Integral For the Masses: Perpetual Change – The Integral Leader’s Challenge

Keith Bellamy

Keith BellamyWhilst threatening to expose both how long in the tooth I am and my slightly warped musical tastes I have to admit that one of my favorite recordings of all time is The Yes Album by the band Yes (there was a clear thread of Zen influence on the Progressive Rock scene back in 1971 when it was released.) Purchased initially on vinyl, I confess to having owned copies in 8-track, cassette, CD and mini-disk formats as well as the ubiquitous MP3 and I-tunes variants.

This album has seen me through many stages of life from university, to marriage, to raising children, to divorce, to remarriage, to emigration, to today. It has acted as a rock and an anchor in my life bringing moments of stability in what, in hindsight, feels like an incredibly turbulent passage interspersed with periods of increased chaos (and I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it). From a totally unbiased perspective, I do not believe that there is a bad track on this album, and can think of no therapeutic modality that compares with slipping on a set of headphones and letting the music dissolve the daily stresses of modern life.

If I have to be honest, I think that my favorite track is the final song on the album, appropriately titled “Perpetual Change.” Can there be a more fitting anthem to summarize the life and times not only that we find ourselves in today, but that which those baby- boomers amongst us have had to experience since the middle of the 20th Century? Sadly, it has taken me 36 years to realize just how important this track has been in my life, but I tend to be bit slow at times. Of greater significance, I believe, is the criticality of Perpetual Change as we look at it through the lens of Integral Theory and its implication for leaders and their behaviours in today’s world of accelerating transformation.

And the deeper I delve, the spookier it gets and the more appreciative I have become of Jon Anderson’s lyrics for this track. After years of singing his words, much to the chagrin of fellow travelers on the London & New York Subway Systems, I have only just started to recognize just what a visionary the man was. Whilst Ken Wilber was dropping out of post-grad school, waiting tables and pulling the words together that would ultimately emerge as the Spectrum of Consciousness, Anderson was writing words that would reflect Wilber’s thinking more than 30 years later.

In the second verse of Perpetual Change, Anderson writes:

“ I learn in every single day, Inside Out, Outside In, Everyway.”

Not the greatest lines of poetry ever written but a reference to the need to take a multi-perspectival view of change and transformation if we are ever to truly understand what is happening around us. In my humble opinion, Wilber’s introduction of perspectives into the framework of his Integral Theory has not been given the recognition and significance that it deserves as yet. If Steve Jobs were to have launched Wilber V in a manner akin to the way he introduced the Leopard operating system, when he came to the concept of inside and outside perspectives, he would just have used the phrase, “this is huge!”

For leaders aspiring to adopt an integral approach to their leadership practice, nothing can have greater impact than the ability to hold both an inside and an outside perspective of the enterprise that they lead. Learning to hold both perspectives at the same time, being able to recognise where they potentially conflict and diverge, and to take appropriate actions that reconcile such differences maximizes the potential for healthy growth in the Enterprise and consequential success, however that may be measured.

My first experience of this disconnection between an inside perspective and outside perspective arose soon after I started working for a major international bank. I was invited by the head of the Business Banking Division to attend his team’s annual strategy and planning session. As an outsider, I was made welcome by all present and as they got down to business, they seemed to lose track of the fact that there was an interloper in their midst, they started to express their passion in the plans that they were putting forward for the coming year.

The longer I listened to the conversations, the more confused I found myself becoming. As a recent past user of the services provided by this division of the bank there was a complete disconnect between the world as they were describing it and that which I had actually experienced. At first, I thought it was my lack of understanding of their jargon and Three Letter Acronyms. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this was not the cause of my discomfort and started to go through a set of mental gymnastics to try to understand why this wasn’t making any sense.

My perplexity must have displayed itself vividly on my face, as the EVP of the division, out of the blue, asked if I had any thoughts or ideas to contribute to the discussion. As silence lingered over the assembled masses of Business Banking’s best minds, there was an expectation that I would contribute something about the state of the art of technology and its potential to convert the ideas and concepts that they were toying with into reality and a contribution to the bottom line. Fully expecting to launch into a pre-prepared, spontaneous monologue on how bits & bytes were replacing bricks & mortar, I found myself asking the following questions:

“How many of you around the table have ever been a real customer of this bank? Not the cosseted [my pleasure] staff banking service but having to really use the services that we provide?”

When the silence abated, it transpired not a single person sitting around the table had ever had to use the bank’s services, personal or business, as the eight million customers of the bank do day in day out. Nearly everybody had joined the bank from university as part of the management development program and had made enormous progress in their careers, but they had never been a customer; never had the experience of standing on line at a branch to get access to their money; never experienced the highs and lows of the interacting with bank staff who either go the extra mile or the “jobs-worths” (as in “it’s more than my jobs worth to do that, sir!”) who block even the simplest request.

In my audaciousness, I asked a second question:

“If you have never been a customer, how can you know what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of these plans that you are currently postulating?” To this there was much more pushback. We ask them through surveys and focus groups. We know what they are thinking. But when pushed they had to admit that they had no way of knowing what it felt like to be a customer.

To his credit the EVP of the division took this lack of inability to take an outside perspective seriously and instituted a number of changes such as seconding “fast track” individuals to spend time working for real customers and recruiting middle and senior managers into the division who had experience of being the Bank’s customers. Whilst not perfect, it helped get more things right than wrong especially compared to competitors as the Bank transformed from a predominantly Bricks & Mortar to Bits & Bytes enterprise.

More interestingly, he also had the illuminating insight that this concept of inside/outside applied just as much internally as it did externally. When his senior management team was considering changes (normally job cuts) in a particular department or function, the majority of the team could act in an objective impassionate manner at the decision being taken. The head of the department or function often found him/herself out of alignment with the rest of the team as (s)he would take an inside view. In an attempt to bridge this gap, the EVP mandated that at least once a quarter, all members of his executive team would spend a minimum of three days “inside” a department other than the one that they were responsible for. Again, the quality of the decisions the team found itself making improved considerably.

So how does an “Integral Leader” face up to the challenge of being able to hold both an inside and an outside view of their Enterprise simultaneously? I would say that the jury is still out on this one and this is a subject around which we will be hearing a great deal more in the months and years ahead. Whilst I am not a great fan of lists that pretend to have all the answers to important questions like this, I am prepared to offer Bellamy’s incomplete list that will not do any more than scratch the surface of this challenge:

  • First acknowledge that there is a need to hold both views if you are to best serve your enterprise. If you do not accept that it makes any difference from adopting a mono-perspective, then read no further. Come back in a couple of years time when you might be ready. Oh, and drop the pretense of being an Integral leader, at least for the time being.
  • Recognise your dominant perspective with respect to the Enterprise or sub-enterprise entity that you are responsible for taking decisions about and start to allocate time in your highly hurried diary where you can spend time just taking the other perspective. This is a tough one because you need to be thinking of setting aside at least half a day a fortnight or even a week.
  • Surround yourself with individuals who you know will take the alternative perspective from that which dominates your outlook. So if you are constrained to an inside perspective, consider using consultants to challenge you; if you are predominantly an outsider, seek to have an insider work on your team. When you find yourself strongly disagreeing with the viewpoint of the individual from the other side, accept the fact that you are not considering the alternative perspective.
  • When you find yourself strongly agreeing with individuals who represent the other perspective, take stock and determine whether you or they have flipped sides. If this turns out to be the case, it is time to change your advisors.
  • Introduce an inside-out perspective checkpoint into you decision cycle. This should come just before you make each decision. How you do this will, of course be personal and might include arguing the rationale behind the decision with a trusted individual and identifying both the elements of inside and outside thinking that has been included in the decision. It might be taking some time to meditate and contemplate on the two perspectives’ input to the decision. As I alluded to above, I don’t pretend to have all the answers just yet.
  • When you do find yourself regularly holding both perspectives simultaneously, give yourself a little pat on the back before realizing that it requires constant practice if you are not going to be dragged back into your dominant mode of action.

We live in a world of perpetual change that is accelerating. The one thing that an Integral Leader does not have is time to fully weigh all the consequences of any decisions that (s)he has to take. Taking Jon Anderson’s advice to see everything inside out & outside in might just be an invaluable tool for the 21st century.