Feature Article: Integral Leadership Can Be Taught

Pedro Gioya and Raquel Torrent

gioya photo

torrent imageLeadership and leadership development is one of the most interesting issues in communities and organizations today. Writing and thinking about leadership in general and Integral Leadership in particular has been growing all over the world. The successes of the International Leadership Association and the Integral Leadership Revieware examples of the growing interest in the subject in many societies. However, in much of the material published, there are assumptions about culture and societies that may not be accurate. We believe, for example, that while Spanish-speaking societies have their own rich philosophical and cultural traditions, many also have a very different history of leadership than is found in other countries. Therefore, we wish to present something of the perspectives and possibilities for the development of a more integral approach to leadership in these societies. We will first present the challenge and then show how approaches such as Ron Heifetz’s “Case in Point” can be used in leadership development programs to help address this issue.

Different cultures have different ways of thinking about leadership. For instance the words leader and leadership haven’t had a good reputation in Spain in recent decades due to the historical use of the terms. The Spanish have understood the concept of a leader as an authoritarian figure who seeks his own goals while controlling other people. The term leader is confused with other terms, above all charisma, power personalization, authority, etc. The main reasons of this confusion in more recent approaches to leadership are:

  • The idea that leaders do not have an important role in a democratic model. Leadership is just a process located in crisis or in revolutionary moments (Linz, 1994). The fight here was to sell the idea of leadership as a positive and important trait in political and organizational context.
  • The different points of view of the issue were a problem, because it was difficult to place the issue in concrete departments or branches of research. It is open to an analysis from Anthropology, Political Science, Psychology, Economy, etc.
  • The inheritance of structural-functionalism. This perspective is offered just in terms of structures and personal processes in socio-political systems. This has subordinated the research to the study of political and bureaucratic elites.

From this starting point, the notion of the leader as a person who commands by divine right—“a person anointed by God and capable of leading masses toward his will”—is a concept with which all leadership students engage themselves. In some cultures this perspective is more prevalent than others. Where individuals land on this topic may be a reflection of their own developmental level. In spite of its wide acceptance it is a false and dangerous idea. We know this because there are numerous empirical research results that show otherwise. Most of the more significant leaders in history adapted their leadership in a progressive manner. We know that evolution progresses generally in a linear manner, according to Ken Wilber, passing from the pre-personal, the personal and then the transpersonal. The pace of change and shifting of life conditions require that leadership evolve accordingly. Those who practice leadership must learn how this works in systems and how it works for the individual on order to be effective. This doesn’t mean that leadership is an easy matter to be taught. This may be particularly true in societies making transitions from red and blue into orange.

There are diverse methodologies and ways to approach leadership development that attack the deterministic idea of leadership as a personality trait (the famous myth of leadership being a born talent or a learning life process) and its link with “charisma”. Integral methodologies and techniques in leadership development can be used successfully to develop leaders while drawing on a multiplicity of approaches corresponding to the results of research and practice. In the integral model leadership is a fundamental phenomenon in a dynamic network of emergent possibilities. We understand leadership as an art that can be practiced and learned.

The new economic and social context in which we are immersed demands new leadership styles and new ways to teach and develop prospective leaders. Integral Leadership requires the empowerment of each of us to see the complete picture of reality while appreciating the complexity and interdependence among the multiple systems and levels that constitute the networks in which we live. This includes building our understanding of the relationship between authority and power, on the one hand, and our worldview, on the other.

The power of democratic societies tends to be based more on circular than on linear dynamics. Circular dynamics include persistent feedback loops that can be used to generate learning and course corrections. The reliance is more on support networks than on hierarchies, because such networks provide more frequent feedback, as well as assure feedback from diverse (and hence, systemic) sources. Those who have to lead must be able to develop a high degree of imagination, pragmatism and trust through networks. This can be a challenge in societies where hierarchies have held such a strong influence on social activity for so long. However, this is not a unique challenge, but one faced by all societies. The strength of the challenge is a question of degree. At the same time, while networks are becoming more and more sophisticated, particularly through the use of technology, the use of local networks is a process that has a long history, as well.

The reality is that this is a time of change. Leaders have to be capable of sailing the uncertainties and threats in a sea of change, as well as create an atmosphere in which people can pursue their goals and develop themselves. Therefore, effective leadership in democratic societies whose populations are centred in red and blue is not an easy task.

The consciousness of individuals who lead and who engage with leaders has not evolved at the same pace. Some still seek leaders who will resolve their problems, give them solutions and be nice and charming at the same time. There is still the temptation to hire the individual who shows the natural gifts that may sustain positions of formal (hierarchical) authority. But for our reality, relying on models of management and leadership based on “control and direction” as innate traits are neither adequate nor effective.

One of the biggest challenges of the people that develop leaders is precisely to rethink leadership and teach it as an art, thus dissolving the myth that encourages a search for the heroic leader. This requires a change of content and methodologies.

It’s quite usual to find people who in times of crisis (in organizations or in the political life) look for that kind of saviour. We can see this right now in the case of the European Union. France and Holland rejected the Constitution and the process collapsed. At that time institutions, people and organisms began to look for somebody, a person that was able to provide an answer. This could be seen in the headlines of the main European newspapers. The majority of them wrote in the same terms and transmitted the idea of the necessity of a leader, a person who would give us an answer, somebody who would appear on the stage at that time and solve the problem with his/hers charisma and special traits. But, obviously, this was not the solution. The European Union doesn’t need leaders; it needs a leadership process. We are living now the emptiness of this process.

Having this in mind, if our society demands leadership but individuals are not born leaders, the question then is, can leadership be taught? The response is, “Yes but it’s not easy.” Teaching and learning are traditionally understood as the transmission of knowledge through reading, expert presentations, open discussions, exams, homework, etc. But for leadership there is a big difference between teaching the theory and providing someone with the judgement and necessary abilities to mobilize or motivate people to act amidst the jungle of relationships in the network of our real world. This is precisely the point in any kind of training process: how applicable are these contents to real life? Sometimes leadership teachings are way too theoretical, but not practical. It can give some theories very difficult to implement due to the lack of an integral and practical approach.

Donald Schon (1990) says that in the learning process we cannot just tell people what they should be doing, but the people need to discover for themselves what they need to do. Therefore, when teaching leadership it is so very important to stress the point of learning through an integral experience. This would include having experiences of each of the four quadrants and working hard in all of them. Only by maintaining this as a principle can we affirm that leadership can be taught.

One of the best ways to take this into account while teaching is to use the methodology known as “Case in Point” as used by Ron Heifetz (1994). This methodology includes the traditional ideas of presentations, lectures, discussions, dialogs and case studies, but it also introduces innovations like practice, learning through personal experience, the use of art, individual writings as reflection, etc. Such a scheme is based on the idea clearly expressed by John Dewey that adults learn much better through experience. Also, Ken Wilber calls it “knowledge scope”. Wilber’s idea is to widen the scope of knowledge and not to divide but to integrate the knowledge of the different quadrants to have an integral perspective. (Wilber 2000). We experience this in organizations. Some of them try to implement changes from one of the quadrants (Upper Right usually), but they don’t know that these changes are doomed not to work, Why? Because they don’t have a profound insight of the other quadrants. They don’t give themselves the opportunity of using hermeneutics and try to understand the real reasons for ways of thinking and behaviour.

If leadership developers are trying to deal with your work, but we are philosophers disconnected from the economic world, we’re not going to be fostering much learning, because we are operating in different scopes of knowledge. If we want to understand, deal with stocks, we need to first know how to do it (know the level) and then practice what we’ve learned. As leaders, if we want to effectively attract individuals with diverse worldviews, then we will need to learn how to communicate with those different worldviews. Then we must practice what we have learned.

The “Case in Point” makes an optimum use of the past, together with the immediate experience. With this system what happens inside the class becomes the case to be analyzed and to be learned through experience. The class is recognized as a system with several actors and diverse forces where we will practice and appreciate leadership in real time. The role of the teacher is to facilitate the exploration of the case and focusing the analysis and study of it. The great challenge is to use emerging materials when they appear—whether obvious or subtle—and connect them with the matter we’re analysing. All that happens in the classroom is subject to scrutiny. Participants are invited to be in the ballroom as well as in the balcony— having multiple perspectives—and therefore be able to appreciate the present models and their meanings. The teacher maintains the authority while offering orientation or counselling. At the same time the teacher permits and manages a certain imbalance so that the group is able to examine their opinions and preconceived ideas about leadership practice.

Leadership as understood by Heifetz presents 4 critical distinctions, which must be dealt with:

  • Authority as Leadership
  • Technical problems vs. adaptability challenges
  • Power vs. Progress
  • Personality vs. Appearance/Presence

Authority vs. Leadership

Heifetz draws a clear line of differentiation between authority and leadership. Many tend to think that the leader is a person with a position of formal authority. Authority roles (chiefs, presidents, directors, etc.) fulfil the need of maintaining the balance among social groups in their organizations. They offer orientation and direction, set norms, resolve conflicts, offer protection, etc. But authority is not a synonym for leadership and in many occasions is, in fact, a clearly insufficient factor in the practice of leadership.

The function of leadership is to mobilize people, groups, organizations or societies so that they address real and complex problems. Effective leadership is focused on those problems which require people to move from a comfort zone where they feel at ease and more or less balanced in the midst of an unsolved problem to a new equilibrium which is much more adequate for the new situation at hand. Surely the passage from the first state to the second is the experience of inner and outer chaos for the person who is making the move. Such a shift requires leadership that helps people to move from known habitual behavioral patterns to new and unknown terrains of greater complexity. These demand new learnings, behaviors, and an open and collaborative attitude towards change. All this is needed because in the majority of instances change brings losses, conflicts, risks, stress and creativity when it requires the confrontation of habitual values and beliefs. From this point of view, authority is only one of the factors that often restrain the practice of real and effective leadership that faces the problems that need to be solved.

Technical problems vs. Adaptability Challenges

Technical problems are those that can be solved with the knowledge, techniques and processes that are known and can be consistently applied. Adaptive challenges require new learnings, innovation and new behavioral patterns that require different “modus operandi”. From this perspective, leadership is an activity that supports people to face adaptive challenges—problems which require new solutions and that may represent transformation of habits, values and assumptions that have been normally used for years and are therefore anchored in the thought process and in the behavior of individuals and societies.

Power vs. Progress

When we understand leadership as an activity—the activity of progressing in the path of facing adaptive challenges—power and influence stop to have a central place. Focus is on the progress made—or not—toward resolving necessary adaptive challenges. This distinction orients the practice of leadership towards purpose and effectiveness instead of power and influence.

Personality vs. Presence

When we change focus from authority and technical problems to coping with adaptive challenges, charisma and personality traits do not have as much importance any more. Acts of leadership will depend less and less on magnetism and the social domination of the heroic individual to those more centred in the capacities of each person to make an intervention in complex issues. The ability to be present becomes an indicator of effective leadership. To be present means to have absolute attention, moment to moment. It is the capacity to see the broad picture while including the smallest specific details. But attention is the daughter of interest. Therefore a good leader is interested in everything—and in nothing, too much of the time. Such a leader is someone who accepts and feels at ease with paradox, someone who can understand what is happening and make the necessary choices in the matters that represent real adaptive challenges for the group or social environment.

Developing Leaders

This new focus on leadership that Heifetz and others apply has deep implications in the manner in which we can understand leadership in the 21st century and breaks with many of the practices of the 20th century. It clearly aligns with the emergent experience of complexity and the change that characterizes social dynamics in the present world. It transforms one of the myths that could be dangerous when looking for an effective leadership model for the 21st century, the model of the individual and heroic leader.

Heifetz’s methodology implies that leadership can be taught, but it is not an easy task. It requires two major changes: methodological change and change of attitude toward learning. Given the second requirement the new methodology places the participants in the midst of what’s happening. Involvement is the key. Again, the paradox is for individuals to be capable of being a part of the event and at the same time taking a more distant perspective by “going up to the balcony”—to be able to see the whole scene from above like a bird overlooking the scenery. To be able to see the different angles of the situation and the different quadrants involved at that moment. Jesuit monks call it “contemplation in action”. From this contemplative attitude people are invited to identify models (roles and authority patterns, challenges to authority, factions that break lose, avoidance of tasks, conflicts and how to maintain them in a manageable level in order to become productive). All this requires work from a non-ordinary state of consciousness; a higher state we would say—a new way of thinking and acting—that surpasses the habitual concept of leadership as the exercise of authority, power and influence. We require a holistic and systemic way to train people to become capable of mobilizing others towards the essential and the adaptive.

It is not only necessary to be able to make a right diagnosis of the situation to be changed, but also to understand and apply leadership as action. Mobilization must happen authentically and interventions must be learned to conduct the organization to where it really needs to be. Heifetz doesn’t use the concept of integral in his work, but he places a great deal of emphasis on the developer as someone who helps potential leaders make meaning out of practice. Such an integral perspective would suggest that meaning making would include an AQAL set of perspectives and the need of see all the quadrants in each phenomenon that we observe or pay attention to. There are clear links between Heifetz and Wilber approaches to leadership, especially in terms of seeing reality as a whole from an integral perspective and in the recognition of the value of higher states of consciousness.

With this in mind, the first objective in the design of a leadership program must be to enable people to discover the complexity of social systems and groups and teams from an AQAL perspective, and to be able to recognize, analyze and strategically mediate to generate adaptive change. The theories and methodologies of Heifetz, Wilber and others must be studied in depth and adapted in order to take advantage of them and apply them as a guiding model for leadership development. They are contemporary theories that address present matters of today’s life and the reality of everyday coping in such a changing world. Precisely one of the most characteristic faults of the old style of leadership teaching methodologies is that they try to teach and show solutions with epistemological and methodological models which belong to a context that has been replaced by the complexity and demands of today’s world. They are tools being offered that were very useful and valuable a couple of decades ago, but not for our fast ongoing reality of today.

Heifetz’s model reflects an effort to conceptualize the demands of our present life showing a leadership scheme (not a model) that permits teaching and learning of leadership from a deeper and more complex perspective. At the same time and as we discover what the demands are, the integral model of Ken Wilber offers information about the guidelines for higher states of consciousness that the new teachings and learnings needed. Using approaches to leadership and leadership development that help people shift their assumptions and perspectives is essential in cultures, such as in Spain where the connotations and associations are problematic. It is very important that we understand this and begin to integrate integral and developmental perspectives in building effective leadership for democratic societies and institutions.

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Daloz Parks, S. (2005). Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press.
Linz, J. and Valenzuela, A. (1994). The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore, MD, US A: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Schon, D. (1990). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (Higher Education Series). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wilber, K. (2000) A Theory of Everything: An integral vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Biographies and contact information on these authors may be found at