Feature Article: Leadership in Requisite Organization: A Spiral Dynamics Perspective

Herb Koplowitz, Ph.D.

Herb Koplowitz

koplowitz photoThis paper has two purposes. First, it is an exploration and explanation of leadership as it is understood within Requisite Organization (Jaques 1996). RO (Requisite Organization) is a total systems approach to designing, staffing and managing the workplace. Most people who work in organization design or organization development have not heard of it or of Elliott Jaques who was its major designer. Jaques is so unknown, in fact, that there is a small literature on why he is unknown (Harvey, 1999) and his theory is so hard to understand (Solaas 2003). Among those in the field who do know of RO, many dismiss the approach because they find it too hierarchical, unrealistically dry or impractical. Yet there are dozens of companies that have successfully grounded their design and management in RO principles and hundreds of practitioners around the world who find that RO helps them make sense of the workplace and its problems, gives them powerful insights into how things work and powerful solutions to workplace problems. A recent conference of academics, business people and consultants drew 140 people from 11 countries and its follow up this year is expected to draw twice as many people from more countries. It takes a 520-page annotated bibliography to summarize the research that has been done on RO (Craddock 2007). Part of my first purpose is to explain why opinions of RO are so split.

The second purpose of the paper is to use this exploration of the meaning of “leadership” as a demonstration of an approach to definition of terms. “Leadership”, like much of the vocabulary of organizations, has clearer connotations than denotation. Read the management advice column in your local newspaper or comments in listserves or listen in on conversations about the workplace and you will get the impression that managers are stodgy, mechanistic, and autocratic attempting only to do things right while leaders are inspiring, inclusive and exciting, attempting to do the right things. While it is clear that our field considers it better to be a leader than a manager, none of these connotations tells us exactly what a leader or a manager is.

A shared understanding of the meaning of commonly used terms, the denotation of the words, is a prerequisite for dialogue. Ask any civil engineer from anywhere in the world what work is and they will say it is force applied over a distance and they all have the same understanding of what that means. But ask 30 management consultants or organizational psychologists what a leader is and you will get 30 answers and there will be significant differences among them. We cannot meaningfully discuss whether leaders must be inspirational unless we have a shared understanding of the meaning of “leader”. In well-established disciplines like civil engineering, dialogue is possible because the technical terms all have shared univocal definitions. Authors of articles in physics or civil engineering journals do not have to define terms like “force” or “work” because anyone reading the article will understand those terms as the author intends them. In our field, however, when authors use terms like “leader” and “manager” without defining them, the reader’s understanding of the article may be very different from what the author intended. (And our authors rarely do define their terms.)

Given the lack of consensus aboutleadership, there is no way in which one definition of “leadership” can be said to be “correct” or “more accurate” than another. It is, of course, meaningful to ask which of two definitions is more useful under certain circumstances. But to engage in dialogue about such a question we must first be clear about the meaning each of us gives the terms we use if those terms are in danger of being significantly ambiguous. The second purpose of this paper is to conduct an exercise in comparison of such definitions.

I shall explain the RO understanding of “leadership”, compare it with two other definitions and relate them to the contexts they operate in. The contexts will be viewed through two frameworks, Spiral Dynamics (as expressed by Don Beck 1996) and Requisite Organization (Jaques 1996; Jaques & Cason 1994). The exploration will take this path:

  1. Three definitions and their origins and purposes
  2. Description of RO and the role of leadership in it
  3. Description of Spiral Dynamics and its implications for RO and leadership
  4. Conclusion and implications

1. Three Definitions of Leadership

Within RO, Jaques gives “leadership” the following definition:

Leadership is setting a vision and coordinating the work of others in achieving it.

I will compare it to two others.

Joseph Rost’s

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and collaborators who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” (Rost 1991)

Russ Volckmann’s

“A leader is an individual who draws on the skills required to be self-aware, to self-manage, to comprehend the state of attunement between her own beliefs and what she perceives in the culture, to understand the relationship between her own behavior and her perceptions of the structures, systems and technologies of her organization or institution and who commits herself to the evolution of her own worldview by taking action with others to create real change.” (Volckmann, 2006).

Jaques’s definition often elicits negative responses:

  • “Leaders inspire, and there is no inspiration in this definition.”
  • “Leadership is warm but this is cold.”
  • “This is management, not leadership.” (This comment is often made without the offer of alternative definitions of “manager” and “leader”.)

His definition appears different from the other two in several ways:

  • In contrast to both alternate definitions, Jaques’s has no reference to “real” or “significant” change and no explicit reference to change of any kind. Also, Jaques’s definition has connotations of the leader’s doing something to followers (coordinating their work) while the other two definitions connote being together with others (“collaborators” for Rost, “taking action with others” for Volckmann).
  • In contrast to Rost’s definition, Jaques’s lacks any reference to influence or mutual purpose.
  • In contrast to Volckmann’s, it lacks reference to self awareness or self management, relationship between the leader and the culture or organization they operate in, and development of one’s worldview

I would like to show that these three definitions are more compatible than they might seem. The major difference between Jaques’s definition and the others’ is his assumption of certain requisite conditions. I will next describe those conditions and then show how they affect the need for and exercise of managerial leadership. Jaques considered that there was no “leader” role, that there is no role whose sole accountability is to exercise leadership. Leadership is always an accountability of a role that has additional accountabilities. Leadership in different contexts may require different practices. This paper focuses on managerial leadership.

2. Intro to Requisite Organization

The Three Levels of Requisite Organization

Jaques’s organizational engineering describes the requisite conditions for managerial leaderships. Engineering develops templates (e.g. regarding the difference in complexity between an employee’s role and their manager’s role) and methods (e.g. ways of assessing capability) that are grounded in science which, in turn, is structured by a conceptual framework. These are the same three levels comprising any complete discipline such as medicine or civil engineering. (Koplowitz 2007, Solaas 2007) I will explain what those three levels are and give some examples of the content of RO at each level.

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework is the system of concepts we use to make sense of and describe the issues addressed by the discipline, in this case, the work place. Our conceptual framework influences what we pay attention to and how we diagnose organizational problems. It is the conceptual aspect of what Kuhn (1962) called a “paradigm”. Following are some elements of RO’s conceptual framework most relevant to the discussion of leadership:

  • Complexity of work in a role. One role can be said to require more complex work than another and the complexity of the work in a role can be measured.
  • Cognitive capacity of a person. We can say of two people that one of them can do more complex work than the other and we can assess the level of complexity an individual can handle. We call this property of a person their “cognitive capacity,” also referred to as capacity for information processing (CIP) and mental complexity.
  • Responsibility vs. accountability. Your holding me accountable is different from my feeling responsible.
  • Capability. An individual’s capability to work is determined by their cognitive capacity, skills and knowledge and their values (motivation—this assumes that the individual is not hindered by alcoholism, uncontrollable rage, crippling anxiety, etc.).

The conceptual framework determines what data we look for and how we make sense of the data we observe. It is the lens through which we view organizations and people at work in them. Because of this, we tend not to change our conceptual frameworks easily. If, for example, it does not make sense to you that one person has more potential than another, if you understand performance to result solely from skills and determination, no data will convince you to accept the concept of cognitive capacity. Those data will be assimilated to and interpreted by your own concept of capability. In Kuhn’s term, RO requires some people to operate from a new paradigm. Likewise, at this point it would take a paradigm shift for me to not see cognitive capacity as a dimension of a person.


Science is the system of facts and causal relationships that describes objective reality, the aspects of reality we all see in the same way. You and I may disagree about how beautiful a painting is, but we should agree on how long and wide it is. And we should equally observe that that a metal rod gets longer as it gets hotter. These objective aspects of reality are what science relates to and the conceptual framework gives us the terms that the science is expressed in. Here are some of the facts and causal relationships in RO’s science that will be useful in the discussion of leadership:

  • Complexity is discontinuous. That is, one role may require work qualitatively more complex than another. This allows us to stratify roles from Stratum I at which adult-level work begins, to Stratum VIII, the work of the CEO of a super-corporation (IBM, Exxon-Mobil, etc.).
  • Capability is discontinuous. People generally accept, value and benefit from guidance and ongoing accountability more from someone a stratum more capable than themselves than from someone at their own level.
  • People will fail at work beyond their own level of capability and will generally be bored in work at below their own level of capability.
  • Cognitive capacity matures at predictable rates. No means has been found of accelerating its development.
  • Treating people with disrespect lowers trust.

These are all testable propositions and have significant implications for leadership.


Engineering constructs a system of methods and templates for solving real-life problems, in this case, the problems of effectively pursuing strategic targets in an efficient and trust-building manner. In contrast to craft, which is grounded in precedent, engineering is grounded in science (Koplowitz 20076, Solaas 2007). Each RO template is justified by scientific facts or causal relationships.

  • Define “employee” as someone who, in exchange for a salary, is accountable for a) working with full commitment on tasks assigned by their manager b) giving their manager their best advice and c) staying within policy: If you make the employee accountable for their own output (e.g. by giving them bonuses for their output) you make it difficult for their manager to get them to do work that is not bonused. This definition makes the employee optimally useful as a resource for their manager.
  • Define “manager” as an employee accountable for a) their subordinates’ outputs and working behaviour, b) developing a team of capable subordinates, c) exercising leadership (as defined above) and d) continuous improvement. Subordinate roles are a resource given to a manager, so the manager is accountable for the value the organization gains from that resource. (These four accountabilities define the term “manager” in RO.)
  • Give managers the authority to a) hold subordinates accountable for working on assigned tasks, b) rate the subordinate’s effectiveness and assign them a merit bonus within policy, c) veto the appointment of an employee as a subordinate of theirs and d) initiate removal of a subordinate from their team. Without giving managers these authorities it is unreasonable to give them the accountabilities described above.
  • Give each employee a manager one stratum above them: A manager at the same stratum as the subordinate will not be able to add managerial value to the subordinate and the subordinate may resent taking direction from someone who feels more like a peer. A manager two or more strata above may become impatient with the subordinate and the subordinate may have difficulty understanding the manager.
  • Give each employee one manager: An employee with more than one manager will be pulled in two directions and will lose trust in the organization.
  • Establish and enforce a policy requiring all employees to treat each other with respect.

Leadership is exercised through nine managerial leadership practices. Five of them are in engagement with individual subordinates: 1) selection and integration of new employees, 2) assigning tasks and adjusting them as circumstances change, 3) monitoring subordinates’ work and coaching them on it to become better in their current role (mentoring, understood as working with an employee regarding their future in the organization, is conducted by the MoR—manager once removed, the manager’s manager—who also ensures that the manager practices good management). 4) assessing personal effectiveness and assigning merit bonuses within policy, and 5) deselection and dismissal. The remaining four practices are in engagement with the team: 1) context setting, 2) team building, 3) team planning, and 4) continuous improvement (Jaques 1996, pp. 99 – 114).

All of these practices are conducted in dialogue. That is, the employee is accountable to give their manager their best advice and the manager is accountable to consider the advice; to do otherwise would be to assume that the employee has nothing of value to add to the decision, and that would be disrespectful. But the decision is then made by the manager; if the manager is required to achieve any type of consensus before making a decision, it would be unfair to hold the manager to account for their subordinates’ output.

Requisite Organization offers templates and methods for design of structure, staffing, talent pool development, team work, compensation, etc. and all of the templates and methods are compatible with each other. The system is clearly hierarchical and designed to maximize organizational effectiveness. At the same time, it maximizes opportunity for employees and ensures that they are treated with respect. I next wish to show how such a system affects the need for and exercise of leadership. It should be apparent that the various pieces of the RO model are interdependent with each other. As Harald Solaas (2003) said, “Good managerial leadership is not the effect of something individuals have, either innate or acquired, but of a managerial system.” That entire system is rarely fully in place.

Leadership in the Context of Requisite Organization

In Section 1 I introduced the following three definitions:

  • Jaques: leadership is setting a vision and coordinating the work of others in achieving it.
  • Rost: leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and collaborators who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.
  • Volckmann: A leader is an individual who draws on the skills required to be self-aware, to self-manage, to comprehend the state of attunement between her own beliefs and what she perceives in the culture, to understand the relationship between her own behavior and her perceptions of the structures, systems and technologies of her organization or institution and who commits herself to the evolution of her own worldview by taking action with others to create real change.

I will now review the differences observed between Jaques’s definition and the other two but interpret them in light of his assumption of requisite conditions. It will be clear that the requisite conditions are not always in place, even in organizations that attempt to use RO templates and methods. But it is the assumption of these conditions that makes the three definitions much more compatible than they at first appear to be.

  • Jaques’s definition has no reference to “real” or “significant” change and no explicit reference to change of any kind.
  • In the requisite context, a manager is accountable for continuous improvement, so change is an implicit part of managerial leadership. And in that context, it is expected that employees will be given tasks that make use of the full extent of their capabilities, so managerial leaders will be asked to make changes as significant and as real as they are capable of making.
  • Jaques’s definition has connotations of the leader’s doing something to followers (coordinating their work) while the other two definitions connote being together with others (“collaborators” for Rost, “taking action with others” for Volckmann).
  • RO is clearly hierarchical, and employees lack the accountabilities and authorities their managers have, but this in no way prohibits collaboration. To begin with, employees are in dialogue with each other and with their manager. Also, in building teamwork, the manager – after dialogue with subordinates – determines how the work of each subordinate interacts with the work of the others. This clarity facilitates better collaboration.
  • Jaques’s definition lacks any reference to influence or mutual purpose.
  • Jaques had earlier defined leadership as the ability (or accountability) “to influence one or more others – followers – willingly to accept the leader’s purpose and goals and all to move in the direction set by the leader by suffusing authority with leadership practices appropriate for that role” (Jaques 1996, p. 95). He changed his definition on realizing that the managerial leader has no need to influence subordinates as they already agreed, on becoming employees, to work on any task assigned them by their manager. Employees must value the work they do or they will not do it as well as they can, so a mutual purpose is also an assumed condition; the manager is engaging subordinates in work they want to do.
  • Jaques’s definition lacks reference to self awareness or self management
  • RO does not guarantee managerial leaders with advanced social skills nor with exceptional insight into themselves. But it does aim for managers who can add value to their subordinates’ work, who held accountable for developing their subordinates and for treating them with respect. The manager-subordinate relationship is intended to be supportive without being intrusive. I believe the requisite conditions bring about the support that self awareness and self management are expected to result in.
  • Jaques’s definition lacks reference to development of one’s worldview
  • Every manager has a manager who coaches them to be better in their current role. Every manager has an MoR (manager once removed, manager’s manager) who mentors them to be better prepared for future roles. The expectation is that managers’ world view will be expanding

The intentions of the various definitions are not as far apart as they might appear. The difference lies more in the assumptions made about the context in which leadership is exercised.

3. Spiral Dynamics and Its Implications For RO and Leadership

Why would Jaques assume conditions that others do not assume? Why do some practitioners find the RO model so appealing while others find it disturbing? I got my first clue to this puzzle some time in the early 1990’s when Brian Brittain, a colleague of mine, attended a half-day introduction to Requisite Organization given by Jaques. As people filed out of the session at the end, Brian observed “older men in dark suits who loved everything they had heard, for all the wrong reasons, and younger women who hated everything they heard, for all the wrong reasons.” What he meant was that the men mistakenly heard in Jaques’s defence of hierarchy support for their own rather brutal style of management. The women, whom he believed valued collegiality and respect, made the same mistake. They assumed that Jaques approved the type of hierarchy they had experienced and rejected.

Don Beck (Beck and Cowan 2006) has made a study of the kinds of values, norms and beliefs that separated those two groups in Jaques’s lecture. His Spiral Dynamics identifies distinct stages of development that cultures go through whether they be national cultures or cultures of work organizations or of families. As a group meets more complex challenges, it must attain better coordination among its members. This requires changes of beliefs, values and behavioural norms. The development of a culture is not continuous. Certain constellations of beliefs, values and norms coalesce and work harmoniously with each other and define a stage of development. A group will not move out of its current stage unless challenged to by its environment. Authors typically identify eight or nine stages of cultural development, but I would like to focus on three of them, colour coded as orange, green and yellow (the colours have no special significance other than that warm colours are used to refer to cultures focused on the individual while cool colours, alternating with the warm, refer to cultures focused on the collective) the fifth, sixth and seventh stages. I believe that the assumptions made about leadership are, in effect, assumptions made about stage of cultural development.

I shall draw largely on Mehltretter and Carter (2007) in describing these three stages and their relationship to leadership.

Orange, Green and Yellow

The three stages are illustrated briefly in Table 1 below.

koplowitz table 1


Orange, the fifth stage, is “interested in better, faster, cheaper” as manifested by “the total quality movement of the 80’s and 90’s. The tools and templates found in this model embrace bottom line results, continuous improvement, and increasing quality. Management by Objectives, In Search of Excellence, and the One Minute Manager are consistent with …orange.”

These orange values have a healthy place within organizations, but can become unhealthy when overdone. When the “crunching numbers” becomes the sole focus of an organization, employees become just another resource to be used and discarded in an effort to reach “the goal”. When bonus programs and commission sales systems begin to pit one employee or department against another, the system can become toxic.”

The focus in orange is on the individual, e.g. the objectives an individual is to work towards. There is little in such a system to foster collaboration, dialogue or respect. It would take a leader of exceptional self awareness and self management to resist the pull of the culture and actually bring about collaboration and respect for employees.


Eventually, orange leads to burnout. In reaction to this, executives work “with coaches to learn how to process their emotions, to negotiate win-win solutions, to become sensitive to the needs and desires of others…[They are] called upon to be stewards and servants, not movers and shakers. Organizational development consultants …call for dialogue, conflict resolution training, and appreciative inquiry as a means for enhancing communication, facilitating sharing, and creating learning organizations. Employees …[are] called upon to be open, cooperate, and collaborate….However, a parallel reality is in play during this harmonious time. …[In green],…systems and structure are generally either downplayed or completely dismantled. This hard-won freedom eventually becomes a huge liability in the green organization as it struggles to balance intense competition, caring for its people, managing its business, interacting with partners, and vendors all at the hands of long-atrophied systems. Eventually green organizations find that the cost of caring for people becomes too great.”

The green values of collaboration and respect are advances over the orange competitiveness. But a green culture may turn respect into political correctness and denial of real and significant differences. The focus on the collective may prevent individual accountability which is required for the next stage of coordination. But it is not at all surprising that individual accountability, which implies hierarchy, would be resisted by people whose only understanding of hierarchy is as it was practiced in orange.


The yellow stage accepts the inevitability of change. It requires big picture views and integrative structures; teamwork cannot be expected to happen freely of its own accord at this level of complexity. While there is respect for the individual, individual differences are recognized. And while collaboration is valued, it is achieved through individual accountability.

This, I believe, is the stage that Jaques had in mind when he described RO. Those who expect orange or green cultures will be suspicious of it. After all, orange will reject it when it recognizes it because it requires too much respect for the individual and too much planning of integrative systems. And green will reject it because it looks like orange to them.

Leadership In a Spiral Dynamics Context

The developmental stage of a culture determines not only how leadership is practiced but also how it is described and defined. When comparing definitions of “leadership” it becomes useful to examine the cultural and systems assumptions behind the definition.

4. Conclusion and Implications

If we were studying leadership within a wolf pack or a herd of elephants to determine significant characteristics of the leader, we would be engaged in science. We would be describing objective reality, what anyone would observe when watching the lead wolf or elephant.

But we are concerned about leadership in organizations and other social groups. We are concerned with design, and that is an engineering activity. We are using psychology, what we understand of human nature, as a basis for designing templates and methods to solve real-life problems. Defining “leadership” may seem an academic exercise. But when the CEO asks how the organization is to attract and develop leaders, it is useful to know what we are attracting and developing. In defining “leadership”, we are seeking not truth but usefulness.


Beck, D., and Cowen, C. (1996, 2006). Spiral dynamics: Mastering values, leadership, and change. Malden, M A: Blackwell.

Craddock, K. (2007). RO Bibliography. http:// Accessed January 9, 2007.

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Jaques, E. (1996). Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. Arlington, V A: Cason Hall and Co., Publishers.

Jaques, E. and Cason, K. (1994). Human Capability: A Study of Individual Potential and its Application. Falls Church, V A: Cason Hall and Co., Publishers.

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Kuhn, Thomas (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mehltretter, Glenn W., Jr. and Michelle Malay Carter (2007) “Assessing Requisite Readiness” in Shepard, Ken, Jerry Gray and Jerry Hunt (Eds.) The Executive’s Guide to Organization Design, Levels of Work and Human Capability (working title).

Rost, Joseph C. (1991). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Praeger.

Solaas, H. (2003). “Why RO theory is so difficult to understand” (unpublished paper).

Solaas, H. (2007). “Organizational Engineering and the CEO” in Shepard, Ken, Jerry Gray and Jerry Hunt (Eds.) The Executive’s Guide to Organization Design, Levels of Work and Human Capability (working title).

Volckmann, R. (2006). “Definition of Leadership: An Integral Agenda” Submitted for publication.

Herb Koplowitz, PhD, is President of, Applied Organizational Science. He has worked with clients in the utility, pharmaceutical, financial, high tech, education, food, and automotive retail sectors as well as the Canadian Armed Forces, helping them with their structure, performance management and talent pool development. Herb bases his work in Requisite Organization. He has developed training materials and consulting approaches that translate Requisite theory into step-by-step practices. Herb makes Requisite theory available to those whose major strategic focus is not on management by applying Requisite principles to the issues of a particular client or group of clients. Herb works with consultants and executives for whom good structure and good management are themselves part of strategy. He has taught Requisite Organization to business leaders through York University and to consultants through ACCORD. Herb is trained in Requisite Organization and marketing research. He holds a B. A. in mathematics and philosophy from Cornell University, a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts and registration as an organizational psychologist in Ontario.