Feature Article: The Both/And of Leadership in Living Systems Change

Helen Titchen Beeth

Helen Tichen BeethWe are faced with a growing list of models related to leadership and living systems change. Too often these models are pitted against each other in our conversations and we fail to drawn on their collective potential. I offer here an essay that can be used to frame our ability explore the conditions of change and our individual and collective roles in that change.

There are a number of angles I’d like to comment from, coming out of my own personal experience of various approaches to change. After all, this is one of the points this essay is honing: if we are to explore the process of change clearly we need to find ways of integrating divergent perspectives, individually and collectively.

Living Systems

Firstly, Don Beck recently referred to his work in using Spiral Dynamics integral to foster change (see articles in past issues of Integral Leadership Review by Elsa Maalouf, Rafi Nasser and others) as a form of engineering. I can’t help wondering whether “engineering” is the best metaphor for that work or for what needs to happen in the world. There is a danger of looking mechanistically at living systems and “doing to them” from the outside. Such efforts are not going to work for long— and this perspective doesn’t do justice to the richness and sensitivity of Don Beck’s and others’ work!

I am greatly helped by the following list of ‘properties’ of living systems (I’ll be revisiting some of these as I go along):

(1) A living system only accepts its own solutions (we only support those things we are a part of creating).

(2) A living system only pays attention to that which is meaningful to it (here and now).

(3) In nature a living system participates in the development of its neighbour (an isolated system is doomed).

(4) Nature and all of nature, including ourselves is in constant change (without ‘change management’).

(5) Nature seeks diversity – new relations open up to new possibilities (not survival of the fittest).

(6) ‘Tinkering’ opens up to what is possible here and now – nature is not intent on finding perfect solutions.

(7) A living system cannot be steered or controlled – they can only be teased, nudged, titillated.

(8) A system changes (identity) when its perception of itself changes.

(9) All the answers do not exist ‘out there’ – we must (sometimes) experiment to find out what works.

(10) Who we are together is always different and more than who we are alone (possibility of emergence).

(11) We (human beings) are capable of self-organising – given the right conditions.

(12) Self-organisation shifts to a higher order.

What I understand of Don Beck’s work in Palestine shows clearly that he understands and incorporates these principles.

Diversity Rules – Especially if it Interacts!

It is also fair to say, I think, that an understanding of Spiral Dynamics Integral on its own (as if it were possible to separate this out from the living minds in which such understanding is embedded!) is not enough. So all the other development and change models that have been developed over the years can be very beneficial. I, personally, use Theory U (Otto Scharmer) as a guideline in some of my work to give me an insight into where I might be in a process and what might be the next step, what I might have overlooked or forgotten and, most importantly, what attitudes of consciousness might be most helpful for me to adopt to move things on.

I am part of a small-but-growing community of change agents inside the European Union (EU) Commission where we are experimenting with systemic change. The Commission is a huge rambling bureaucracy with real and valuable work to do in the world, but it is hampered (and knows it is) by it’s internal organisation into departments (silos) which tend to seal themselves off from each other and tend to compete rather than cooperate. So, we are playingwith different ways to get people to collaborate more in their work and to enter the necessary degree of authentic relationship with people elsewhere in the system (in other silos) who have other, crucial parts of the picture. In this connection I see how true it is that “a system changes when its perception of itself changes”. The community is also exercising (and exploring) collective leadershipas one of the principles of sustainable change.

In fractal terms, I see the same tendency towards’silo thinking’ sometimes in the various communities of interest I belong to. These communities are drawn together by their fascination and passion for their field of interest and practice. They often have a tendency to compete with other communities—and to look at ways in which their model or approach is better or more effective than the others. A conversation about Theory U (or any other approach)could go in that direction, but I would like to use it to raise another kind of question:

What is it that Theory U contributes to the field of human flourishing that wouldn’t be there without it?I ask the same question about Spiral Dynamics integral, the Chaordic model (Dee Hock), the art of hosting conversations that matter, the other developmental models (Kegan, Torbert & Cook-Greuter, Laske), Wilber’s Integral theory, Tarot as a presencing tool, Holacracy (See ILR, as a model of governance, systemic constellations as a tool for systemic insight and transformation, and so on. Each of these discoveries/inventions/insights adds something. And not one of them stands up on its own. Which reminds me, “In nature a living system participates in the development of its neighbour (an isolated system is doomed).”

To give an example, one of my current fascinations is how the different developmental theories fit together. I am acquainted with four or five of them, and have studied some in some depth. I experience the truth in each of them, so I can’t say one is better than another—and yet they are all different and I assume they each serve particularly well in particular contexts. SDi also does something that none of the others do, for example, is to map social currents so elegantly. The other models seem to me to be applicable to individuals alone. And yet, if I assume that all these models are different maps of the same territory, there are some complexities that mean I cannot map one model onto another without discrepancies. For example, if I take Laske’s scale of social-emotional development (based on Kegan with the refinement that he clearly and cleanly separates out social emotional development from cognitive development), I find I can’t just overlay it onto the SDi spiral, because somehow it seems to run perpendicular to it (which doesn’t make Laske horizontal where SDi is vertical). Laske’s different stages, like Kegan’s, look at how the individual constructs his/her reality, and where the focus is. Adult development starts at stage 2 (adolescent), which is very much about gratification of one’s own needs with an instrumental view of others as pawns to be manipulated .It moves to stage 3, with full ‘socialisation’ into the social norms—whatever ‘games’ the society at large happens to be playing. At this stage, conformity is key. Stage 4 brings individuation, when a person moves away from the conventional mindset to find his/her own voice and values, and one’s own integrity must be preserved at all costs. Stage 5 (Laske and Kegan venture no further) is where we begin to deconstruct ourselves, understanding, among other things, that we are not our values, but beings with the capacity to generate value systems. Our focus moves towards transparency and insight into that which is and the ways in which our own inner constructs distort that.

The reason why I’m laying all this out is to verify my understanding of how this system fits with the spiral. As I see it, the key lies in stage 3 (conventional), because a person can be completely identified with the social norm at any place on the spiral. I have seen this in my travels around Europe. You can be ‘stage 3’ in Greece, which is predominantly blue—or in Sweden, which is as green as you get. You can be identified with the counterculture as well as the culture. The point is that you are immersed (unaware) in a cultural surround. That is just one example of the way that the different models, when studied in relation to each other, can really add value (and I’m not claiming that SDi is valid only for social groups!!!)

Working Intentionally to Change Systems

Now we come to the work of changing systems (“Living systems cannot be steered or controlled – they can only be teased, nudged, titillated”). I make an assumption here that most readers are pretty interested in systemic change, one way and another. Personally, I cannot resist playing with it, whether or not it does any good. But I’ve watched ‘management’ try to steer and control the living system I am embedded in and the system just doesn’t want to play, thus leaving everybody feeling pretty frustrated and disempowered. Why is this? Because we only support those things we are a part of creating.That’s not because we’re stubborn or stupid; it’s because change needs to make sense to us.It needs to be meaningfulto us (here and now). Leaders with long-term vision can influence a system in a wise directiononly if they are partof the system. Reallypart of the system! When you are working on a system from outside (and don’t see yourself as part of the system), you can provide environmental stimuli, but you cannot determine how the system will respond to those stimuli.

In these circumstances, teaching Spiral Dynamics, the integral model, theory U or anything else makes no sense. They are just more models you’re trying to sell me (I’ve tried). What doesseem to work is a chaordic approach (See the Birth of the Chaordic Age, by Dee Hock). The word ‘chaord’ comes from merging ‘chaos’ and ‘order’, and describes the interface between these two forces of nature where living systems reside. (As compared with the interface between order and control, which is where traditional ‘management’ tends to reside!). The chaordic approach starts by identifying/responding to a needthat is sensed in the system. Some place of pain or discomfort (yes, the beta phase—the change conditions model used in SDi is a very valid description of the territory). Those who make the first move to address the need (the ‘early adapters’) come together to find a solution. Until they find a clear sense of collective purpose, nothing will move. But regular meeting to explore the situation in search of solutions will deepen the relationships in the group and help it to clarify the principlesthat will govern howthey pursue their purpose. A cohesive group with strong trust and a clear sense of collective purpose can move mountains. In this context, the practices of circle, Bohmian dialogueand action learningin conjunction with the movement down the left side of the Uwill help. Once the purpose and principles are clear, new people tend to be drawn into the group. The process experienced so far needs another iteration. Each time new people come in, they need to go through the process of gaining clarity of purpose and buying into the principles (or adapting them). All this is in aid of buy-in and understanding. We are building a living system that is creating its own solutions—concepts, organisational structures, products and even practices come later, almost as a by-product of the functioning living system.

Once this new living system—which is growing up inside the environment of, and as a generative response to, the dysfunctional old living system—starts engaging more actively with the surrounding system and encountering resistance (that can threaten its existence if it triggers the old system’s immune system), thatis when it will need—and be motivated—to learn new models and approaches (SDi among others) to wisely navigate the much more complex and entrenched older system. This is the stage at which we start moving up the right side of the U, prototyping in the new system.

If the new system is doing well and achieving results that the older system wants, more and more people will be drawn to join the new system. It is important to keep iterating the process of achieving collective clarity about the purpose of the system and its principles as the system grows while constantly sensing (presencing)into the needs in the environment and realigning purpose when necessary. The alignment with the larger environment is crucial in order to institutionalise the new ways of doing business in a sustainable way.

All this is, of course, is simply the sum of my own experience of working in the complex, multicultural, multilingual bureaucratic hierarchical system where I operate. I am aware that I am assuming that my perceptions are scalable and transferrable to other systems, and you will all be able to sense from your own experience whether that is the case.

Within the context of the small system (in my own case this is the small but growing community of change agents in the EU commission), I have found that it is important to attend to the deepening and development of the individual members of the group and of the community itself. While it is advisable to greet the larger system as we find it— everybody is entitled to be wherever they are on the spiral—it is important, as a newly emergent system evolving out of the older one, to maximise our chances of survival by building our individual and collective capacity for deep insight, flexibility and wise action. We do this through collective practices—like learning to ask challenging questions, presencing, systemic constellations, silence, circle practice, Bohmian dialogue, and the study of models—so that the group knows what each individual member knows and all members learn from each other and continually then take their collective practices to new levels. The diversity of backgrounds and contexts of the members makes it possible to bring the collective learning, wisdom and practices of the group to bear in the many different contexts in which the individual members habitually operate.

Evolutionary Leadership & Collective Leadership

This intentional work has to be set in a broader context of all the other movements emerging on the planet today, in particular the peer-to-peer movement in all its manifestations (which are being beautifully mapped by Michel Bauwens and his Foundation for Peer-to-Peer alternatives Michel, for one, is notafraid of the implications of verticality!

But this web of innovation and generative change is bubbling up spontaneously all over the planet without anybody engineering, coordinating or orchestrating it. It smells very much like evolution to me as we see it manifesting in the lower, collective quadrants. Synchronicity is at work everywhere in this brew. For example, the following quote (from a paper by the Tellus Institute) has literally just popped into my mailbox from a member of my ‘soul community’—a fellow community-straddler:

A specific type of leadership is emerging that is developing the authority and resources to convene and maintain the dialogues for developing shared visions and perspectives. Movement diplomats work to complement civil society’s paid staff, charismatic visionaries, influential philanthropists, community organizers, and organizational heads. Trained and supported directly by organizations or communities, these diplomats are charged with the task of building systemic coalitions. They translate the rhetoric of different factions, foster communication and find common ground. They provoke learning in their own organizations in addition to reaching out to form alliances. This new evolution in leadership includes core competencies of facilitation, strategic dialogue, systems thinking, and familiarity with future scenarios and the requirements of a sustainable world.

I can add to that list of capabilities: knowledge of many different models (including those I have referred to above), a wide network of deep and generative relationships with other such practitioners and diplomats, and an understanding of what kinds of interventions are most appropriate for what circumstances.

I’ll close with a quote from John Heron over on the p2p foundation’s forum ( in a discussion on ‘Hierarchy in peer-to-peer’:

Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership, as in the free software movement, is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members.

This also mirrored in the action researchmethod of co-operative inquiry. Someone launches an inquiry, co-opts participating co-inquirers, and initiates them into the methodology. Once they have internalized it, a genuine peer inquiry is under way with different members at different times taking spontaneous leadership initiatives which raise key issues for peer decision-making and thereby take the inquiry in fruitful directions.

…and beyond?

But it goes deeper than this. In my experience, it is no longer just about networks of individuals or groups of networks. Evolution is marching on in ways that aren’t showing up on all the radars. I do not yet have any evidence that it has been picked up by Ken Wilber and the integral crew, for example, though it may be one of the phenomena now emerging at SDi turquoise and beyond, at the collective level, at least: ” So human evolution has something to do with human consciousness awakening first to itself, then to its own evolution and to a recognition and finally an embodied experience of the ways in which we are organically part of a larger whole. As we enter this new stage of individual/collective awakening, individuals are being increasingly called to practice the new life-form composed of groups of individuated individuals merging their collective intelligence as the circle being. “(From my blog: Why the Next Buddha will be a Collective. You can read the whole blog here:

And of course, to create the conditions for these ‘circle beings’ to emerge, many of the practices I have mentioned throughout this essay are wickedly effective.


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Helen Tichen Beeth is a professional linguist, mother and full-time evolutionary agent, consciously living and working in Brussels, Belgium.