process of leader-followers embedded within a system of power, decision-making and system regulation. These three holarchical views of leadership have much in common and yet are very different in their explanatory focus. In the following sections, these three distinct ways of examining and creating leadership from a multilevel perspective will be described.

2. Leadership as a Multilevel Phenomenon

Leadership is a ubiquitous characteristic of all social systems. Human social systems, by their nature, are organised multilevel networks that produce role difference and specialisation. Across all aspects of communal life, individuals and groups take on different roles and that those roles are repeated at different positions within social networks. So it is with leadership. Every human organisation involves some kind of multilevel manifestation of leadership. But not all types of multilevel relationships are the same. Some involve hierarchies based on the natural outcomes of the personal growth process while others relate to power-based structural relationships. For example, some leaders emerge simply because of their charismatic qualities, their strength of character, and vision. These personal characteristics can tap into very base human qualities or into our most inspiring potentials. So there is a multilevel quality to the development of leadership. On the other hand leadership can be solely a question of administrative position and role and have little to do with innate charisma. It can emerge at the micro level of family, peer group and community and at the macro level of the nation and international stages. So there is a multilevel quality to the social ecology of leadership. Both these developmental and ecological varieties are multilevel, but the actual levels referred to are extremely different.

3. Leadership as Holarchy

A hierarchy is a multilevel system where the constituents of each level are seen as parts of the entire system as well as wholes to its constituent parts. Heterarchy is the relationship between the constituents at any one level. Holarchy is a combination of both hierarchy and heterarchy (see figure 1). That one level, or holon, can be seen as included within another level, or holon, is an example of hierarchy. The relationship between any two elements within the same level is an example of heterarchy.

figure 1
Figure 1: Holarchy, hierarchy and heterarchy

We can study the multilevel phenomena of leadership through various lenses. These lenses will uncover their own particular insights and be capable of exploring leadership in their own idiosyncratic ways. They will also be subject to their own types of reductionism and distortion and so give rise to particular varieties of social pathology. As Anthony Giddens (1984) has argued that social worldviews not only interpret and filter objective social realities, but they also create, reproduce and shape social realities. The lenses that I will describe in the following sections can be useful for exploring leadership issues as well as the social conditions that produce them.

4. Three Forms of Holarchical Leadership

Holarchies and their constituent holons are non-reductive ways of viewing reality. We use the holon construct when we want to represent something simultaneously as a part and as a whole. Series of holons form multilevel holarchies (Koestler, 1967). Various forms of the holon/holarchy construct have always been evident in the literature on holons. Arthur Koestler (1967) emphasises the ecological form in his endeavour to represent biological, organisational and social levels in a hierarchy of spatial and functional relationships. Ken Wilber (2001), on the other hand, shows how holons can be used to represent the genealogical and developmental relationships between stages of human and sociocultural development. These are very different types of relationships and Wilber, in particular, has extensively discussed this to ensure that they are not confused (Wilber, 2000; Wilber and Zimmerman, 2005). Wilber argues that theorists who do not clearly distinguish between developmental inclusion and spatial inclusion, produce confused holarchies and that the relationships between holons and holonic levels in those holarchies are invalid. This is called the “mixing problem” (Wilber & Zimmerman, 2005). The literature on organisational evolutional dynamics refers to these two different forms of multilevel relationships as genealogical and ecological hierarchies (Baum and Singh, 1994). Genealogical holarchies are based on time and developmental inclusion whereas ecological holarchies are based on spatial relationships and environmental inclusion.

The developmental or genealogical form of holarchy (Wilber) is seen in the leadership theories that focus on the stage-based development of leaders. This is perhaps the most common use of the notion of holarchy in leadership studies and is best represented in the leadership development model of Bill Torbert (2004). The ecological form of holarchy (Koestler) is seen in leadership theories that focus on organisational levels, that is, on the micro, meso and macro levels of organising and on leadership as it is situated within those different environments, for example within teams, organisations, inter-organisational, and broader sociocultural environments. Ecological theories of leadership use the language of executive, middle-level and operational management.

In addition to these two, a third form of leadership holarchy is proposed here—the holarchy. This lens is concerned with the relative organising power or decision-making capacity that exists between different individuals, levels and groups within an organisation. The governance holarchy is not built on the criteria of developmental or ecological relationships but on the governance-related relationships of organising and decision-making power. Governance theories of leadership emphasise the place of formal roles, of power and control and management capacities.

figure 2
Figure 2: Three forms of holarchical relations

Figure 2 depicts the three forms of holarchical lenses and their internal relationships: i) the developmental or stage-based holarchy describes the growth of leadership stages, ii) the governance holarchy is seen in an organisation’s capacity for autopoiesis, self-regulation, management and decision-making; and iii) the ecological holarchy maps the environmentally nested quality of situated leadership. All three are holarchical forms of explanatory lenses because each is built upon the basic pattern of a part/whole serial relationship. They are all different forms of holarchies because they base their definition of part/whole relation on different boundary-drawing criteria.

Each of these three forms of holarchy is present in the leadership literature (Day and Harrison, 2007). The developmental lens is seen in theories that explain leadership and transformation as a function of the stage-based development of certain organisational entities such as individuals, teams, organisations or organisational environments. The ecological lens is most evident in systems and complexity theories that see leadership as a result of relationships between various organisational positions or situational groupings. The governance lens is predominantly utilised by leadership theories that advocate top-down, bottom-up or reciprocal approaches. Table 1 describes these three forms of understanding leadership in multilevel contexts.

table 1
Table 1: Three Forms of Holarchical Leadership

It is important that these three different ways of conceptualising multilevel leadership be distinguished from one another for several reasons. First, the untangling of these explanatory lenses enables the contributions of each to be recognized and more usefully appreciated in the practical exploration of leadership issues. Second, the criticism of hierarchical approaches to leadership has tended to ignore, or at least be unaware of, the different representations of hierarchy. Consequently, different ways of considering the multilevel nature of leadership have been tarred with the same brush. For example, feminist critiques of top-down leadership often do not consider ecological or developmental holarchies in their criticisms. And so there is a tendency to be critical of all hierarchy and to favour heterarchical forms of organising irrespective of the forms of holarchy involved. Finally, describing these three multilevel approaches with greater clarity can help to differentiate between different understandings of leadership and how it can be scientifically examined in terms of its developmental, ecological and governance dimensions.

5. Balanced and Unbalanced Forms of Leadership Holarchies

Among the most important, and frequently misunderstood, aspects of holarchies are the relationships between the constituent levels. Whatever the subject of one’s interest, whether it is causation, information, functional control or organising capacity, the flow of influence within holarchies is always one of multidirectional coordination. It is multidirectional in that information flows up, down, along in between all levels in a holarchy. It is coordinated in that higher levels collate and organise information from the lower ones. Consequently, lower holarchic levels can influence, provide information for and promote the adaptive functioning of higher holarchic levels. Nobel prize winning author Roger Sperry describes this multidirectional order of influence between levels as “interactive causation” (Sperry, 1987, p. 43). Sperry uses the terms “downward causation” to refer to the influence of the higher over the lower and “upward causation” to refer to the influence of the lower over the higher.

With each of these holarchical lenses it is important to remember that the regulatory processes that govern interactions between the levels of leadership and organisational management are multidirectional and relational in character. Even in governance holarchies, more-encompassing levels do not determine what the less-encompassing levels will do in isolation from the organising agency of those parts. “Higher” holarchical levels do not cause “lower” levels to behave or think. The exchange is always a two-way process. For example, directives can be given by leaders, but they may not necessarily be followed or believed in (governance holarchy). We might tell ourselves not to be nervous but the body stills sweats and shakes and the voice trembles (developmental holarchy). In some bureaucratic organisations, middle managers might have the formal role of leadership, but the operational level lets them know who the boss (ecological holarchy) is.

Applying these ideas to our three holarchy divisions of leadership provides a very different view of the relationship between the various developmental, ecological and governance levels. In the developmental holarchy earlier stages of development are not simply transcended and replaced by later stages, but they also integrate and embrace those earlier aspects of development. Consequently, developmental needs and capacities continue to provide information, knowledge and developmental input throughout the lifespan of the individual or group. In the ecological holarchy smaller ecological networks are not simply overtaken and controlled by larger networks. The functioning of local communities also continues to play a crucial role in the functioning of the larger ecological web and the bigger ecological systems ignore more local information at their peril. For example, urban communities cannot exist and thrive without healthy neighbourhoods and families. Organisational departments cannot be healthy and safe places to work in unless the micro-level networks of interpersonal communications are friendly and conducive to personal wellbeing.

Similarly in governance holarchies, we find this process of non-equivalent multi-directionality between levels. Good use of power and good governance is best regarded as multidirectional in that information and influence flows smoothly within and between all levels of the holarchy. There is, of course, the co-ordinating need for higher levels to gather and evaluate the communications that lie within their domains. Consequently, we have this non-equivalent hierarchical relationship between levels. However, it must be stressed that in its healthy form this relationship is not one of dominance or exclusion. Where governance becomes simply a matter of top-down control there is a pathological distortion in the communication and leadership process. Bottom-up causation and emergent capacities become thwarted by distorted hierarchical control and management. This type of governance pathology often results in the type of non-adaptive conservatism that ignores the signals of change and opts instead for embedding upper-level privilege and status. In this instance, the allure of translational increase is substituted for the vision of transformational growth.

Another, and perhaps less common, type of pathology can occur when bottom-up or emergent forms of governance overreach their co-ordinating roles and distort the information-gathering and evaluation process. In this case lower levels drive the agency of higher levels without sufficient co-ordinating capacities. It is common in such instances for revolutionary change to occur without the vital step of integrative renewal being followed. When bottom-up processes drive whole-of-system behaviour, there is a danger of fragmentation and anarchy at the local level and the breakdown of whole-of-system of communication and decision-making. For example, the attempt of a number of organisations to introduce semiautonomous work groups and self-managed work teams was often not successful. Many of them failed because they lead to fragmentation and no clear direction. In its moderate form this bottom-up type of leadership pathology can be seen when various levels of leadership, whether that be among operational staff, lower or middle-level management, or senior executives, stymie or ignore the regulatory coordination that flows from the upper levels of the holarchy. Some universities, which are based on collegial forms of governance, display this kind of pathology. Departments and their academic heads have a lot of power and the central university administration tries, but is unable, to bring a central direction to the university.

Table 2 shows some balanced and unbalanced forms of leadership that arise when the relationships between levels flow in a natural or distorted manner respectively. Balanced forms of the developmental holarchy lens uncover aspects of leadership that are integrated and which combine visually transformative potential with practical utility and behavioural engagement. Unbalanced developmental forms emphasise one aspect of leadership to the neglect of another. There is a disassociation between, for example, higher potentials and more formative stages of development that can result in overly agentic and charismatic styles that can tend towards dictatorial leadership. Balanced forms of the ecological holarchy lens result in forms of leadership that are both local and global in scope and are networked throughout the organisation. Imbalanced forms of this type of leadership will focus on, example, either centralised or decentralised decision-making and management structures. Finally, when using the governance lens we can uncover healthy leadership styles when reciprocating leader-follower approaches to leadership are practiced and institutionalised. Unhealthy forms of this type of holarchy typically result in leadership models that are intensely top-down. In these organisations, leadership is seen as an executive management function rather than as something that is embedded at all levels.

table 2

From this brief discussion, it can be seen that all three leadership holarchies are manifested in their most balanced and healthy forms when communication and decision-making flow in a coordinated fashion throughout all and between all levels of the holarchy.

6. Leadership Through the Developmental Lens

When leadership is viewed through the developmental lens it is represented as a multilevel spectrum of stages of growth (Torbert, 1988). These stages trace the trajectory of development from pre-conventional stages, where personal identity is characterised by egocentric mindsets and behaviours, through to conventional stages, where personal identity is characterised by peer-centric and conformist attitudes and actions, through to post-conventional stages, where identity is characterised by more generative and world-centric capacities. These various stages can be represented in multiple ways. However, the guiding developmental principle is that any one stage can be regarded as part of subsequent stages or as integrating more formative stages. Leadership is then a multilevel process of engaging with and acting through each of these levels as they arise and as it becomes appropriate to do so. This conceptualisation of leadership is closely associated with the notion of transformative leadership as described by James McGregor Burns (1978) and Bernard Bass (1996). Many of the leadership-based explanations of radical change rely on the distinction, first made by Burns, between transformational and transactional leadership. Belasen describes transformational leadership in the following way:

Transformational leadership goes beyond rational management and the use of formal authority to achieve compliance. Transformational leadership involves influencing a shift in followers’ mindsets and core values. (Belasen, 2000, p. 415)

The multilevel nature of leadership as a growth process should not be confused with the multilevel nature of ecological or governance leadership. For example, the fact that CEO possesses post-conventional leadership capacities of a transformative nature does not mean that those capacities will be ecologically distributed throughout the organisation or throughout its governance structure. Relying on the post-conventional and transformative capacities the CEO to transform an organisation seems to confuse the developmental nature of leadership with its ecological nature neglects transformation. Although other lenses are required to see these additional capacities, it seems that many organisations and some organisational cultures, particularly among multinationals, focus on the transformational capacities of the executive level of leadership and neglect more distributed and challenging ways of considering deep change. In many ways this reliance on the developmental lens is understandable, given that it is relatively easy to remove a CEO and their associated executive level management staff and replace them with a new one. But this will not necessarily lead to changes in the leadership or governance culture that is distributed throughout the organisation from the most senior board level to the most junior operational levels.

7. Leadership Through the Ecological Lens

The ecological lens is sensitive to the multilevel nature of leadership as it is situated and distributed within various environments and structures across the organisation (Hunt, 1991). The unit of analysis is no longer the individual capacities of a senior executive or person in some particular role but the “conjoint agency” (Gronn, 2002) that is manifested across different levels of organisational decision-making. Peter Senge alludes to this ecological aspect of leadership in the following:

Truly innovative, adaptive companies recognize that a healthy leadership ecology requires three kinds of leaders: local line leaders (branch managers, project team leaders, sales managers, and other credible front-line performers); internal networkers (front-line workers, in-house consultants, trainers, or professional staff who spread ideas throughout the organization); and executive leaders (Senge, 1996, p. 14).

There are many theories that adopt this ecological lens in describing the multilevel nature of leadership and these include distributed leadership (Gronn, 2002), shared leadership (Fallis and Altimier, 2006), team leadership (Hiller, Day and Vance, 2006), multilevel leadership (Chen, Kirkman, Kanfer, Allen and Rosen, 2007) and leadership climate (Markham and Halverson, 2002). The focus of interest here is not on the multilevel nature of leadership as it is manifested through any one individual, but on the multilevel process of leadership as it is distributed throughout the micro, meso and macro layers of the organisation. The levels here typically correspond to micro-levels of interpersonal encounters, the meso level of leadership as it is displayed within teams and small groups, and the macro level of leadership as it exists within the whole-of-system organisational climate.

The ecological leadership lens is sensitive to the embedded nature of decision-making, guidance and direction setting in the micro-encounters between people, in the functioning of groups, committees and project teams and in be overall performance of the organisation. In using this lens is far more likely that we appreciate leadership as a pervasive element of organisational life and this has considerable implications for human resource management, leadership development and organisational learning.

8. Leadership Through the Governance Lens

The governance lens is sensitive to the multilevel nature of power and decision-making throughout the organisation (Hofstede, 1991). From this perspective all individuals can be regarded as leader-followers (Reicher, Haslam and Hopkins, 2005), as servant-leaders (Fry, Vitucci and Cedillo, 2005) and relational leaders (Uhl-Bien, 2006). In this approach the holarchy of leadership becomes the territory for discussing the issue of power in organisational context. For example, it is in using this lens that some postmodern approaches to management and leadership uncover assumptions about coercive power, the top-down institutionalisation of embedded privilege the experience of powerlessness and of being trapped within “the blender” of organisational change (Badham and Garrety, 2003).

A more balanced appropriation of the governance lens sees leadership and followership as co-creative partners in the production of systems of organisational management and regulation. A more astute use of this lens will uncover the multilevel nature of leadership and followership throughout all layers of organisational activity. For example, followership has been neglected as an essential quality of leaders at the executive level of management. The qualities of good followership, for example, of being able to listen, to provide and seek feedback, of loyalty and of signalling errors and anomalies have been undervalued at senior levels of executive leadership.

9. Conclusion – Toward a More Balanced Multilevel Study of Leadership

There are several implications for the multilevel study of leadership that flow from the notion that there are several types of holarchical lenses that can be used in its explanation and exploration. While leadership textbooks often include multiple theories of leadership and include those that focus on leadership development and power relationships no way of comparing or integrating these theories is presented. In the end we are left to choose one or other model and apply it to some situation. As is often the case with the use of particular worldviews and research paradigms, academics and practitioners end up using one approach to the multilevel study of leadership and neglect other equally valid lenses. For example, in concentrating solely on the developmental nature of leadership we can undervalue its distributed quality and the valid criticisms that can be made when leadership becomes equated with top-down institutionalised hierarchy. In Western approaches to organisational studies this view can become particularly dominant and associated with associated developmental notions such as the growth paradigm (Hamilton, 2003). Within this context of growth and innovation, the developmental worldview can override those understandings of multilevel leadership that uncover more ecological and distributed understandings of change and regulation within organisational life. With the intention of developing a more balanced understanding of the multilevel nature of leadership, this paper has presented alternative lenses for its exploration and conceptualisation.


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Mark Edwards has a PhD and M.Psych in Developmental Psychology from the University of Western Australia. He has worked with people with disabilities for almost twenty years. He is the author of numerous papers and articles related to integral theory. He is currently writing a book on the interpretation of sacred writings from an integral theory perspective. He can be contacted at