Book Review: Obama, Leadership and Hierarchical Complexity

Russ Volckmann

A Review of

Leadership Mode coverDon DunoonDon Dunoon, In the Leadership Mode. Vancouver, Canada: Trafford Publishers, 2008.

And a nod to

World FuturesSara RossSara Nora Ross, “Fractal Transition Steps To Fractal Stages: The Dynamics of Evolution, II,” World Futures, Vol. 64 Nos. 05–07 (2008); and “Perspectives On Troubled Interactions: What Happened When A Small Group Began To Address Its Community’s Adversarial Political Culture, “ Integral Review

President-elect Barack Obama has been very clear in announcing his appointments to his cabinet and economic and security advisors that he advocates a decision making process that calls for the clarification of different perspectives, opinions and strategies when faced with contentious problems. And he has been blessed by the Bush administration and world events for which in can be held somewhat accountable with many, many contentious problems facing the government of the United States internally and with the rest of the world. There is a new book out that addresses how a collective engages in leadership processes specifically engaged with addressing contentious problems: Don Dunoon’s In The Leadership Mode. By the way, I am delighted to be able to present this review in this special issue of Integral Leadership Review, a special issue on Integral Leadership and Australia. Dunoon is an Aussie.

Also just released is a special triple issue of Ervin Laszlo’s World Futures, Vol. 64 Nos. 05–07 (2008): Postformal Thought and Hierarchical Complexity with Guest Editors Michael Lamport Commons and Sara Nora Ross. In this issue Michael Common spells out his model of hierarchical complexity and Sara Nora Ross (Management Review Board, Integral Leadership Review) offers an article in the “Theoretical Foundations” section of the publication entitled, “Fractal Transition Steps to Fractal Stages: The Dynamics of Evolution, II.” Many of the articles in this section (most of which I have not had the opportunity to read, as yet, are authored or co-authored by Michael Commons, including one with Sara Nora Ross, “Toward a Cross-Species Measure of General Intelligence.” Now that may be far more information than you want in a review such as this. Yet, it is clear that this special issue is making groundbreaking contributions, not just in theory and application but also in exploration of implications. Here is an abbreviated version of the table of contents from this special issue:

  • Editors’ Introduction to the Special Issue on Postformal Thought and Hierarchical Complexity, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND SARA NORA ROSS


  • Introduction to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and Its Relationship to Postformal Action, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS
  • What Postformal Thought Is, and Why It Matters, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND SARA NORA ROSS
  • The Concept of Domain in Developmental Analyses of Hierarchical Complexity, MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
  • Selectionism and Stage Change: The Dynamics of Evolution, I, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS
  • Fractal Transition Steps to Fractal Stages: The Dynamics of Evolution, II, SARA NORA ROSS
  • Presenting the Formal Theory of Hierarchical Complexity, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND ALEXANDER PEKKER
  • Toward a Cross-Species Measure of General Intelligence, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND SARA NORA ROSS


  • The Hierarchical Complexity View of Evolution and History, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND SARA NORA ROSS
  • Cultural Progress is the Result of Developmental Level of Support, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS AND ERIC ANDREW GOODHEART
  • Domain-Specific Increases in Stage of Performance in a Complete Theory of the Evolution of Human Intelligence, CHESTER WOLFSONT, SARA NORA ROSS, PATRICE MARIE MILLER, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS, AND MIRIAM CHERNOFF
  • Implications of Hierarchical Complexity for Social Stratification, Economics, and Education, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS
  • Stacked Neural Networks Must Emulate Evolution’s Hierarchical Complexity, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS


  • Human Development and the Model of Hierarchical Complexity: Learning from Research in the Psychology of Moral and Religious Development, JAMES MEREDITH DAY
  • A Comparison of Moral Reasoning Stages Using a Model of Hierarchical Complexity, TERRI LEE ROBINETT
  • Applying Hierarchical Complexity to Political Development, SARA NORA ROSS AND MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS
  • Evolving to Address Global Climate Change and the Scale of Public Interactions, JAN INGLIS


  • The Connection Between Postformal Thought and Major Scientific Innovations, MICHAEL LAMPORT COMMONS, LINDA MARIE BRESETTE, AND SARA NORA ROSS
  • In Praise of Top-Down Decision Making in Managerial Hierarchies, HERB KOPLOWITZ
  • Postformal Resistance to Concepts of “Higher” Development, SARA NORA ROSS
  • Postformal (Mis)Communications, SARA NORA ROSSLeveraging Higher Education’s Role in Social Evolution: A Paradigmatic Strategy, NANCY GLOCK-GRUENEICH
  • A Future Society Functioning at the Paradigmatic Stage?, SARA NORA ROSS

Even a cursory read through this list of articles is stunning both in their richness and theoretical complexity. As is true in the article by Sara Nora Ross cited above, the light-hearted reader may not successfully navigate many of these articles. And yet, many of the themes are central to the evolution of integral theory and its applications, particularly with the inclusion of concepts of adult development related to lines and stages. The two articles on Postformal resistance and (mis)communications by Sara Nora Ross should make most integral theorists salivate with anticipation. But it is not my intention to review this whole issue. Indeed, it may be some time (if ever) that I am able to wrap my mind around the richness it offers.

As I was reading Don Dunoon’s groundbreaking work on leadership, just after having read Sara Nora Ross’s “Fractal Transition Steps To Fractal Stages: The Dynamics of Evolution, II,” I was struck by how relevant they are to each other. My challenge is to communicate this connection here succinctly. I will begin by reporting on some key concepts in Dunoon’s work on processes of leadership, then present a bit of the connection I see with how Ross’s work can inform our understanding of the processes Dunoon points to, before a closing discussion of the rest of Dunoon’s book.

Dunoon is following in the tradition of Joseph Rost (Leadership for the 21st Century), David V. Day et al (An Integrative Approach to Leader Development) and Bruce Lloyd (“Power, Responsibility & Wisdom: Exploring the Issues at the Core of Ethical Decision-making,” Integral Leadership Review, October 2009). From my point of view (and I think Dunoon would agree), there is a tendency for those writing in the academic and popular “leadership literature” to conflate several terms: leader, leading, leadership, manager, management, hierarchical authority, and so on. For starters I have suggested that leader is a role, a set of expectations people have of performance under certain conditions. Leading is what individuals do when they occupy the role, usually for a temporary space in time during the life of the system in which they are leading. Leadership is the complex set of leader roles, processes and relationships that evolve over time in the life of a system. For now, however, let’s just look at the distinction that Dunoon makes:

Leadership “involves people working together to inquire into present realities, to develop common understandings about what they want to achieve…and to marshal energy to make their preferred futures eventuate. Such learning-centered leadership occurs when practitioners ‘learn their way through’ deep-seated problems, where they discover how to frame them differently, and thus can bring into being new ways of dealing with them.” [14]

He dismisses four prevalent assumptions before undertaking the development of his approach:

  1. Leadership is equivalent to leaders.
  2. Leadership is exclusively the function of those in positions of considerable authority [a position that seems not to be held by many who are in those positions of authority in private industry in the United States; see ]
  3. Leadership is based on influence processes.
  4. Little is gained by trying to differentiate leadership and management.

His presentation on these is persuasive to someone with my biases.

He offers several concepts that “underpin a learning perspective,” central to learning-centered leadership (paraphrased and quoted):

  1. Learning-centered leadership emphasizes a process of joint sense making by those with an interest in a contentious problem.
  2. Critical to learning-centered leadership is a relational orientation in which we give precedence to processes of joint thinking and action over task achievement and hold our own views open to scrutiny.
  3. The group needs to understand the processes of learning-centered leadership through two lenses—higher-level and stepped back, on the one hand, and close up, each of which attends to the same processes focused on specific actions at points in time.
  4. At higher levels the group puts emphasis on the need for group members to establish current realities, clarified preferred futures and harness energy for deep-reaching change.
  5. Close up accentuates action, interventions by individuals at specific points in time and are made relationally.
  6. When learning-centered leadership interventions occur we are “in the leadership mode.”

The focus is on processes for social construction of meanings and its relational orientation. “The group is building, or constructing, common meaning from the particular perspectives of stakeholders. In academic circles, this form of learning has been termed ‘constructivist.’” It involves people bringing their experience and worldviews into the mix to be processed by the group. Of course, there are elements of risk and defensiveness that require a degree of safety in the group. And participants need to have “confidence that better outcomes emerge from joint work when the quality of interaction truly matters, rather than when tasks are the sole and primary focus.” This requires a “relational stance.” That is, members are open to the perspectives of others and the possibility that “any contribution by any group member can be a source of intelligence for the group…In sum, the view here is that contentious problems require leadership grounded in processes of joint and individual learning rather than influence (or authority) and that these learning processes must be conducted in a highly relational manner.”

At this point, let’s take a brief look at a very complex presentation by Sara Nora Ross in the article mentioned at the beginning of this review. Michael Commons includes in his introduction to this issue

“The Model of Hierarchical Complexity…offers a standard method of examining the universal patterns of evolution and development. It is a quantitative behavioral developmental theory…There are two kinds of hierarchical complexity. The commonly recognized one refers to the ubiquitous linear hierarchies that are described in many fields of study. These are descriptive. By contrast, the Model of Hierarchical Complexity offers a standard method of examining the nonlinear activity of constructing the universal patterns of evolution and development. It accounts for evolution and development by recognizing their patterns are comprised of tasks, or actions, performed at specified orders of hierarchical complexity. Whereas the Model’s unidimensional measure is linear, the tasks it measures are nonlinear performances, as this special issue conveys. The nonlinear activity of tasks is that of organizing, or coordinating, information. Hierarchical complexity applies to any events or occasions in which information is organized. The kinds of entities that organize information include humans and their biological systems as well as their social organizations, non-human organisms, and machines, including computers.” [305-6]

He continues,

“The hierarchical complexity of tasks, or actions, is defined in words as follows. Actions at a higher order of hierarchical complexity: (a) are themselves defined in terms of actions at the next lower order of hierarchical complexity; (b) organize and transform the lower-order actions; (c) produce organizations of lower-order actions that are new and not arbitrary. These next higher order actions cannot be accomplished by those lower-order actions alone.” [308]

For those interested in exploring this further I highly recommend this and other writings by Michael Commons. The material included here should help us contextualize the work of Ross.

Ross opens her presentation with

“The how of development and many evolutionary dynamics are explained by transition steps described by the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. The focus in this article is on that how: the dynamic relationships and detailed patterns comprising hierarchical complexity. These derive from the empirically established sequence of transition steps, required from any order of hierarchical complexity to the next.” [361]

In order to clarify this, let’s take a look at these premises of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. Ross states, “A stage of any given order of hierarchical complexity is formed by coordinating two or more task-actions at the preceding, lower order in a nonarbitrary way.” The stages are fractal in nature in that there is self-similarity between stages. Her discussion points toward the idea that as we are dealing with complex problems and challenges, contentious problems a la Dunoon, it requires higher and higher levels of capacity for dealing with task complexity. While Ross’ work is exploratory and developmental in itself, its applications to the world of leadership have, as yet, not been explored, although there may be some suggestions about this in the article (which I have not read) by Herb Koplowitz in this issue of World Futures.

Koplowitz is a student of Eliot Jaques and given what I know about that work, it is likely that his argument is that more and more complex problems need to be addressed structurally at higher and higher levels of the organization. I do look forward to reading his discussion. If you want to know more about it now, check out Koplowitz’s article in Integral Leadership Review, “Leadership in Requisite Organization: A Spiral Dynamics Perspective,” January 2007.

Ross has also led the development of an approach to community decision making that has been applied in small communities in the US, as well as in Sweden. TIP process 2006 IR—it’s possible to design processes, solve problems and increase people’s capacity for handling task complexity at the same time. We can increase complexity in the ways we handle things with a developmentally designed process like TIP (The Integral Process for Working on Complex Issues). Ross describes this approach in her 2006 article, “Perspectives On Troubled Interactions: What Happened When A Small Group Began To Address Its Community’s Adversarial Political Culture, “ Integral Review,

And this brings me back to Barack Obama, his team, and their approach to solving contentious problems. As I understand the message that Obama has repeatedly expressed, he believes in strong personalities. Strong individuals are able to put forth their opinions and perspectives, one of the requirements that Dunoon points to for learning-centered leadership. Cautious of “group think,” however, Obama doesn’t want these strong personalities to hold back their opinions, information and ideas out of respect for other strong personalities in the team(s). He does state that he wants these strong personalities to present their positions, to be prepared to discuss them…and then leave it to him to make a decision.

I think I got that right. Shades of “I am the decider!” But from a different set of beliefs, assumptions and values, we must trust. That is important solace. Yet I cannot help but wonder how Obama’s approach, while giving a jittery nation (over economics and national security and social issues) assurances that there is a strong leader in place, thus creating a bit of calm and confidence, will fare given the perspective offered by Don Dunoon and informed by Ross and others’ discussions of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. It does seem, as problems become more complex, that we need individuals capable of addressing those problems through sophisticated, higher stages, of capacity for problem solving and decision making at these higher levels. Isn’t that likely what Koplowitz is arguing for? (We shall see, but not here.) It is possible that this reflects a misunderstanding of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity on my part, but for the time being, let’s assume I am on track.

So Obama’s approach is a mixed bag, as I understand it, and one that needs to consider the capacities of his team members and, perhaps, some of the considerations that Dunoon is writing about. For example, there are two benefits of the learning-centered leadership approach that would be important to the Obama administration:

  1. It “opens up the possibility that a wider range of people can contribute to the work of leadership…because potentially any person in a group can contribute specific, relational interventions…That implies more intelligence, experience and insight being applied to contentious problems.”
  2. Members “can potentially [sic] bring a greater depth of knowledge and insight to bear on contentious problems. In specifically engaging with the implicit or hidden domain of assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge, this form of leadership seeks to draw forth, examine, and integrate the mental resources that people hold in relation to the problem, but might not otherwise volunteer.” [33]

Sounds just like what the doctor ordered for the Obama administration, at least as far as input to the problem solving and decision making processes is concerned. Dunoon might argue that leadership-mode interventions are just what is needed. “To act ‘in leadership mode’ is to intervene in a relational manner toward building shared meaning in a context of efforts to enable deep-reaching change with a contentious problem.” [47] And let’s not glide too fast by the phrase, shared meaning.

Shared meaning is about building a common understanding of an issue. For me it is closely related to the notion of shared goals. Facing collective decision making on contentious problems without shared goals just doesn’t make sense, unless you are seeking only a temporary political position that defers resolution. I would contend that our goals, aspirations and intentions contributed to shaping our meaning. Without shared goals, shared meaning is unlikely. Furthermore, resolving differences without shared (or at least compatible) goals is highly unlikely. Another way of thinking about this is that we may be able to get to the point of managing our differences without resolving them, thus leaving the door open to revisiting those differences at the earliest opportunity. Our actions today reflect a political position, rather than the resolution of a contentious problem.

At this point, Dunoon gets into some major challenges in leader and leadership development that would be relevant for the Obama administration and would require members to be able to operate at higher levels of task complexity:

  1. Relational working
  2. Mindful working
  3. Practice-basis.

Obama he is selecting his administration members based in part on experience. They have been engaged with efforts to solve contentious problems in many contexts. But Dunoon points out that practice is about both doing and reflecting. It is interesting that in some of the literature on CEOs there is a theme that they take time to reflect. To me, this is the individual equivalent of a post action or post project review. It is a time to reflect on intention, intervention, outcomes and meaning.

Relational working is the challenge Obama faces, according to some media analysts. I heard one reporter on National Public Radio refer to the Obama team as a kindergarten that he was going to have to shepherd. The implication was that there were a lot of strong personalities with their own individual agendas and that keeping them all on the same page would be difficult. Of course, one way to attend to this is through collective reflection.

The third area Dunoon points to is mindful working. This is the consciousness and awareness stuff. This is fostered by time for reflection, meditation, awareness enhancing practices, both personally and in relationship with others. I wonder if Obama will address this at all in his team. Even so, at the individual level, approaches resonate so uniquely across a range of individuals. This IS a challenge. And it is one that is essential to the life of the Obama administration, and it will be increasingly important over time as the administration commits itself to courses of action, some successful, some not. [SR]

Of course, in addition to coming up with solutions to virtually intractable problems, there will be a requirement for effective implementation of leadership interventions, that is, there will be a need to manage as well as lead. Dunoon believes that distinguishing the manager and leader role is critical to learning-centered leadership. The management mode has these features:

  1. Focus on the explicit aspects of a problem (operational or strategic);
  2. Task has priority over working in relationship;
  3. Legitimacy comes from authority, technical, implied or supervisory.

When in the leadership mode, we

  1. Assume the problem is not technical, but contentious (reflecting different perceptions) requiring shifts in thinking and behavior by some or all stakeholders;
  2. Consider both implicit and explicit aspects of the problem; and
  3. Work relationally to apply collective intelligence and build shared meaning in creating understandings, directions and solutions.

These are complementary processes and both are important and there is a potential to use both to create a more complete set of pathways for intervention.

Beyond the distinctions that he makes, Dunoon goes on to sets of prescriptive behaviors. For example, in interaction with others, work from observation, attribute reasonableness to others and seek to act authentically. He does not stop with prescriptions, however. Part Two of the book offers a set of Practices and Tools with the rubric, ARIES. This stands for attending, reflecting, inquiring, expressing and synthesizing. For those of you who would like to know more about these, I recommend the book. In addition to practices and tools, Dunoon offers the following:

  • How might leadership be expressed at different levels of the hierarchy? To what extent would desired behaviors be ‘expected,’ as distinct from encouraged?
  • What are the drivers in the organization that currently sustain the predominance of management-mode behavior (insofar as it does dominate)?
  • What kinds of factors could support movement toward the vision?
  • How might learning-leadership be expressed and practiced at top executive levels?

Understanding the development process as suggested by the work related to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, consideration of alternative organizational models such as Holocracy, and appreciation for the how of development of higher level capability in relation to task complexity appear to me to be some critical streams of both thinking and practice to engage with the growing complexity of contentious problems. Their application has been presented in a report by Jasper Bets, Morel Fourman, Peter Merry, and Anne-Marie Voorhoeve: “Developing a Roadmap and meshwork for Millennium Development Goal 5: Building a template for in-country implementation and a global collaborative network to accelerate achievement of MDG5,” Parliamentarians Take Action on Maternal and Newborn Health, The Hague, 26-28 November 2008. They are also presented in Peter Merry’s soon to be published book, Evolutionary Leadership.

Nowhere do these approaches and considerations bear more weight than in the leadership processes that are and will be faced by the Obama administration.