Dialogue: Integral Theory into Integral Action: Part 9

Mark Edwards and Russ Volckmann

In Part 8 of this dialogue Mark laid out six morphological categories of conceptual lenses. These categories are grouped according to their conceptual shape. The idea is that our explanations are deeply metaphorical and those metaphors can be categorized according to basic visual patterns. This is a kind of vision-logic at its most fundamental level of application. So the six types of lens morphologies are:

  • Holarchical (what)
  • Bipolar (why)
  • Cyclical (how)
  • Relational (when)
  • Standpoint (who)
  • Multimorphic (several questions)

Each of the morphological categories is loosely associated with particular types of questions about change. Holarchical lenses are useful for explaining the structural questions of “what” changes, bipolar lenses for the causal questions of “why” change occurs, cyclical lenses for the process questions of “how” it occurs, relational lenses for the contextual questions of “when” it occurs, standpoint lenses for the personal questions regarding “who” is involved in the change. The multimorphic category contains lenses that can be expressed can be in a variety of forms and can answer several of questions regarding change and transformation.

The helix form is a good example of the multimorphic category in that it is a combination of several of these lens morphologies. The helix can be combined with relational lenses like social mediation to explore metatheoretical questions involving helictical models.

Metatheory is useful for helping researchers discover blind spots while recognizing that leadership is about more than individual attitudes, beliefs, skills and behaviours. Metatheory connects middle-range or unit level theories. Russ closed by raising questions about mediation and Mark opens this portion with a clarification.

Russ VolckmannMark EdwardsMark: First, a small but important clarification. Russ, let me know if this is not the case, but I think you are associating the concept of mediating variable with the mediation lens that I have been referring to in our conversation. For me, these uses of the idea of “mediation” are quite different. The notion of mediation in developmental psychology is a difficult one especially when discussion of integral theory and suchlike are so steeped in the stage-based paradigm of human development. So, let me go into this a little.

There’s a crucial difference between a mediating variable and the idea of social mediation in human development. In the former usage, anything can be a mediating variable. If we are interested in the relationship between, for example, personal worldview and voting pattern then a mediating variable is anything that you see as intervening in that relationship. Variables such as whether you watch Fox News or not, how you were brought up, what your EQ score is, your developmental profile, what religious tradition you come from—all these can be mediating variables for the infinite number of ways in which worldviews are connected with voting behaviour. In terms of AQAL, the myriad of interior, exterior, developmental, individual, collective, type-related, or consciousness-related variables can all be mediating variables. It depends on what position they hold in the research question of how personal worldview and voting pattern are connected. The term mediation here is defined in terms of the research design. If “worldview” is the independent variable A and “voting behaviour” is the dependent variable C, and we are interested in how A is related to C, then any variable that can be seen as playing a facilitating role in that relationship can be our mediating variable B. We might hypothesis, for example, that some worldviews (independent variable) will be significantly correlated with particular voting preferences (dependent variable) depending on the birth order of the participant (mediating variable). In that case the research design will be set up so that we can answer the questions- Does birth order mediate the expression of personal worldview when someone votes?

Social mediation is not like this. It’s a metatheoretical lens that refers to some explanatory perspective that is shared by a particular paradigm or group of theories. This is a question of metatheory not of research design. The mediation lens is not concerned with identifying mediating variables. It is a particular orientation that is taken up by the researcher to investigate and explain the focus of interest. When social mediation is the metatheoretical interest then all relationships between “variables” in the research question will be concerned with mediation theory. To get a good feel for what the mediation lens means in terms of theoretical perspective have a read of this article: Zinchenko – (1996) It looks at mediation within a spiritual context.

So, onto more substantive issues. Russ, you say that you would like to see more research on the “relationship between cultural, situational, servant, etc. theories of leadership”. From a metatheoretical perspective this means that the lenses applied by cultural, situational, and servant leader theories of leadership need to be identified and systematised. Doing this within an integral context means using AQAL and other existing integrally informed metatheories as resources in this process. This could be done from scratch through the use of Ritzer’s MU approach (metatheorising for understanding) and then moving on to his MO (overarching metatheory building). A research study to do that would involve following the standard steps for doing conceptual research (only applied to metatheory building):

  1. Describe the domain of interest eg the relationship between servant and situation theories of leadership.
  2. Define the criteria for including/excluding theories.
  3. Perform multiparadigm review of leadership literature as per Gioia and Pitre (1990), Lewis and Grimes (1999) or Jasperson, Carte, Saunders and Butler (2002).
  4. Present and analyse results from the review (using techniques like bridging and bracketing).
  5. Collate and describe lenses using AQAL as a metatheoretical resource.
  6. Describe relationships between lenses.
  7. Describe the metatheoretical system based resulting from 5 & 6.
  8. Make some metaconjectures that are based on your metatheoretical findings
  9. Evaluate the metatheory (using theory building criteria of Parse, Ritzer, Wacker, Whetten, etc.).

Drawing on the list of lenses that I mentioned in our last exchange, I would suggest that the results of this analysis should at least include the interior-exterior lens, ecological holarchy lens and decentering lens (covering cultural theories), social mediation, internal-external, agency-communion, alignment and relational exchange lenses (covering situational theories) and governance holarchy (covering servant leadership theories). To these we might also find developmental holarchy and states lenses drawn from our resource of AQAL metatheory. The study could find which lenses or lens facets are dominant and which are absent or being neglected, how these omissions impact on the application of theory, what additional lenses might offer the study of leadership, how the use of particular lenses serves to build cross-disciplinary exchanges between various domains of leadership research. These are a few of the issues that might be considered in metatheorising research of this type.

Let’s move on now to this issue you raise of “what matrices would be useful to the exploration and study of leadership?” For me AQAL is one of several hundred metatheoretical matrices (what I call frameworks) that could be built through the combination of various metatheoretical lenses. The matrices that we have been building up in previous discussion show some of these meta-frameworks. The governance holarchy lens has been greatly underutilized as a deliberate lens for viewing leadership. Governance and leadership are closely related and so we can use the governance lens as a window into leadership theory. Picking up on your interest in the connection between culture and leadership let’s look at crossing interior-exterior and agency-communion with the governance lens and see where that takes us.

If you look back at a framework we explored in Part 7 of our dialogues you see that I crossed interior-exterior with agency-communion to form a framework for exploring the subjective and objective aspects of directive and relational forms of leadership (see in particular Figure 7.4). We can also do that within a governance context. Let’s take the governance lens and see it as three levels: the executive-governance levels of owners, boards and senior executives, the middle-governance levels of middle management, and the operational-governance levels of operational employees. Lets call these executive, middle and operations levels. Now under one reductive version of the governance holarchy, governance is seen as a capacity of the upper levels. This is the top-down understanding of leadership. Under another reductive version, the governance holarchy is seen as a function of the lower levels. This is the bottom-up perspective of participatory leadership theory. Under both these distorted uses of the governance lens the middle levels tend to get a bad press from both top-down and bottom up.

An integral use of this lens sees that each of these three levels involves aspects of leadership and followership in the performance of work. Each governance level can be seen as a part/member to more encompassing holons and as whole/manager to less encompassing holons. Each level needs to lead and follow according to the requirements of their governance level. Whatever the level of governance each holon possesses the capacity for agentic vision (AV), agentic action (AA), communal vision (CV), and communal action (CA). Most organisations do not recognise the full range of governance capacities in the various layers of their organisations. For example, in service organisations leadership and initiative taking is one of the most important yet unrecognised aspects of the daily work of operations levels. Reception, sales and service staff need to meet the needs of customers with intelligent and proactive behaviour, and yet, these operational levels are often regarded as mechanical implementers of top-down demands. Similarly, executive levels need to be visionary and proactive in their followership. By this I mean that they need to listen to their employees and to the environmental signals of the market and the communities in which they operate.

Cultural issues come out of every corner of this framework. Cultural issues in terms of style of leader-followership, corporate structure, the governance assumptions that are made in terms of pay and working conditions. The assumptions of top-down cultures of governance are creating vast distortions and pathologies within organisational and corporate life that are threatening the basic cohesiveness of social life. I regard the issues such as executive remuneration/corruption and the casualisation of operational employment as two indicators of this pathology. And it is particularly interesting that these indicators are seen in organisational life across the whole planet. Top-down assumptions have been globalised to a degree that crosses the traditional capitalist-communist divide. This is a new form of global colonisation that derives from pathological forms of governance in the corporate and organisational spheres, and I include within this the globalisation of organised crime (which, by the way, is actually the most challenging and pervasive form of non-state terrorism that we will have to deal with in the 21st century).

Governance and the agency-communion and interior-exterior lenses

Figure 9.1 shows how a metatheoretical framework for governance can be shown through the combination of these lenses. Theories of healthy (balanced) and pathological (unbalanced) governance can be developed from these frameworks. For example, Table 9.1 shows some governance pathologies as they might appear in the socio-cultural structures of the organisation. Agentic forms of pathology are often associated with top-down and capitalist or market-based theories of leadership and communal forms of pathology are associated with post-modernist and labour-based theories of leadership. These are some examples of how metatheorising can unlock new understandings of how leadership can be viewed.

Table 9. 1: Pathological forms of governance and its corresponding forms in organisational agency and communion.

Pathological forms of Governance Governance Characteristics of unbalanced leadership Agentic Forms of pathological governance Communal forms of pathological governance


Leadership is a capacity only of the “upper echelons”, decision-making flows from the top to the bottom The charismatic CEO is regarded as essential for any real and lasting transformation to occur The executives desire to consult and confer is endless and no action is taken


Leadership resides in the middle managerial layers, nothing happens unless middle levels provide their stamp of approval Middle management actively controls all organisational processes to promote their own growth and power Middle management levels grow so large that they threaten the effectiveness of the organisation


The only healthy form of leadership is participative, all governance hierarchy is pathological Active revolution usurps organisational structures and breakdown all management levels No governance emerges from the operational level because no-one assumes responsibility for participating in the governance process

Russ: Thank you very much for this clarification of the difference between a mediating variable and social mediation. This is a valuable and lucid presentation of various levels of analysis using AQAL metatheory. And while you may be itching to bring in additional metatheories, let’s keep our focus there for the moment, please.

What strikes me in the way you lay this out is that social mediation is a concept that can be used to describe the lenses we are using. In the governance example you have clearly demonstrated this as a means for analysing these perspectives in the creation and refinement of taxonomies and characteristics of leadership. However, two concerns come up for me.

First, the use of some language suggests a worldview or evaluative criteria that are not immediately apparent in the theory. Examples would be phrases like “the only healthy form of leadership” or the very notion of balance vs. unbalance and what is pathological or not. By this observation I do not mean to lead you into a defense of these concepts, but rather to suggest that there is some variable of judgment that is not explicit. Inevitably, explication of such variables lead us into the philosophical complexities of what constitutes the good, the beautiful and the true. I just don’t want to go there at this time. I am more interested in the how. I believe this relates to the processes and dynamics of the relationships among quadrants or cells and between individual and collective holons.

And there is another sense in which I was using mediating variables, that is, as factors that influence the nature of the interactions among other variables (a complex hornets nest of its own) and catalyse process. This is the second concern: how do we begin to get our thoughts around the relationships over time of the agentic-communal and interior-exterior, for example, in the context of governance. We could use other contexts, such as innovation, information flow or capacity building. We could also begin to look at the dynamics between individuals and collectives, the various cells in the 15-cell matrix.

I want to bring the models to life. Not that I don’t think the use of analytic tools, such as the concept of social mediation, isn’t important. On the contrary, it seems to me that anyone hoping to put together an atlas of leadership maps would need to attend to these. The example you offered is very useful in helping us see how we might go about that. And offers a preliminary response to the question I posed: “How can we address the myriad of developmental models at a metatheoretical level?” Perhaps as I read through the references you offer here, I will find other aspects that are equally useful. Yet, I am still left with my interest in how we might go about framing, presenting, and comprehending leadership in a more dynamic way.

I take your point that potentially anything could be a catalyst in the relationships among leaders and followers, among those leading and the collective organization, between organizations, and so on. I wonder if there is a way to think about such complexity that would be useful in helping potential leaders at any level of governance of involvement in other organizational processes prepare for complexity and the unexpected. I suppose it would also be useful to talk about the routine and the predictable, however, in most cases, I consider this to be more about management than leadership.

The behavioral and developmental dynamics of leadership can be guided by the use of metatheoretical maps. There is still a utility in also finding a way of including these dynamics in a more robust way in our mapping. Earlier in this dialogue I suggested such things as self-management, attune-ment, engagement and system evolution as categories with which we can be begin this exploration. I now wish to withdraw system evolution and find another word to suggest the relationship between LL and LR in an individual holon. It has something to do with a growing comprehension of complexity, since it is the individual’s view of culture and systems, for example. It is the individual’s view of the relationship between the communal interior and exterior. As such it is part of their meaning making process, but at the level of the communal aspect of self. As I think about these I feel like I am heading for a muddle.

I wonder if there is an alternative approach to this that would lead more quickly to clarity and value for understanding and anticipating the dynamics of leadership. For example, the concept of attunement is closely related to the idea of synchronization in which there are two (or more) dynamic variables that are in relation to each other. One example that could be used is how the pacemaker cells in the human heart find a common rhythm that produces the heartbeat. Another is the oft written about discovery of Christiaan Huygens who noticed that the ticking of clocks in his shop could be set apart, but would soon synchronize. Attunement is a dynamic process, ongoing, that seeks order in the face of chaos. James Greeno (1991) has written about the learning process as one of attunement, for example as the student’s ability to work with abstraction being attuned to the same conceptual domain of the teacher. In the case of governance, the process would involve the relationship between the agentic and communal visions.

As a person filling a leader or a follower role, I am immediately concerned about my own values and my own welfare regarding my agency, as I am those values and welfare I hold related to the communal. I am engaged in an ongoing processes of adjustment of the relationship between these two aspects of my being. What are some factors I might pay attention to in how I do this? Cognitive dissonance and body sensations are two examples that immediately spring to mind. Each can tell me that something is not attuned, that there is something I need to attend to in order to be in sync within myself. Otherwise, I am conflicted. Some level of conflict of this nature may be inevitable and valuable for the learning and development processes. From a process/time point of view I will be engaged in discovering and creating ways to attune these conflicts. My failure to do so could lead to dependency, uncertainty, indecision, and other potential dysfunctionalities in the sense that they pose other issues to be attuned, other dimensions of discovering, creating and learning. From a functional point of view, each of these may catalyse the conditions for my development.

I am reminded of Charles Hampden-Turner’s work, once again. His distinction related to process was between development and anomie. We all engage in both. It is a question for me of how we use these processes in ways that ultimately serve both agentic and communal values that serve the individual and the collective holarchies to achieve valued ends and means. And in exploring such questions the closest we have to a philosophical standard is the good, the true and the beautiful.

Perhaps it is my own developmental level that makes my head start to spin as I contemplate how the above paragraph may be just a representation of my own worldview, my center of gravity. I find myself foraging in a world of relativity with no unifying principle.

Mark, do you find this a useful line of inquiry or do you think we need to attend to additional understanding of metatheoretical taxonomies before going down this path?

Mark: It is crucial that we find life in our understandings. And that they inspire us to think creatively and with a kind of grounded sensitivity that is open to what is really there before us. When it’s like that, our understandings can find a place of dynamic harmony with our life purposes. Without that groundedness we can get too wrapped up in the models, theories and metatheories. They can spin us out if that dynamic centre of purpose is not present within our abstractions and intellectual musings.

Purpose is really closely connected to values—to what we value in life. All action and all theory has a values base—an axiology. It’s best that those values are made explicit and put up front in our theorising, because it will always be there in one way of another and it’s best that we place it there consciously. My values base appears in my metatheorising as this notion of balance-unbalance, health and pathology. Balance is dynamic—it shifts and is different for every subject/object (sobject with the emphasis on sob- J ). My values base in all these discussions is that we track our way through these meta-landscapes by the compass point of balance, balance in lenses, balance in their relationships and balance in how we apply them. It is not only the developmental lens that can act as our values guide in all this. Being second or third tier at anything in no way assures us of balance. I personally have met one or two very insightful and creative individuals who had a deep spiritual awareness who were quite unbalanced as persons. In the same way I think AQAL can be applied very accurately but without balance.

I base my critique of theory on this values base. The phrase “the only healthy form of leadership” is not my view, it is my characterisation of those unbalanced theories (as I see them) that apply only one facet of a lens (in this case the governance holarchy) to the topic area of the theory. My purpose here is to call out the unconscious, shadow side of theory. When our partial views take concrete form in theory, then we had better watch out. They have a tendency to recreate the world and us in their own image. When we build an organisation that is based on the theory that work is all about raising production so that shareholder wealth can be maximised, then we create a world in which people act and feel like “performance units”. When we observe people in factories that are built on such theories (for example, Taylorism and “scientific management theory”, see Oswald, 2000) what we see is that people start to feel and behave like cogs on a wheel. Theoretical lenses shape bricks and mortar just as much as reality influences our ideas of it. Theory and practice are embedded in one another—they are different but they are also mutualising. They give birth to each other through their inter-relations.

I use the health-pathology lens as a compass to keep my bearings in all this. Because metatheory has a postmodernist deconstructive intent to lay bare what has been previously hidden, it must also have some way of finding a reconstructive path to the further shore. Balance and the lack of it, as defined in my metatheorising about lenses, is my compass in finding my way through the landscape of metatheory. In AQAL metatheory the burden falls almost exclusively on the developmental lens and I think this is a mistake. All lenses have healthy and distorted forms. Many, many theorists have proposed models that set up healthy and pathological ideal types in their theories. Robert Quinn’s work on management makes explicit use of this type of theory building. Many theories dealing with paradox are also sensitive to this health-pathology area. It’s not surprising that Quinn, Kim Cameron and Andrew van de Ven all have grappled with the issue of paradox in organisations and each of them have offered forms of scholarship that try to navigate these issues in a “positive” and “engaged” way.

I derive from their work and that of other a lens that is sensitive to healthy-balanced and pathological-unbalanced forms of those ideal types. When I cross that lens with any other lens I provide a way to navigate though the jungle of lenses that metatheory building can produce.

Of course, in doing this I also make clear my own distortions and limitations, but at least that is a conscious process. Every developmental sphere has its shadow and the shadow side of science is not so much the emotional shadow of disowned feelings as it is disowned theory. The first thing to do in raising our awareness of the shadow side of theory is to see what (genuine) theories we ignore or regard as nonsense. Metatheorising is important because its existence depends on recognising the full range of perspectives that are out there. In this way metatheorising mediates the emergence of a more embracing scientific consciousness.

Metatheorising is a reflexive process—in that it lays open the lenses of other theories and produces ideas which can then provide material for further metatheoretical analysis. There’s no end to this iterative process. That’s why metatheory can easily turn in on itself and become self-confirming dogma. (How do you know the Bible is true? Because it says so in the Bible. How do I know that AQAL-based propositions are true? Because when I follow AQAL logics I come to that conclusion). There are at least four things that stop that reflexive trap of self-confirmation. First, is the communal and transparent scrutinisation of all criticism. The relationship between a community of inquiry and its critics is a strong indication of its maturity. Second is the ongoing need to return to the “data”, the actual content of other theory (I use “theory” here in the very broad sense of a coherent explanation of some phenomenon which is embedded in some cultural practice). Third, is the need to collect and analyse the “data” (theory elements) in a systematic and methodical way (which integral metatheorists don’t do at the moment). Fourth, is the public examination and evaluation of the metatheory within a community of inquiry via accepted criteria of evaluation (also rather weakly done at present).

As I say metatheory is about other theory. Metatheorists identify the contributions and limitations of other theory according to their arguments and evidence. This is a reflexive process that requires the researcher to practice self-doubt. That can give rise to spin-outs and confusions at many stages in the process and that is exactly how it should be. If there are no periods of confusion there is no possibility for reframing or re-cognising the limits of our own maps and compasses.

Russ: I find it remarkable how clearly you have thought through the role of metatheory and its relationship with values. In my case I have a history of resistance to concepts like balance and health because they have connotations of perfection, “perfect balance,” “perfect health.” I am not implying that you use these concepts this way, but my resistance to such static notions has been active in my own way of thinking about things. Instead, I have tended more toward a functionality view.

A functionalist view implies that all phenomena have intended and unintended consequences that occur in a non-linear set of events. Many of these are thereby unpredictable. In addition, really challenging and painful events can and do lead to more immediately valued subsequent events. I suppose this is a historical view, as well. Does it mean that I value all events equally? No. I do prefer the ones that have health, beauty, joy and clarity. I do value the ones that bring these to others, as well as myself. And I recognize that really, really painful events can lead to really, really wonderful experiences.

I have a friend, for example, from an island in the Pacific, who was married at a young age to a man who subsequently raped her and beat her over a period of years. Finally, she freed herself of this relationship and met another man who has brought much more joy into her life and who truly loves her. Yet, this does not mean her life is without its trials and pain, as well as its joys.

Likewise, I know an executive who made a very big mistake in his work. His response was to lose a great deal of his self-confidence. He lived in the fear that this mistake would haunt him throughout his career. After working with a coach, much of his self-confidence has returned. He has been promoted and received rewards and recognition that are viewed by his peers as quite extraordinary.

Both of these stories take me to the other side of metatheory, the world of application. I think it is essential that we be clear about our values and intentions when we seek to create, to explain, to engage in generative acts and processes. Our values and worldviews are the juice of our intentions. And this takes me directly to why I have invested so much of myself in the evolution of the Integral Leadership Review and why I value so much this conversation with you.

I see a world in great need of healing. This is not new. It has always been true.

I find in metatheory and particularly integral theory, the potential for addressing this need. It has seemed as though we have long engineered our responses to challenges (and opportunities) in the world in such a way that provides evidence of the functionalist lens that I described above. We build dams that control flooding and destroy species. We fertilize crops in ways that multiply the productivity of the land and feed millions, yet we poison ourselves in the process. When we poison ourselves, we create more efficient and hopefully less toxic fertilizers that lead to high yields and better health for millions. And then a new strain of bacteria attacks…

Through metatheory and integral theory as an example of that, perhaps we can find ways of being that will not alter our functionalist, dare I say it, “reality.” I am not seeking a utopian future. Rather, I am seeking ways of being and learning and doing that help us anticipate, create and implement activities that reduce the destructiveness of our being and doing in the universe while increasing our capacity to nourish evolutionary life.

The Integral Leadership Review is one way I have of trying to contribute to this effort. I agree with you that the developmental lens is but one. Notions of health, beauty, balance and truth are examples of others. After all, development is about learning—another value I hold in high esteem. I hope that what is being produced and distributed can contribute to the processes that enhance these values and diminish the destructiveness of the failure of such values.

Given all of that—and I must admit that I feel somewhat awkward in this discussion of values—our dialogue is about metatheory and it is about how it helps us realize the insights from metatheory in the world, in pursuit of our intentions. And it is more specifically about integral theory as an evolving way of comprehending our lives and our world. I personally must confess ignorance of any competing metatheory and would prefer to think about how such alternatives might be better integrated into integral theory. And just as important, my intention is to demonstrate how a metatheory, integral theory, can make a positive difference in realizing our intentions and minimizing our suffering. I do not say eliminating our suffering, because like Siddharta we have discovered that suffering is part of our life condition. And like Siddharta, we can face our suffering and seek to discover the gems of life that emanate from it.

The study of leadership—its practice, development and its theories—holds promise for helping us to do just that. This is not because we long for heroes, although heroes we will have. It is because the vital life of all of us in realizing our intentions is expressed in how we see our lives and our world and how we choose to act in our perceptions and understandings. Leadership is a vital phenomenon in this process. Rarely do we have the opportunity to do it alone. Realizing our intentions almost always involves interactions with others and leadership dynamics show up in these relationships.

So, Mark, what say you? How do we move forward from here in a way that not only embraces our discussion of metatheory—for, surely, this is a valuable contribution to those interested in such perspectives—and continuously test these frameworks, these constructs, these dynamics in the crucibles of leadership? For on this we are agreed: metatheory is about theory. And I do hope we also agree that metatheory provides us utility for embracing values of balance and health.

Mark: These examples you mention of transformation coming out of pain and the mistakes that we make in our lives – this strike an immediate resonance in me. There is a movement here between repeating the old patterns of hurt and harm and an opening up to the possibility of change. To move from one form to another—the risk involved in trans- forming ourselves and the worlds around us. It’s like the tightrope walker in that, through underbalancing and overbalancing, we find some dynamic temporary moment of balance and then we step forward. I’ve heard human movement people speak of the act of walking as a process of falling. The body falls forward, the foot moves forward to stop us from tumbling and a step is taken to regain a dynamic balance for a while and then purpose moves us out of that and we fall again. I wrote a song some years ago for a friend about something like this. The words went:

I’m falling
I’m falling through the sound, I’m singing
I’m singing of a ground that won’t break me
Never gonna shake my star

I’m dreaming
I’m dreaming of a song, I’m hearing
I hear that it belongs to the angels
Dancing in my helpless heart

I’m sliding
I’m sliding through the space, Of two worlds
The shadow and the grace of a player
Searching for the only one

It’s this movement between the falling dance of walking and the ground we move over that I see the context for evaluating balance and unbalance; healthy movement and pathological fixation. The dynamic stability of a graceful movement. But humanity is not dancing with joy and balance on the planet at the moment. Mostly we’re trampling and kicking, thrashing about, bruising our shins, stubbing our toes when we could be walking with a little more elegance through the magnificent landscape of our countries. We are suffering from the illness of madly trying to get somewhere, achieve growth, spread democracy, improve ourselves, possess something, entertain ourselves, prove we are faster, show how masterly we are as we stumble over the land harming it, harming our neighbours and ourselves. A little balance in all this won’t go astray.

And balance is a complex and a beautiful thing. A delicate mixture between left and right, up and down, in and out. The balance lens is a way of looking at a graceful theoretical movement. A way of assessing the poise and the stability of our theory building. Balance is also a powerful thing in metatheory. It can move economies towards excess and illusion or towards greater peace and creativity. Have you ever seen those movies where the huge bank vault door weighing several tons is so perfectly balanced that a single hand can close it over. When we are in balance we have the power to move immensely weighty matters.

I see the planet now as being in a state of overbalanced falling. We are gracelessly stumbling and I’m not sure that we really see how precariously balanced we are. Metatheory for me is a way of measuring our balance. A means for assessing the “generalised orientations” we use to find out where on earth and where in space we are. Sometimes when we are immersed in the thoughts and actions of achieving “the goal” it’s almost impossible to estimate how we are actually doing. Like those poor kids on American and Australian Idol who try so hard to reach that note while sounding so bad. Submerged in the dream of achieving stardom, they have no idea that they are falling off the notes like a tumbling house of cards. No one has ever told them that they can’t sing. They are too close to themselves. Their’s no reflexivity there (their idealised “me”, to use Mead’s term, is too underdeveloped). We can’t do metatheory without taking that step apart. Because it has a reflexive distance, metatheory can tell if there’s a tuneful balance in our dancing and singing – so we get some idea of how we’re doing before that big audition on Judgement Day.

How do we move forward from here? Well, we’re in a bit of a dance here together, Russ. Both of us leading and following, going in circles sometimes, stepping on each others toes a little, but we seem to be having some fun. My sense is that we need to ground all this a little more on some solid earth—perhaps an issue, an event, a vision of the future, a policy.

As your wonderful interviews with so many true leaders demonstrate, leadership is not something apart from being human, just doing the usual human thing of making decisions, taking that step forward. We all lead, we all follow. You lead, I follow, I lead, you follow. The metaphor of dance seems to be in fashion in leadership circles at the moment (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2006; Kan, 2007), and it’s certainly very, very appropriate. This is the dynamic balance that critical metatheorising is really all about. Finding those points of balance—the Middle Way. The words meditate and mediate both have their roots in the Indo-European prefix “med-“ which means “in the appropriate measure” (American-Heritage®, 2000). What’s appropriate – it depends on what lenses we are using and how those lens might be distorted and how we might be using those broken lenses to build unbalanced organisations and then we all have to pay for that. The point of balance is really not definable, its always moving, beyond the ends that surround it. That’s what my critical lens of balance/imbalance is trying to tap into. It often falls short, but then if there’s no falling, there’s no dancing.

Russ: Leave it to you to come up with the Dance of Leadership. What could be more grounding? And you a song writer!

Well, the metaphor seems apt, particular when put in the context of your discussion of falling/balance. While it is a bit like Gertrude Stein’s comments about Oakland, California (“There is no there, there”) it serves to underscore a point that is relevant about metatheory, models, maps and phenomena like leadership. There is no point at which it is complete, no end state.

That is one of the valuable insights of Spiral Dynamics and work that people like Steve McIntosh (2007) are doing. We are in process: falling, overbalancing, falling…In leadership we are in process: leading, following, wandering aimlessly…The process goes on in all human social systems. Now I say all somewhat advisably, but this is why we need to watch the movie, even when we have some pretty remarkable still shots, to be able to see dance, leadership, the sequence in which horses hooves touch the ground when they are galloping. We need to understand leadership as a dynamic field.

And I think we are almost to the point of grounding this conversation, but there are some things I think we need to consider first. One is, how do we embrace developmental psychology in the metatheoretical perspective we have been dancing with? Clearly, the notion of levels of development, cognitive, emotional, volitional (or with some other set of categories) lends itself very well to the construct of holarchy, a hierarchy of holons. I know that you have drawn on the work of Vygotsky in some of your earlier work, so you may wish to address that, as well.

Adult developmental psychology does not hold a place of major significance in most treatments of leadership. It has been only recently that we are beginning to see its applications in the work, for example, of Beck and Cowan, in articles published in various places, including this journal, and in the consideration of emotional intelligence in relation to leadership (Riggio, et al 2002). Steve McIntosh (2007) differs with Ken Wilber’s notion of lines of development as represented in a psychograph. The psychograph maps these lines independently. McIntosh suggests a clustering of lines or aspects of development within the framework of volition (with a focus on values), cognition and emotion. It is a way of organizing that is more organic as these are overlapping categories, thus opening more possibilities in thinking about the relationships among developmental lines or streams.

One model for an approach is Goleman and his associates (2002) in various publications that have, to date, produced 18 key emotional intelligences related to leadership. These intelligences relate to self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management. When we use their Hay-McBer 360º assessment, the intelligences are examined in relation to four levels of development. However, each level is really about a skill level, a level of competence that transcends and includes all of the lower levels. For example, when looking at self-confidence, there are these levels:

  • Is confident in job capability.
  • Believes in oneself.
  • Is self-assured.
  • Has presence.

Now, I do not wish to get into a critique of these representations, but I am simply pointing out that levels are thought of as competencies.

Michael Commons’ theory states that we can measure developmental stages of performance on a task at a given order of complexity. This can be applied to individuals and societies, anything that can perform a task, be it organism or machine. It can be applied to individuals and collectives. It can be focused on what is agentic and communal. So, the critical variables here are complexity of a task and corresponding developmental performance. I understand his work to suggest that hi Model of Hierarchical Complexity does not account for everything. It is about stages, but “does not account for periods and seasons in life, maturity, aging, non-stage differences in preference (interests), attention, drive, strength, speed, etc. It depends on learning and motivation to have any psychological application.”

One of the attractions for me to both Commons’ ideas and spiral dynamics is that the concepts can be applied to individuals and to collectives or to the agentic and the communal. In a conversation recently, I heard that the reason Wilber has moved away from spiral dynamics is that its focus is too much on the collective and not enough on the individual—that the development of the framework is not sophisticated enough to address individuals and their development satisfactorily. I doubt that is really what Wilber’s “departure” is all about, but this raises a question that is relevant to our discussion of holarchies and stage models, developmental models and well as analytic models. We have an opportunity at this juncture to move from the “flatland” of the holon to the richness of the holarchy as an approach to metatheory and, ultimately, to explorations of leadership.

Mark: You’ve certainly (re)opened up a lot of very interesting issues here Russ. As always you are rightly wanting to explore the movie of leadership as well as the still shot. And the moving image of leadership as a kind of graceful act of falling and recovery is one that I find to be useful. And I want get into this issue that you raise concerning development and of how we “embrace developmental psychology” within this metatheoretical perspective we have been “dancing with”.

The developmental perspective is attuned to seeing the changing nature of events and experiences. But development can be explained in many different ways. It can be seen as the unfolding of discontinuous stages (be they hard or soft), as the accumulation of incremental changes in thinking and behaviour, as the expression of change in the interior structures of individual persons and as the history of exterior activities and collective social structures. It can also be seen as an innate aspect of the interior or as the impact of the exterior situations and conditions. There can be many different ways of explaining developmental phenomena. AQAL metatheory has focused almost exclusively on the stage-based approach where development is seen as the holarchical emergence of qualitatively new forms of complexity and capacities. This is, what I call, the developmental holarchy lens. However, this is only one among many other explanatory lenses that might be used to describe and understand transformation.

We could look at the developmental stages of leadership not in terms of the interior structures of individual CEOs, but in terms of the cultural climate of the social world in which leadership occurs. Some theorists say that it makes no difference who or what the CEO is or does. What really counts is the socio-cultural context in which he/she makes decisions and it is those contexts that will throw up a particular decision or approach to an issue. In other words it is not the developmental level of the executive that counts. It is the mediation of social climates, the strictures of cultural proclivities, the collective demands of past ways of doing and seeing or the dominant modes of communication that decide whether we transform or not. I think it is a grave mistake to translate every issue of growth into a question of stage-based developmentalism. I’m not wanting to underestimate the huge relevance of the developmental holarchy to reaching our true potential to dealing with the immense problems that we are currently faced with in the world of organisations and leadership, but there are many instances where the developmental holarchy lens is not the most relevant lens to use in finding our way through an issue.

I agree completely that developmental level is a crucial aspect of all transformational processes and that this has been a lens that has been severely neglected in the past. But I think that stressing the role of the developmental holarchy lens, that AQAL and SD and DAI have so importantly drawn attention to, has reinforced that old view that we need some “Great Leader” to lead us out of our troubles. We need a messiah to transform us. The redeeming CEO who will say the word and we will all follow to some new promised land. This is a big mistake. I don’t think that is how transformation occurs. If integral metatheorists see social transformation as resulting from the developmental genius of individuals then it is being dangerously reductive. The use of the developmental lens has to be much more sophisticated that that. We need to combine it with and differentiate it from many other lenses if we are to see how stage-based development aligns with other aspects of transformation. Here are some further thoughts along these lines, i.e. how we can use the developmental lens with greater sophistication and in ways that show greater respect towards other theories of change.

  • It is useful to apply the developmental lens not only to individuals but also to groups, to organisations and to larger social collectives. Don’t look only at the raising of CEO consciousness levels but of boards, executive levels and other decision-making bodies of governance that might exist in any level of the organisation. When consciousness is seen as a collective phenomenon then we can open up to the inclusion of entirely new approaches towards the development of greater awareness and more effective action.
  • The developmental lens needs to be combined with mediational understandings of transformation. It is not only through the emergence of new subjective and intersubjective structures of consciousness that transformation occurs but through the adoption of new behaviours and interobjective patterns of activity. Look to change in the activity environments of leaders rather than to their beliefs, values, and states/stages of consciousness.
  • The developmental lens needs to be differentiated from the holarchies of space and power (ecology and governance). Development in consciousness is not the same thing as, nor does it account for, holarchies of ecology or governance. If we apply the developmental lens to all situations we can overestimate the importance of levels and forget about the fragile ecological position that humanity occupies on the planet. Our future will be precarious if we develop our consciousness while at the same time dominate ecologies with our own developmental priorities. Within an organisation this means that the most enlightened CEO can still preside over organisations that are abusive and destructive towards the ecologies that they inhabit. When we equate the web-of-life ecological concerns with the emergence-of-life developmental concerns we risk assuming that the achievement of one will also mean the achievement of the other and this is not the case at all.
  • The developmental lens needs to be balanced with other lenses. If our theories assume that transformation comes from a CEO (or, to include the systems side, a system of governance) who is “second tier”, highly aware and possessing intense developmental sensitivities we will not apply other lenses that are just as crucial for theorising about leadership. What’s the use of having a CEO that is highly developed in terms of levels but is overly individualistic or aggressively agentic or lacks sensitivity to exteriors signals or disregards stakeholder concerns or assumes that control and power comes from the top?

All this can be brought back to a simple observation. There are undoubtedly many highly developed individuals leading companies around the world. And yet those organisations can be engaged in the production of products and services that result in extremely destructive and harmful outcomes for people, communities and natural environments. How do we explain this? How is that some of our brightest and best, our most highly educated, resourceful, innovative and charismatic leaders can be found running organisations that make money from products and services that eat up natural resources while adding absolutely nothing to the sum welfare of the planet. What does it matter if a CEO is at second tier or not if their company produces handguns or violent video games or exploits their workers? Transformational leadership for me is not only about the transformation of a CEO’s consciousness. In fact, I think that there are a great many highly developed CEO’s out there but I see very little evidence of any similar level of transformational organising going on. If we use the developmental lens as the dominant mode of representing, explaining and assessing integral forms of leadership, we will be greatly underutilising the theoretical capacity that integral metatheorising opens up. At the worst we will be reinforcing those rather hackneyed but still very powerful old myths about the redeeming hero who will save us through the transformative power of their personality.

Russ: Seems we are going down two parallel tracks and it satisfies both the need to look at the notion of development and its application in the dance of leadership. Your suggestion of looking at either individual or context (culture/system) can be easily transformed—in our meaning making—into both individual and collective, both agentic and communal. Thus, we have no noticeable difference in our handling of the first item of these four you list above.

Two ways of thinking about development for both is in terms of stages and in terms of a more chaotic model in which all is ever present. I imagine most reading this are familiar with stage models: spiral dynamics, Kegan, Loevinger/Cook-Greuter/Torbert, Fowler, etc. I am not familiar with much of the literature on development, assuming there is some beyond anecdotal treatments that embrace a more chaotic model.

By chaotic model, I mean one that suggests that all is ever present (is it any wonder that the connections between the quantum and spiritual worlds is so celebrated?). One approach that seems to me to suggest this does come from one of the spiral dynamics authors, Don Beck. I do not recall this being in the book—or in other publications by the authors. I have heard Don Beck talk about the “spiral within.” I do not recall exactly how he discusses this idea, but I infer from it that all of the stages are ever present in each of us and in all collective contexts. This makes it possible to talk about context as a mediating factor in what emerges.

For example, I live where I have a view of the ocean (actually, Monterey Bay) as I am writing this. Being in this context, today, brings a sense of peace to me. It is living in the kind of balance you describe above. The water is calm; any breakers are modest. It is a context in which I feel calm and able to focus inward or outward by choice. I sense that this context promotes my being in touch with my higher stages of consciousness. By this I mean that I can reflect on my inner state and my connection with the universe that embraces and surrounds this beautiful scene.

There are times, like last week when I saw breakers over twenty feet high crashing against the rocks and spraying sea water high into the sky and up onto the land. The spray would go higher than a two story house sitting at least twenty five feet above the water on a small bluff. This was a time of excitement and energy that drew my attention away from myself to the world around me. I felt a sense of readiness that I discovered only retrospectively. This sense puts me more in touch with my defences for survival in the face of physical threat.

Thus, the potential for virtually any “stage” in being ever present can be evoked by context, what we have been calling mediators or mediating factors. And how do we treat holarchy or any hierarchical construct if we take this more quantum view and apply it to human dynamics, individual or collective? Well, I suppose the answer is that both are maps. Each map shows variations in location and topography. Each has its contribution to make to our comprehending position and variance. Each thus helps us see or make meaning in useful ways. I would be interested in your comments on this, but I assume that by embracing both we make way for the path to integrate variable notions of development.

Recall this sentence in your second point: “Look to change in the activity environments of leaders rather than to their beliefs, values, and states/stages of consciousness.” I would suggest a shift from “rather than” to a both/and approach that suggests that all are relevant, else why bother with an integral metamodel. With that modification I very much agree that we need to consider all of this. We cannot understand the implications of a CEO’s action and intentions until we also consider the relationship among these and how the CEO comprehends culture and systems in context. We cannot understand the implications of a CEO’s action and intentions, together with her perspectives on culture and systems, without considering the collective context of culture and systems from second and third party perspectives, as well as metacontexts of metaculture and metasystems from similar perspectives. By examining the CEO we get this from a first person perspective.

All of this contributes to accomplishing your third point, that is, to suggesting differentiation among maps of individual, context and metacontext. And I think my comments to this point also support your fourth point.

By implication from all of this, if we are to appreciate the phenomenon of leadership in business or any other social institution over time, we must take into account all of the cells in the fifteen cell matrix we have been “dancing” with in this dialogue. If we are to make meaning out of the actions of any individual, no matter what role they are in and according to our interest in a leader role, we must take into account all of the cells in the fifteen cell matrix, as well. I am left with two immediate concerns.

First, how to we make sense of the concept of development in a parsimonious way in relation to the fifteen cell matrix? Second, what is the role of developmental models in relation to mediating factors? I am intrigued here. The waves are rising and I feel a sense of excitement. I sense that we are about to see rising crests of the surface of our understanding. Are you with me at this point?

Mark: I concur with the need for “both/and” language, as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore would say “Not only but also”. So for me, theories of organisational development (i.e. transformation) can be looked at using any single lens or any combination of lenses from the 24 that appear in Table 8.1 of the last part of our conversations. The stage-based developmental holarchy lens is only one, a very crucial one, but only one of the many ways that development can be explained and explored. Consequently, development can be viewed through the stages lens AND each of the other 23 lenses either individually or in combination with one another.

The matrix that we developed (see Figure 8.2) brings together 6 of these lenses. The issue of parsimony then kicks in to force us to pare down our interests and to focus on the applying only those lenses that we see as relevant to the task at hand. This way, we always recognise that our theories and visions of development are always more complex and more elusive than we can capture in a single metatheory. We will always be leaving something out. It’s much better in metatheory building to recognise the multiplicity of views and the boundaries of our attempts to explain than to assume that all theories and all phenomena can be integrated into our “Theory of Everything”. This latter use of metatheory leads to the swallowing up of other theories rather than an appreciation of them. It leads to the assimilation of theories and their lenses into the pre-existing categories of our metatheory rather than the ongoing development of metatheory to accommodate new and challenging ideas.

Getting back to how we can view transformative events, Figure 8.2 shows that transformation can be looked at through six very different lenses – the developmental holarchy, the ecological holarchy, interior-exterior, agency-communion, natural perspectives and social mediation. Each of these lenses will offer different explanations of transformation.

  • Developmental holarchy: Transformation is a discontinuous shift from one stage of identity to a qualitatively different stage. The deep features of these stages follow a pattern that moves from preconventional to conventional to postconventional to post-postconventional stages. This process is non-linear in that the movement through the stages is not progressively sequential. However, the deep features of these stages do unfold in a regular way through a pattern of inclusive emergence (transcend-and-include).
  • Ecological holarchy: Transformation includes all ecological levels of the social entity – from the micro to the meso to the macro. In the same way that wetness is as much a property of the water droplet as it is of the ocean, individual transformation cannot be separated from collective transformation. It is through the multilevel (i.e. micro-meso-macro) investigation of change that we come to understand and explain the nature of the transformational event/experience.
  • Interior-exterior: Transformation can be explained using the interior qualities of intentionality, subjective experience, feelings, thoughts and experiences and the exterior qualities of behaviour, objective experience, actions, embodiments, systems and objects. Transformation does not first occur interiorly and then affect behaviour. Both are co-existent. One informs the other. They are real dualisms that mutually co-create each other. Changing behaviour changes intentions. Changing thoughts changes embodies action.
  • Agency-communion. Transformation can be explained using the agentic qualities of decisive action, task-focused direction, self-centred expression and one-pointedness. It can also be explained in terms relational action, other-centred expression, multi-pointedness, networking and multi-directionality. Transformation is the movement from one of these poles to a more inclusive orientation that embraces and acts from both as the occasion demands.
  • Perspectives: Transformation occurs within and can be explained from first, second and third person realities. This brings in the reflexive descriptions of change as occurring within “me, you, s/he” and within the subjective inquiry into “me, you, s/he”, and the relational inquiry into “me, you, s/he”, and the objective inquiry into “me, you, s/he”, etc., etc. This reflexivity breaks down the assumption of absoluteness and/or epistemological privilege that can accompany any particular theory of transformation. There is a centring and decentring movement that challenges assumed methods of studying transformational phenomena.
  • Social Mediation: Transformation is the educational movement that arises in the space between individual and social agents. It is the unfolding of the depth of the exteriors that is communicated to the potentials that lie dormant within the individual. Radical change is mediated by social objects and actions. Personal consciousness emerges through the social actions of exterior objects, systems and structures.

We can do the same for each of the 24 lenses in how they might be used to explain leadership. The following table (Table 9.2) sets this out according to the morphological categories that were described at the beginning of this conversation.

Table 9.2 Integral lenses and theories of radical change leadership

Integral Lenses Theories of Leadership
Holarchical lenses 1. Developmental holarchy Leaders are post-conventional and will therefore lead their organisations towards post-conventional stages of functioning and identity.
2. Deep structure Leaders as change agents for an organisation’s deep structures.
3. Ecological holarchy Leaders as change agents across the micro, meso and macro worlds – transforming individuals, groups, and the organisation.
4. Governance holarchy Leaders as leader-followers, servant-leaders who are present at every organisational level and support change in all decision-making roles.
Bipolar lenses 5. Interior-exterior Leaders as consciousness-raisers & behavioural models, motivating interior transformation and behavioural transformation.
6. Transform-translate Leaders as transformational and translational agents; encouraging both transformative shift and translational stability.
7. Internal-external Leaders as inspirational models for internal change and challenging prophets for external entities.
8. Agency-communion Leaders as autonomous directors & relational communicators, making bold and visionary decisions AND listening/implementing the ideas of colleagues.
9. Health-pathology (balanced-fragmented) Leaders as holistic healers of fragmented and unhealthy states of organising, promoting a balanced unity while aware of conflict and separation.
Cyclical lenses 10. System dynamics Leaders as catalysts for bringing order out of chaos, dynamic change agents within chaordic system that transform it towards integrative complexity.
11. Learning Leaders as students and teachers who learn from and educate the individuals, groups and organisations with whom they work.
12. Transition Process Leaders as initiators & supporters of transition processes, particularly during the “dark night” phases of transformation.
13. Inclusive emergence Leaders as representatives of the whole who ensure that formative modes of organising are integrated within each new transformational stage.
14. Evolutionary Leaders as evolutionary agent, supporting experimentation, selecting innovation, retaining and reproducing the new.
Standpoint lenses 15. Stakeholder Leaders as representatives of all stakeholders from the margins to the centre, from the executive level to the community and environmental level.
16. Personal perspective Leaders as multi-perspectival inquirers, able to take the perspective of “the other” particularly those marginalised by change/no change
17. Postmodern (decentring) Leaders as critics to those at the centre and advocates for those at the margins, as transformers of power relations and social structures
18. States of consciousness Leaders as possessors of transformed state of awareness, conscious of new potentials and orientations towards social realities.
Relational lenses 19. Mediation Leaders as mediators and communicators, as carriers of transformation, mediating the process of transformation to the whole organisation.
20. Alignment Leaders as resolvers of difference, as peacemakers and facilitators who align the organisation and its members with transformational imperatives.
21. Relational exchange Leaders as enablers of all relationships, as agents of exchange for all essential modes of organisation-environment relations.
Multi-morphic lenses 22. Spirituality Leaders as sage, seer, prophet, as sources of wisdom & insight for the organisation and its members.
23. Organisational streams Leaders as multidimensional “Everyman” meeting the multiple demands that transformation asks of the organisations and its members.
24. Types Leaders as archetypes, e.g. hero-heroine, leader-servant, acting as an exemplar, model and archetype for other organisational members.

My claim is that these explanatory lenses can be used to generate any of the basic models, theories, typologies and paradigms that currently exist in the leadership literature. Table 9.2 is a type of leadership genome but, as with the human genome project, it does not describe the almost infinite variety of lens combinations (leadership chromosomes) that can be used to explore theories of leadership. Naturally, the developmental lens is essential to all this but, as you can see from the above, it is only part of the story.

As to how we might explore it further, I’m up for suggestions. Figure 8.2 maps out one possibility. There are many, many others.

Russ: Mark, you’ve done it again. Allow me to stand in awe for a decade or two…

Or forge ahead and let the devil take the hindmost!

Okay. That the table (9.2) is awesome in its scope and detail should be patently obvious to anyone. And yet, it addresses only the leader and not the phenomenon of leadership, unless…


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