Feature Article: An Integral Approach to the Teaching of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Education Sciences

Cheryl Getz and Steve Gelb

Cheryl GetzSteve GelbThe challenge for leaders everywhere is to develop the knowledge and skills to manage the complexity of issues that dominate everyday life. Teaching leadership involves more than skill building and professional development. The teaching of leadership is a challenge that requires the kind of internal re-structuring which comes only from struggling through fundamental issues of meaning, purpose, complexity, and paradox (Leadership Institute, 2006). It requires attention to the wholeness of the individual—a more integrated and less fragmented approach than is often found in traditional leadership programs.

At the School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) at the University of San Diego we strive toward an innovative and integrated approach to the study of leadership. Our approach combines a variety of learning opportunities—available in our school and on the campus—to build an integral system in which students (graduates and undergraduates), faculty (full and part-time), staff, and administration can learn from and with one another. Given the imbedded and often impermeable hierarchical structures in higher education, this is a challenging task.

Leadership is the activity of getting people to tackle tough problems (adaptive challenges). Adaptive challenges are not like routine problems, which can be solved with technical solutions. Adaptive challenges require a change in attitude, habitual ways of doing things, and even deeply held values (Heifetz, 1994). Exercising leadership frequently means getting people to face the internal contradictions of the situation being addressed, to examine the unconscious processes, patterns, and mental models related to effectiveness, and, especially, identifying aspects of truth put forward from limited perspectives.

It is our view that the central task of leadership education is to develop students’ integral capacity for “second tier thinking” (Wilber, 2000), that is, the ability to value and work productively with the developmentally diverse perspectives of reality that are found among individuals and groups in organizations. The insight that the different, competing perspectives views are successive, developmentally nested approximations of reality allows a leader to make use of them all rather than to become trapped within one or another partial perspective. The task of the leader is to establish conditions so that organizations might “convert heaps into wholes, fragments into integration, alienation into cooperation” (Wilber, 2000, p. 26).

To accomplish this, leaders must be capable of moving beyond self-centeredness and becoming reactively identified with one piece of the whole. As Mark Gerzon (2006) explains, “the challenge of integral vision, which literally means ‘seeing’ or ‘holding’ the whole, is to balance this very natural allegiance to the part (‘partisan’) with an allegiance to what it is but a part of” (p. 111, emphasis in the original).

As an example, consider how competing, partial perspectives might be enacted in an organization whose repeated ethical failures have focused attention on the need for remediation. A host of competing solutions to fix the problem might be generated from within differing developmental perspectives. Those who believe there is only one right and wrong way to understand things might propose that what is needed is a strict code of rules with punitive and prompt punishment for wrongdoers. They might also propose that the organization strive more diligently to hire persons with the “right” views of things, or the right “character”, that is, those like themselves who also seek clear rules and punitive consequences for behavior. At another level, ethics might be seen as a value, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the bottom line. In this view, the public perception of the organization as ethically challenged is an obstruction that stands in the way of productivity. It is this perception, rather than the ethical climate itself, that must be engaged and changed. Solutions from this perspective, which are merely cosmetic and manipulative from other perspectives, might include hiring a public relations firm to improve the organization’s image and taking other visible steps to demonstrate to stakeholders that the problem has been resolved. At yet another level the problem might be seen as systemic and communal, generating solutions such as dialogue, relationship building and enhancement of the overall ethical climate through increasingly shared responsibility.

We can easily imagine representatives of the various positions attempting to persuade one another and the organization as a whole as to what should be done, each convinced that her or his partial perspective is the one and only solution to the problem. What is remarkable about such standoffs is that they are more prone to be perception rather than data generated. Adherents of each perspective assimilate the identified issue to their fixed worldview and generate solutions from within that perspective. Therefore, it is essential that leaders have the developmental capacity to move flexibly between perspectives and to hold contradictory truths so that they “can become part of the solution to the conflict rather than just adding [their] energy to it” (Gerzon, 2006, p. 112).

What is needed is a pedagogy that allows students to live and learn from the complexity of organizational life and which has the capacity to engage them at a deep emotional and intellectual level. Students need to experience the self-centered and partial nature of their own and others’ perspective and be challenged to move beyond them. We believe that group relations conferences focused on the dynamics of leadership and authority are a promising tool to increase students’ developmental capacity.

The group relations conference design is used in the US and abroad to engage a broad range of professionals in the study of leadership and authority. It is based on work that originated at the Tavistock Institute in London and has since been modified in a variety of ways depending on the participants, the venue and ultimately the goal of the program director(s). The work of Tavisock is rooted in a psychoanalytic understanding of groups and organizations, which emphasizes the group-as-a-whole perspective (Rice, 1965). This lens is useful in understanding how individuals, groups and organizations are part of influence relationships that are connected and interdependent. For example, in any group one is a member of there is likely to be someone who takes on the role of antagonist. It is highly likely that the behavior of this individual represents something for the group; such as the group’s anxiety about the task at hand, or a larger organizational issue that has remained under the surface at an unconscious level. Furthermore, if the antagonistic member of the group is asked to leave, or even if she leaves on her own will, it is probable that another member of the group will take on the role of the antagonist and similar issues will surface. This pattern is evident in many groups and organizations, yet unresolved organizational issues continue to fester, impede progress and frustrate those in positions of authority (French and Vince, 1999; Trist, Emery and Murray, 1997) We hope that our students develop the capacity to use all of the information available to them to analyze problems that arise in their own organizations, and to take a balcony perspective that includes an appreciation of the unconscious activity at the individual, group and organizational level.

The group relations conference/courses (conference and course are used interchangeably throughout) have become an integral component in our graduate programs in Leadership Studies, and they are becoming more central to some of the work we are doing with undergraduate students in our programs and on campus. The course is completed in a weekend and it includes a pre-session to introduce the theoretical underpinnings, and one or two follow up classes to help students review and apply their learning to the groups and organizations in which they live and work.

The pedagogy used for the group relations courses is designed to encourage students to take full responsibility for their own learning in ways that most have never experienced before. The typical over reliance on the instructor to lecture and tell students what they ought to know and learn, is unavailable to students in this course. This causes much anxiety for students who have learned through many years of education and training, to become receptacles of wisdom imbued by faculty who must know much more than they do, since they have formal positions within the institution. This anxiety is similar to and a result of a longing that we all share for the person in authority (the leader), to lead us out of the dilemmas we face, and basically resolve any challenges faced by the organization. The very anxiety that is created in this temporary organization is what generates many learning opportunities in this course, as students are subsequently encouraged to examine their own (and others) relationships with authority.

This examination seems simple and is described to them as a task (work) which is to study the groups and their own behavior in what is expressed as the “here and now.” In other words, they are asked to study their own actions and behaviors and those of their peers in a dynamic and ongoing process. The challenge for most students is the capacity to hold steady when they are confronted with questions from their peers about how they do or do not take up their authority in the various events during the conference. Students find themselves in a variety of roles (some are made explicit, and others are not), and since this is a temporary organization of sorts, they gain insights about themselves and others by experimenting with the roles they find themselves taking up.

For some who do not hold traditional positions of authority in an organization, the challenges of stepping into a new role can be intimidating, albeit invigorating. However, those who find themselves in roles that are more typical of the positions of authority they are comfortable with may find that the way others perceive them is often inconsistent with their own view of themselves. These contradictions along with the levels of anxiety that are heightened serve as the initial opening to new ways of looking at leadership, groups and the communities that form them. Thus, a dialogue that is informed, yet unencumbered, by traditional notions of leadership ensues, and the participants of the conference (students and faculty) are more able to see and value what is often unseen in traditional organizational settings. The unseen is the unconscious processes that are now accessible to students in ways they could not have previously imagined. This emotional and intellectual engagement presents the group-as-a-whole with a different type of data that is often intangible but nevertheless invaluable to one’s understanding of leadership and authority. Although the data may be intangible it exists because it is created by the self-knowledge that is often gained by introspection and observation, and expressed through individuals about the collective experience of the group.

Several faculty and Doctoral students in the Leadership Studies program have recently begun to study the impact of this work on people who have participated in the conferences held at our institution. Preliminary data is encouraging, and we anticipate the data will be consistent with our own experiences of growth and development as a result of this work. We recently collected preliminary quantitative data, using Q-sort methodology (Brown, 1980), which suggest that group relations conferences serve to shift participants’ understanding of leadership in the direction of complexity. At the beginning of a recent conference half the members shared a charismatic view of leadership that privileged a leader’s ability to inspire and motivate, exude self-confidence, and demonstrate assertiveness and discipline. In contrast, other participants were roughly divided between voices that we consider more integral and labeled “facilitator” and “egalitarian”. The facilitator perspective prized the ability to tolerate ambiguity, understand how people feel in groups, and recognize emotional issues affecting the group’s work. The egalitarian voice shared with the charismatic group the value of providing the group with inspiration and motivation, but unlike that group also prized getting others to feel part of decision-making and value personal and individual responsibility. At the end of the conference we observed a shift toward the two more integral factors. Then, 65 percent of members expressed either the facilitator or egalitarian perspective, while only 35 percent maintained the charismatic view.

We do not expect that all participants will let go of deeply help values or beliefs, although some do have this experience. Moreover, we do not claim that this work is a panacea to all of the leadership challenges our students will encounter. But, the powerful nature of this new lens is in the fact that it is informed by the divergent perspectives of those who in the past have been unable or unwilling to consider multiple points of view. As a result of gaining new insights and ways of understanding individuals, groups and organizations, students develop a greater capacity to hold-the-whole and thus to consider a more integral framing of the challenges they encounter in their own lives.

Brown, S. R. (1980). Political subjectivity: Applications of Q methodology in political science. New Haven, CN: Yale University.
French, R., & Vince R. (1999). Group relations, management, and organization. New York: Oxford University.
Gerzon, M. (2006). Developing integral vision: How leaders can learn to hold the whole. In (W. Link, T. Corral, and M. Gerzon (Eds.).Leadership is global: Co-creating a more humane and sustainable world (pp. 111-116). San Francisco: Shinnyo-en Foundation.
Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, M A: Harvard University Press.
Leadership Institute. University of San Diego School of leadership and Education Sciences, November, 2006. Accessed December 3, 2006.
Rice, A. K. (1965). Learning for leadership. London: Tavistock Publications.
Trist, E., Emery, F., Murray, H. (Eds.) (1997). The social engagement of social science: A Tavistock anthology, volume III: The socio-ecological perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Wilber, K. (2000). A theory of everything. Boston, M A: Shambhala Publications.

Cheryl Getz, PhD, is an assistant professor and the Director for the Leadership Studies program in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES). Her work is primarily in the area of Higher Education Administration, and group relations. She teaches courses in multicultural education for single subject teacher candidates, diversity for administrative credential candidates, race and culture in higher education, as well as other leadership courses for undergraduate and graduate students. Her main areas of research focus on power and privilege specifically related to issues of social identity. She also has a strong interest in the area of group relations and leadership training and its relationship to the understanding of power and privilege in educational settings. She has published and presented her work related to African American college student development, and educational awareness programs for other underrepresented groups.

Steve Gelb, PhD, pursues research interests and scholarship in the areas of the history of intellectual disability, parenting support programs for refugee families with young children, and the application of group relations work to educational psychology. In 1997 he was awarded a University Professorship for outstanding, balanced, career contributions supporting the mission and goals of the University of San Diego. A past editor of The Review of Education, he currently serves as the Director of Research for the Leadership Institute and teaches courses in the department of Learning and Teaching and in the Leadership Studies Doctoral Program.


Jose I. Tobon,

The SOLES approach (Getz & Gelb)to teaching leadership is very mature and modern. Their comments are very helpful. Congratulations