Fresh Perspective: Development and the Entrepreneur as Leader: An Interview with Harry M. Lasker

Russ Volckmann

806laskerimage806rvimageWhen I discovered Harry Lasker and a hint of the scope of his work and contributions, I asked him if we could do an interview. I wanted to review his early research with Jane Loevinger’s developmental model (that is at the heart of Susann Cook-Greuter’s Leadership Development Profile and is used by Bill Torbert and his colleagues as well as others), to lay out his career and explore how his work in developmental models had influenced his performance as a leader. He agreed. As I review the result I see it as a demonstration of integral performance. As you read it, note the elements of his development and how it played out in the world he has helped to create.

Russ: Welcome to the Integral Leadership Review.

Harry: Thank you.

Russ: What drew me to want to interview you for this publication was an interview I did recently with Bill Joiner and Steve Josephs who are publishing a new book called Leadership Agility[ ILR, June 2006]. Bill mentioned that his inspiration came significantly from work that he had done with you at Harvard. I decided I better find out more about who this person is who was so inspirational. I found that you have founded several companies. Currently you are Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Cerylion, Inc. and you were teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 15 years beginning in 1972. Is that correct?

Harry: Correct, yes.

Russ: Your dissertation, a comparison of David McClelland’s achievement motivation with Jane Loevinger’s developmental model, was completed at the University of Chicago in 1978. Sounds like we were both teaching while we were still working on our dissertations, which is an experience I would wish for no one.

Harry: Exactly! The ultimate agony, I would say.

Russ: During that period as well, you were involved in technology development and multimedia. I find that fascinating, because it weaves the strands into a thread clearer for us.

Harry: There are themes that carry through – perhaps only I can see them. I’ve always been interested in the issues of development and that is what drew me to stage theory. Developmental research was one of the key things I was teaching at Harvard for those 15 years. At the same time I was closely involved in the early years of Sesame Street. The key advisors to Sesame Street came from Harvard and I joined Sesame Street when it was a year or two old. I also taught with the group that produced Sesame Street. We offered a course on the method by which Sesame Street was developed.

I was teaching things that were extremely practical such as how you build and run processes such as those of the Children’s Television Workshop aimed at trying to promote cognitive development. At the same time I was teaching a basic course in adult development—developmental research about changes in the thinking and functioning of adults.

The Sesame Street experience got me interested in the potential use of technology to promote development. That’s what Sesame Street was doing—using television to promote cognitive development of kids in a measurable way. About 1981, when micro computers and video disks were emerging technologies, I saw an opportunity to link the two and to create an interactive environment that would be more potent than television as a way to promote development. I founded a company and got venture capital at a pretty early date back in 1981 for what was really one of the first major multimedia companies in the United States.

Russ: Was this Articulate Systems?

Harry: No, it was a company eventually known as Spectrum, Inc. We designed training and knowledge systems for large companies. Our biggest clients were IBM, American Airlines, Sears and Federal Express. We did a huge project with Federal Express. I was the architect of those educational systems. They were aimed at building key competencies for adults that would allow the company to implement strategy, something in those days that I called ‘Performance Systems’.

Russ: Could you elaborate on “competencies and performance” a little bit?

Harry: Yes. In my undergraduate days at Harvard I studied with David McClelland who was well known for his work on the need for achievement in entrepreneurship. In his later life, McClelland stressed that social science should be focused not on intelligence, but on competence. He argued that it was possible to identify the particular qualities adults brought to a situation and that made them especially successful. You could extract the ‘DNA of performance’ a wide variety of situational abilities which he termed competencies. These are very predictive of success in solving particular types of problems in real life situations.

McClelland’s disciples have done research worldwide, across a wide variety of roles, to identify a compendium of competencies that can be measured and are very predictive of various types of successful performance. There are hundreds that have been identified.

At the same time people were beginning to get interested in organizational performance and its link to strategy. They began to realize that performance is related to individuals in the organization and their capability to do certain critical things essential to the organization’s success. Building the training and knowledge environment that could enable a strategy was critical to helping organizations fulfill their strategy.

Russ: Would you give an example of a competency and how your programs were addressing that?

Harry: In the very first company I started, we created interactive video by having a computer control a videotape. One tape was an actual job interview in which a manager displays a number of managerial competencies. There were thirteen competencies in a model developed by McClelland and his associates for the American Management Association to predict who would make a good manager. The AMA wanted to accurately train people (with a high inter-rater reliability) to accurately rate these 13 different competencies in real time in face-to-face interviews.

In order to train interviewers to be accurate observers—and this is not easy to do—we developed interactive games using this videotape. One game was called Name It and another game called Find It. The user would go through the tape and interrupt it when he saw one of the competencies being demonstrated. One of the competencies I remembered—because all of the venture capitalists who looked at our system were fascinated by the same competency—was a competence called Stamina and Adaptability. They were interested in this competency because they intuitively understood that it was critical that the entrepreneurs they funded had this trait or they would not be successful.

Russ: What time period are we talking about here?

Harry: We founded Spectrum in 1981. It was acquired and my relationship with it was completed towards the end of the ‘80’s. In an overlapping period, I was a co-founder of the company called Articulate Systems. It was the first company to create a successful voice recognition application, of which there are not too many, even today. This application was used by radiologists to dictate what they saw in an x-ray. This still is one of the few areas in which voice recognition has been remarkably successful.

Again, I was fascinated with the intersection between technology, knowledge and competence. My next company, Renaissance, Inc., built knowledge management systems to support strategy. The company popularized the use of The Balanced Score Card developed by a co-founder, Dave Norton, and a Board member, Robert Kaplan.

Russ: Yes. It is reportedly used by a great majority of the Fortune 500 and companies around the world. It is also being used by small companies like a credit union where I coached one of the vice presidents.

Harry: The Balanced Scorecard captures an organization’s strategy both in metrics and in a kind of causal model that worked across four layers. At the bottom layer, knowledge enables process competence, which supports customer factors, which generates the financial performance of the corporation. In order to enable the knowledge layer, we became pioneers in a field that later became known as knowledge management. We built some of the early large knowledge management systems for companies like AT&T, several insurance companies, etc. We were trying to discover the things that are critical to being able to perform at a high level, in areas that are critical to strategy. We were the first company to use the Internet as a knowledge management system and to build knowledge support systems, desktop systems that encoded what experts knew to distribute about this know-how to other people doing work through their computers.

Renaissance was the first consulting company to go public and through mergers and acquisitions, it got to be a very large operation with revenues of almost a billion dollars and 7,000 employees before I left it in 1998.

Russ: What was

Harry: In 1999, I partnered with Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Anthony Appiah at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute to get Microsoft to fund an encyclopedia of the black experience—black history, really—that was called Encyclopedia Africana. Microsoft also funded the creation an interactive version called The Encarta Africana, which is still marketed today. was an early web portal that we created for the black community and which I funded and ran for its first year.

The idea was a simple one: we linked daily news stories in the black community to articles in black history drawn from the encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia Africana became very extensive and is now published by Oxford University Press. was sold to AOL Time Warner and has evolved into its major portal for not only the black community, but Hispanic as well.

In 1999 I also co-founded Cerylion, a company that provides a new type of software developed in Israel. I encountered it in the mid ‘90’s. It provides a knowledge-oriented development environment that can build extremely massive and complicated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, like SAP, PeopleSoft, or Oracle. The system can support processes with extremely complex knowledge, and multiple role players in numerous processes that cut across different functions and organizational boundaries. It operates as a service over the Internet. We are applying this technology in telecommunications and in health care.

Russ: Is this mainly for conferencing purposes or is it actually capturing knowledge?

Harry: It actually captures, represents and uses knowledge to do things that are not possible to do today except with armies of people or with groups of experts. The initial applications was used as a litmus test that we could solve problems that others could not. We took a problem that the large software companies (SAP, Oracle) avoided because it was too complicated to deal with. It’s the fastest growing part of enterprise expense. And it’s completely unmanaged today by any ERP level system. It has to do with all of telecommunications: the billing, invoicing and tracking of a telecommunications infrastructure from a financial point of view across all carriers.

The reason everyone has avoided it is that it’s the ultimate rat’s nest of knowledge complexity. A single carrier can have close to one hundred different billing systems, each kicking out bills in different formats. When a large corporation, which may have half a million circuits, gets its monthly bill, it doesn’t come in an envelope. If it were physical, it would come in a dump truck and one has only 30 days to figure out if it’s right before having to pay it. But more importantly, this telecommunications network is your company’s strategic nervous system. You may have as many as a hundred different carriers as you are trying to evolve your most important asset into a digital world. It’s amazing how sub-optimized and dysfunctional this critical area is in corporations, as well as in telecom companies.

Russ: It sounds like it could potentially have intelligence use. Is that something that is also happening?

Harry: We could have gone in that direction. We chose not to. Everyday I thank my luck stars that we made that decision, because the potential for misuse of this technology in that area is very distressing to me.

Russ: I noticed on the Cerylion website, there is a Latin quotation and it has a little button next to it that didn’t function for me. “Lorem Ipsum Delore, etc.” What does that mean? I can’t make sense of it with what I remember of my high school Latin.

Harry: I’m told that in Persia in the old days, people purposely put one fault in every carpet to prove that man is fallible. That is actually a scrap of Latin which is used to test text on the website when it is under development. So what you found is the piece of text that someone neglected to take out when we were finalizing the website.


Harry: You must have been paying pretty close attention to the website to find that because we didn’t.

Russ: You’ve been doing some really exciting work and it’s all revolving around the core of the developmental perspective. Is that correct?

Harry: I think it is, even though I wasn’t really conscious of it. I should preface my remarks today by saying that I have never really followed the literature in the field of leadership. I don’t know the current literature, so anything I say may either be seem obvious or as immensely naive.

Looking back on things, I was deeply convinced of the power of the developmental framework when I was teaching. When I became an entrepreneur I simply went out in the world and did things. I did them instinctively and without applying those conceptual frameworks that I believed in deeply earlier in my career. It has been an interesting experience for me—based on the questions you once asked me in preparation for this interview—to go back and look over my career and try to reapply ideas that I once held dear and to reflect on if they shaped what I’ve been doing. I do think there are patterns, important ones, which I never realized it at the time.

Russ: It could be that when we think about development we think of a stage model of development. As people move up those stages, those competencies and capabilities that they had at lower stages of development don’t go away. They just get absorbed. Perhaps they move from being consciously competent to unconsciously competent, if you will.

Harry: I think that’s right and I think that is what development is about.

Russ: Let’s go back to David McClelland, because here you are talking about motivation theory. You were involved with doing training around motivation theory. Did it take you to all these places: India, rural Kentucky, urban Chicago, Curacao, Netherlands, Venezuela and so forth?

Harry: Yes. As an undergraduate, I was drawn to McClelland like a moth to a light, mainly because I was fascinated by his core themes. They must have been my core themes. I was fascinated by achievement and motivation. I was fascinated by McClelland’s belief that economic development was related to achievement thinking, and this form of thinking itself could be developed. I must have also been drawn to the focus on entrepreneurship.

I became fascinated with research using projective tests. As an undergraduate I went alone to India and tracked down entrepreneurs who took a course to stimulate their achievement thinking. McClelland created a grand experiment. He trained people in two towns (Kakinada and Vellore) and compared their economic growth to a control town (Rajamundry). Several years later we observed the rate of economic development of the two towns to see if the experimental towns showed a higher rate of growth.

I went back to India and tracked down people in both experimental towns. I interviewed them about their activity after the training. For my undergraduate thesis I tried to determine if there was anything in the original Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) that predicted who would become active entrepreneurs afterwards. The TAT uses ambiguous pictures to elicit a story. Stories are rated for certain categories of thought and these yield the need-for-achievement score. I was interested in seeing whether there were additional categories participants displayed before the achievement training that predicted their ability to develop achievement thinking and be active entrepreneurs afterwards.

I found that there was an odd set of categories you could distill out of the TAT that seemed to be more predictive, to underlie achievement motivation as it were. In graduate school I became fascinated with what that underlying dimension was. It was fairly late in my graduate career when I encountered the work of Jane Loevinger. She had developed the model of what she called Ego Development. I recognized immediately that this bore a striking correspondence to some of the distinctions that I had been finding as an undergraduate. That’s when I decided to do a graduate thesis on the relationship between ego development and achievement motivation.

Russ: Let’s just take a moment to talk about the concept of ego development before we go on. One of the most interesting areas of development theory today is the different models and frameworks that developmental theorists are using from Robert Kegan’s models to Susann Cook-Greuter’s work that is built on Loevinger’s work. Can you talk about what was the power in the concept of ego development for you?

Harry: There were several things. First of all, I regard Loevinger as the person that really empirically measured and defined these stages, although her work built on previous work. One strand of Loevinger’s work that I found incredibly compelling is its empirical basis. This is not armchair philosophy. This is deep empiricism. Loevinger developed a coding manual from the responses of thousands of women while using an extremely interesting statistical technique to develop a projective test based on thirty-six sentence completions that could be coded with extreme inter-rater reliability.

Stage ratings were extremely predictive and meaningful. I think the people whose work came later told the story of those stages in an engaging way. But make no mistake about it; Loevinger was the source of ego development stage and those distinctions.

Another thing I found especially interesting in Loevinger’s work was her ability—by analyzing the nature of responses from thousands of subjects—to demonstrate the deep nesting of cognitive factors, that is, the way in which you reason about something, and broad character patterns. She was able to empirically demonstrate that how you reason at a micro level (Piagetian issues) is related to personality patterns such as impulse control, preoccupations and character development (Freudian types of issues). Ego development is about meaning making and meaning making is a fabric that transcends and unifies both ends of the psychological spectrum.

Loevinger was purposely taking a stand against what some people describe as Midwestern empiricism. She was particularly critical of the creation of what she termed ‘polar variables’ in which one arbitrarily focuses on one particular strand of psychological functioning and ‘measure’ that dimension’s intensity with a pseudo-quantitative Likert scale. By contrast Loevinger viewed ego development as what she termed a master trait that organizes all other ‘polar’ variables. Theoretically, you can take any polar variable and it would be organized in some powerful way when mapped across the ego development continuum..

My thesis was perhaps one of the earliest tests of this hypothesis since my research was conducted only a couple years after Loevinger’s key work was published. What I did was to look at the various McClelland motives—need for achievement, need for power, need for affiliation—and take a large sample that was cut across an entire society in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. Sure enough, I found what Loevinger predicted. Each of these motives (polar variables) rises and falls in a continuous different pattern when mapped against the ego development continuum.

Another thing I found was that there were ego development thresholds for the appearance of concepts. Certain ideas don’t appear at all until particular ego stages. It’s as if the mental ecology just isn’t there for an idea to flourish. But at a particular threshold—ego stage score—certain ideas would begin to appear spontaneously and frequently. There was a different threshold for each of the 11 categories in the n-achievement syndrome. For any particular category, all subjects who showed that idea were above the related ego stage threshold. So, this threshold patterning was another interesting phenomenon revealed by Loevinger’s rigorous methodology. I used her methodology to create a scoring manual for men in Curacao, so I got very deep appreciation for the power and elegance of her empirical approach.

Russ: I was going to ask you about this, because as you pointed out her work was with women and yours was with men.

Harry: I used thousands of responses to boot strap a manual. My wife, Abigail Housen, also used Loevinger’s methodology to create a measure of aesthetic development: what goes on in people’s minds as they look at a work of art. Her scoring manual works for children and adults, females and males. Abigail’s work over thirty years is a major story in itself. But I think it is also a testimony to the ingenuity and rigorous thinking of Jane Loevinger as a statistician and psychometrician.

Russ: Were there gender distinctions of any significance?

Harry: None. My wife’s measure also had thousands of subjects. Over time it has never produced any gender differences, in any population studied to date. This is interesting. Some early research showed gender differences in ego development work. There is a certain period in adolescence when females score higher than males, a phenomenon frequently noticed by laymen. Girls seem to mature earlier. But once you reach adulthood, those differences disappear.

Russ: One of the things about Loevinger’s work that is relevant to this conversation is the idea that the notion of ego is social in origin. It’s moving psychology from being intra-psychic into being inter-psychic if you will.

Harry: Absolutely! I puzzle over why her work hasn’t had more influence than it’s had. I sometimes believe that her measure is more useful in sociological phenomena than in understanding of a particular individual.

For example in Curacao I was able to measure ego development in large numbers of people across different socio-economic levels. Thus I could construct the psychological demographics of that society. Understanding how different thought types are distributed in a society is more revealing to a sociologist than it is to psychologist.

When we ran training groups in Curacao we eventually reached almost the entire adult population. One of the things we found was that if you brought strangers together in a group and you asked them months later who they liked most in the group, mutual selections were invariably between people within a half stage of each other. Ego stage is not just a psychological variable; it’s a social variable. It defines a type of “mindedness” in which birds of a feather literally flock together. You can graph and predict the flocking.

Russ: Which would have profound implications for the notion of leadership and followership. It suggests that leaders and collaborators who flock together may most likely be within that half stage you speak of.

Harry: Yes, it does. Or that good leaders can articulate a range of messages that are compelling at different stages.

Russ: Just to bring the discussion of the study to a conclusion that you may build on, you were looking at the relationship between achievement orientation and stages of development, as well as the usefulness of training programs to support the acceleration of the achievement motivation. Is that a fair summary?

Harry: Right.

Russ: What were your findings?

Harry: Basically, I found that ego stage was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the development of achievement thinking. McClelland presented the achievement syndrome as a unitary thought pattern in which the eleven thought categories cluster together. Each category gets a score of one and is equal to every other category.

In fact, if you organize subjects by ego development, you will find that each of the eleven achievement categories has a different threshold where it begins to appear. When you look at the statistical properties of those scores, they constitute a Gutman scale in which they unfold in an invariable order. They are not equal in significance. Some are very common and some are very rare. Only the highest stage people will show the entire syndrome.

The other thing that was interesting is that the culture of your organization could arouse or suppress achievement thinking. In other words, you could take two individuals at the same exact stage and if they were in different organizational settings—you could think of those as different cultural settings or as different leadership settings—all the people at a certain stage would show high achievement motivation in one organization and all of them could show no achievement motivation at the same stage in another organization. In other words, there is an interaction effect between stage and environment that affects the thinking that is displayed. That does have huge implications in terms of what achievement motivation is, in the first place, and it has implications for training, but it also has implications for leadership.

Russ: What I find absolutely fascinating about this and this may show up in our subsequent discussion is two things: one is that basically what you’ve come up with around the achievement motivation is a stage model of development.

Harry: Yes.

Russ: And in integral theory not only would the stage be important, but the fact that achievement motivation is what we would call a line of development. You could have a cognitive line of development, an emotional line of development and so on. What you’ve demonstrated is that the achievement motivation is really a line of development that builds as you move up the stages of development. That’s one area. The second area that I find especially interesting—because I think this is really where we are at today in terms of trying to really find how integral theory helps us begin to understand development and performance—is that when you are looking at something like achievement motivation in its development, just looking at the individuals and their belief systems or their ego development is insufficient. We also have to look at their behaviors. You have to look at the culture that they are a part of and the systems and processes that they are engaged with that might support or diminish the use of whatever is happening interpsychically.

Harry: Right, correct.

Russ: That is so powerful and I don’t know anything before your dissertation that makes that point as clearly.

Harry: It’s interesting. Unfortunately I never really pressed ahead with that. I got too distracted by my own entrepreneurship.

Russ: One of your approaches to entrepreneurship was at Harvard in teaching about leadership.

Harry: I think that’s probably true in retrospect, but I became infected by the very virus I was studying.


Therefore, I stopped studying the virus and started showing its effects.

Russ: Can we talk about the Harvard experience, especially your teaching about leadership and how that links into the research work that you were doing—your interest in development, entrepreneurship, that sort of thing?

Harry: The course I was invited to teach in 1974 was a course on adult development. At the time, it was the first course taught at Harvard on adult development. There were people in the faculty who didn’t believe there was such a thing, which of course, for many of my faculty peers, there probably wasn’t.


Harry: I taught about the frameworks in the field. I was able to relate the research and experiences that I had had in tracking ego development and the very types of models that I was just describing. I didn’t really teach about leadership per se. I think Bill Joiner [Integral Leadership Review, June 2006 interview] was probably sitting in that course listening to these ideas and being intrigued with the connections to leadership, but that wasn’t my preoccupation.

Russ: So essentially you were presenting the things you had been learning from your research related to motivation and Loevinger’s work?

Harry: Correct, as well as additional ideas related to teaching a survey course in adult development.

Russ: Were there other adult development influences besides Loevinger’s work?

Harry: There were two classic perspectives in those days. One I call ‘stage theories’ of which Loevinger is an example. There are others which I call ‘phase theories’ like Levinson’s work on phases in males lives that was coming around in that time. The latter was then popularized by Gail Sheehy and others. This involved looking at how people periodically restructure their lives. They periodically re-build a ‘life structure’. This phase approach is orthogonal to the stage approach. Each approach leads to different types of insight and certainly people at different stages go through life phases differently.

Russ: It’s really interesting, because the stage and phase approaches really do cut across each other. You’re now moving into a later stage of life. That suggests a perspective on the relationship between the stage and the phase model.

Harry: Absolutely and what I was laying out in that early course—32 years ago. By the way, the first time I gave the course was in summer school and to my absolute horror—I was 29 at the time—I was the second youngest person in the class. I remember the oldest student was 72 and I thought “Oh my god! Can I pull this off?”


But people thought the framework was profoundly interesting, profoundly relevant.

Russ: In looking at leadership and organization development theories there is the application of stage models drawn from psychology and sociology, but there are also phase models like the Adizes’ bell curve approach that parallels life cycles.

Harry: There is no question that organizations go through phases. As a start-up entrepreneur, I can attest to that. Things start at the left side of the bell curve and move to the right. Generally, what we were doing was helping companies on the right hand side of the bell curve that had become incapable of solving basic problems. They had become so mired in bureaucracy and established processes that they were unable to be effective.

Russ: So they were strangling themselves.

Harry: Right.

Russ: It sounds like this time when you were teaching about stage and phase theories and development in general at Harvard, this was also a time of your own entrepreneurship?

Harry: The two began to conflict and I found that in my whole career, I had been slightly too entrepreneurial for academia and slightly too academic for the business world.


There is this interesting tension. As I was teaching I began to find the potential to start companies and to fund social experiments. What a company did became immensely attractive to me, because I could build my own laboratory. One thing I carried forward unconsciously as an entrepreneur was the developmental model. If development means providing new ideas that enable a new level of functioning or performance, roughly speaking, that’s what I think the Loevinger model was about. It was showing that there is a deep nesting between the conceptual framework one uses to construe meaning and understanding on the one hand and the way in which one performs or functions in the world on the other.

I began to realize as I moved into the world of business that this issue of development exists not only in individuals, but in organizations and in larger systems. If enabling an individual to develop is a matter largely of education and therapy, my definition—it may be a very peculiar one—of leadership is enabling organizations or systems to develop. Given the odd place I’m coming from, it has to do with introducing new concepts that permit new ways of functioning, new processes that shift the entire performance equation in a system.

Part of development is outgrowing the past. The field of process re-engineering began with the realization that most organizations drag their past with them. Old processes that have long outlived their utility or purpose are often completely sub-optimized.

Another way to think about development is to focus on what survives. Functional things are not the only things that survive; problems do as well. I’ve always had a Darwinian view of problems. Maybe it’s a reverse Darwinian view: only the nasty survive. The world solves simple problems. The ecology of problems just keeps getting more and more awful because it’s the survival of the nastiest.

Russ: So the nastiest survive in the face of complexity?

Harry: Yes. In a complex world, really complicated, multifaceted, embedded problems with a lot of feedback in them. The analogy I once thought of was the red spot on Jupiter. It is a vast storm system that has been going for hundreds of years, covering a good chunk of the planet. Complicated problems, the ones worth working on, are like that. They are a self-perpetuating system. Breaking that system up or curing that problem requires deep analysis and coordinated action if you really want to make a difference. Most organizations are mired in these nasty problems in at least one part of their operation.

Russ: Let’s go back for a second to your definition of leadership. The notion of enabling a complex system, as you are talking about now, suggests that there are many different ways of enabling. For example, James O’Toole at USC writes about the importance of systems to support effective leadership in organizations. When you don’t have effective selection, retention and information flow across boundaries and the like that has a negative impact on the effectiveness of leadership in an organization. When you are talking about a complex system in leadership, I wonder if you think about leadership in heroic terms—that you as the entrepreneur, as the founder, as the man with the idea and the perspective, are the enabler. Or do you think about leadership as something that is a disbursed function in your system where there are people exercising leadership functions that are enabling the system?

Harry: Both ways. In starting multiple companies, I’m deeply familiar with the uphill struggle of a person with a good idea trying to make it happen in the world and all the challenges that go along with that. I am keenly aware of the various phases that bring it from a twinkle in your eye to something that is actually affecting the world.

Yet a leader cannot be merely heroic. He must have an intuitive grasp of how things work as a system. My various startups would work on systemic problems with corporate executives. In a Fed Ex or a Sears or an IBM we would analyze the systemic problems in a function and come up with a better way to organize things or to make things run. Often this involved the use of technology to unlock a different way of operating and to create a blue print for a stage change, a performance shift and a strategic shift. I think leadership in this sense is processes of helping people see a new set of possibilities, the necessity for moving to a new level. It is also helping them see how they can actually change from the way the world is now to the way it could be.

To me leadership,–this may only be totally biased by the fact that this is the only way I know how to lead– begins with new ideas. It comes from inspiring people to see a new future possibility. It comes from a vision that vision needs to be communicated so vividly, that it already seems a reality, now.

For me, this kind of communication is often visual. If you’re trying to inspire people to change a whole system, most people can’t grasp the nature of the system in which they’re embedded. It’s very hard to convey a grasp of a complex system through words alone. But being able to show people how a system operates in a diagrammatic form allows them to grasp the whole dynamic, and that can be very powerful. Very bright people can suddenly see what they are caught up in. It suddenly becomes very obvious what’s wrong and how, if you intervened at certain points, you could change the operation of the system.

Because these nasty problems are systemic problems with multiple, interweaving lines of causality with feedback, you need a clear way of displaying the whole problem and the vision for a solution. The only way that I’ve ever found to do this successfully is to do it visually. Drawing the problem allows me to help people see where they are, where they could be going and how to get there. It starts with new insight and then bridges to the journey of getting to the next level. Leadership is helping people find the ability to get there in themselves and in their organization.

Russ: How do you get people to get the perspective, the vision and discover the path to realizing it?

Harry: It may sound odd, but I literally have found, over and over again, I must be able to draw the entire thing in diagrams—the systemic problem today, the points where you have to attack it, what kind of system would be transformed by doing that—and then derive from those visionary images the action plan that allows the tasks of creating the new level of functioning to be assigned. You have to be able to create all the required architectural drawings. Without an architect creating blue prints, buildings would never get built.

This thing called vision isn’t just about a flipping out a swell idea. You’ve got to be able to have a deep understanding of a malfunction of a core function in an organization. It’s not unlike what reengineering did. You also have to imagine a way to perform at a new level. Technology is often a good springboard, but you have to be inventive about the technology. You need to identify concrete changes that can be transformative. Then you have to be extremely compelling in how you talk about all this, so that the organization realizes, “By god, he’s right. That really would make a difference and we really could test and verify it. We really could measure if it’s working and we really could…”

This kind of leadership could be seen as a crusade of sorts. But it’s a crusade based on picking an important problem that people care about, really becoming an expert about it and being inventive about solutions. This is where being a good educator helped me a lot to act in a leadership role. For me there is a fine line between education and leadership. Helping people see things in a new way, see new possibilities and come to believe in the possibilities is very much a process like educating, only it’s even more difficult.

Russ: Do you see a relationship between stage theories and that process?

Harry: I do see a few connections. In the organizations I’ve been a part of I think leadership is always about moving up, that is, inspiring people to reach their full potential. It’s inspirational in nature. I think there are ways to amass a following that are regressive, fear-mongering, etc., but in my view you can amass a temporary following by frightening people and making them regress to lower stages. It never leaves any long term, sustainable development. It does damage, but it never leads to any growth in the capacity of the system to perform.

I won’t comment on our current national situation, but I think we are in a historic episode that proves this point. For me, leadership is about arousal, as was true with the achievement motive. It’s about helping people discover new ways to see the world and encouraging them to use it that new way of seeing to do new things. It’s about helping people want to be a part of something that could change things for the better, which almost all people want to be a part. It’s about encouraging people to act. The themes on which you move people, looking back on things, are very much stage related and that’s a whole thing in itself. These are the forms of the argument you use. It’s got to be related to the community of people you’re talking to.

Russ: In Loevinger’s model, what stage are you at?


Harry: I don’t know. I took a test 25 years ago, but that was quite a long time ago. I think that I’m probably in the low ranges of the autonomous stage. In all stages, there is a range in which people perform and we all have the capacity to perform below our capabilities.

Russ: You commented earlier about people tending to associate with people one half stage one side or the other of their own stage of development. If you’re really at the stage of autonomy, what does that mean in terms of your abilities? How do you lead people who are still down in conformist stages, individualist stages, that sort of thing?

Harry: I think you can always find a way to recapture that voice and understand those levels you’ve been through before. I think my first instincts are to speak in the language at a stage four. I naturally speak in terms related to the conscientious stage of solving problems and defining goals, trying to innovate and find higher levels to perform. That kind of language is not persuasive to those at stage three and below; it’s the thought mode of the conscientious stage in which there are many, many people and executives in business.

One of the first organizations I worked with as a consultant was Shell Oil. One of the things they were doing way back in the ‘70’s was identifying future leaders. They were trying to assess what they called the ‘Helicopter Quality’. This is the ability to rise above a situation and see all aspects of it. When they felt somebody had that Helicopter Quality, they would put them on a promotion track where the slope would get them, unless they couldn’t perform, to be head of the company within ‘x’ number of years. I know from our early data—and we had a lot of it—that there was an extremely high correlation between ego stage and ratings of helicopter quality. High level, fast tracking, high potential managers were testing very high in terms of Loevinger stages.

Russ: What is it that you see as inspiring or driving you as a leader in all of the different kinds of activities you’ve been involved in?

Harry: A point I wanted to make as I’ve reflected on my own life is that one often thinks of leadership as having a followership. Can there be a leader without a follower?

In many ways I have been a loner. If I had to say what has been characteristic of me it is that, for whatever odd reasons, I have chosen areas where I believe that something should and could be done. At first, I’m the only person that believes it. For reasons that are somewhat mysterious to me, I’ve been relatively successful in getting into a new domain and convincing people of the power of a new idea, getting permission to try things and making stuff happen that eventually gets proven and adopted. It takes a lot of stamina and adaptability.

There are four areas where I’ve been working where I would describe myself as an ‘autonomous leader’. I start on the outside of an organization with my nose pressed against the window, as it were. I find a way into the system and I try to exercise influence. I think most leaders rise within an organization in lengthy careers in which they use the power inherent in their official roles, to exercise their influence in the world and to exercise their leadership. I’ve always done it outside of an organization or institution.

There are a lot of people in our society who are not thought of as leaders—consultants and specialists of various kinds—who are trying to exercise their insight to make a developmental difference. To me they are leaders. Leaders aren’t determined by their success. They are determined by their willingness to try. Just as I find a blurred distinction in my mind between an educator and a leader, I find a blurred distinction between a leader and an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur tries a new idea and wants to make it work. Entrepreneurs don’t have to express this pattern merely by starting a business; they can take on any new initiative within the context of their environment.

Russ: Is Harry Lasker sometimes a follower?

Harry: I’m sure I must be, but I’m so busy rolling rocks uphill that I don’t…


Russ: Are you finding they are rolling back down?

Harry: They seem to be. There should be a stage for people that want to try difficult, impossible tasks and never succeed, because I would seem to fit into that one. There are four initiatives I am spending a lot of time in right now, each one of which is really a tough row to hoe. But I’m fascinated by the potential of each and the difference it could make. I believe in trying. I see myself making progress. I have been working on these ‘projects’ ranging from five years to thirty years. Each of these is a long term fascination of mine.

Russ: Do you care to share any of those?

Harry: Sure. One is in the area of education. This goes back thirty years. I’ve been actively supporting my wife’s life work, which is in teaching young kids to do critical thinking, that is, to make observations, interpretations, evidence based arguments, to articulate them in groups, etc. Her discovery is that you can build these skills as young as kindergarteners, if you use a visual stimulus like a work of art. She created a curriculum called VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) that is widely used in schools and museums. She has mapped stages of aesthetic development (how people reason about works of art) using Loevinger’s methodology. VTS has been proven to cause significant aesthetic development as well.

A course in critical thinking is the course none of us ever took. We certainly didn’t take it in nursery school or kindergarten. We didn’t take it in high school, college or graduate school, either. But if you want to make a difference in education, you’ve got to teach kids early on to be engaged in using their minds, to feel if they are smart, to be able to participate in a group in thinking things through. It’s the most important thing that can come out of education in terms of a democracy.

Over the years, we’ve done multiple longitudinal studies of the impact of this kind of Socratic method, its cost effectiveness and even its impact on test scores, which unbelievably there is. But, trying to make this a fundamental part of education in this country is the challenge that we are working on now. Ironically, we’ve succeeded in making it a fundamental part of education in Russia. We haven’t succeeded in this country and I want to do that. That’s one quest. You can read about our efforts at

The second project is creating a new type of software that is knowledge-oriented. It’s really capable of dealing with all the complexities of what knowledge is, how it changes and morphs. Cerylion is an exercise in a completely new type of software that fixes a lot the limitations of unwitting assumptions made 50 years ago in the early definition of data and programs. It does a number of things, but basically representing and using knowledge presumes flexible semantic connections. It’s about understanding the relationship of one idea to another. Unless you have a system into which you can express and use semantic relations, store and process them, you can’t do many things that are profoundly knowledge-oriented. With it you can solve the kinds of problems I was describing in telecommunications in which our knowledge-oriented system can do things that no major telecommunications company can do today. In effect we are creating a stage change in software that is very much like a cognitive stage change.

Russ: A few years ago, there was a project at Sun Microsystems in which they were trying to take a look at knowledge management. In those types of companies we have the phenomena of individuals with extraordinary knowledge. They leave companies and take a lot of knowledge with them. That sounds like a little different problem than what you’re talking about?

Harry: It’s not really. In fact, the whole field of knowledge management in which I was an early pioneer in the early ‘90’s, is about that problem. How do you manage strategic knowledge in a large company that is only known by experts? And when they walk out the door or retire how do you retain the knowledge? The biggest problem that knowledge management had as a field is that there was no way to capture and represent what bright people know. Knowledge representation and computation based on it is really complicated.

The biggest challenge is to create a software environment in which you can change the structure of knowledge on a daily basis and make it actionable without having to periodically scrap the application and start all over again. That’s has been a 25 year quest for me. In Cerylion, we have proven to ourselves that we’ve done it and three of the largest telephone companies in the world are coming to the realization, slowly, that we’ve cracked the code. There is nothing specific to telecommunications; it’s just that is a good testing ground for validating our breakthrough.

My third project is in applying those ideas to healthcare. That’s a project that I’ve been working on for almost ten years. We’re currently in discussions with some of the largest insurers about using Cerylion technology to make a major difference in healthcare, both in quality and in cost. That is a two hour talk in itself.

In the fourth in which I have been working is also in healthcare. I am an advisor to a program called Health Sciences and Technology (HST) which is a 35 year old collaboration between Harvard, MIT, Massachusetts General and five other teaching hospitals in Boston. In all, it involves 40 faculties, 210 laboratories, and has over 450 doctoral students. It is, without question, the most extraordinary training program in the medical sciences and it’s located at the healthcare’s epicenter. If the Silicon Valley of software is in California, the Silicon Valley of healthcare is in Boston.

What I’ve been involved with is trying to design how this system could evolve in the next 35 years. We are trying to create a better system of making and managing connections, connections between people and ideas, and ideas and financial support. The goal is to increase ten fold HST’s translation of ideas into solutions in healthcare.

Russ: When you think about your role in projects like these, what do you see is the biggest developmental challenge for other people that you need to work with and to bring into the work you’re doing?

Harry: It’s all about envisioning the future so clearly that you know it’s possible. What I’m especially good at—for reasons I’m not sure why, but a lot of it has to do with visual thinking— is being able to create a depiction of today’s dysfunctions, a new blueprint for the way things should work, and a map of how to get there. I am able to speak about it with enough conviction and inspiration that it resonates and becomes the call people want to hear. People generally respond, because they want to be a part of development. Its just that, for whatever reasons, people don’t think big enough or don’t make big ideas seem practical enough. It’s also a matter of keeping at it, because in an academic or a business environment there are so many skeptics and you’ve got to be very good at making the case.

Russ: You’ve got to be able to speak to all those levels of development that you are working with?

Harry: Right. And it’s not only levels of development, but also the functional perspectives of different role players. It’s perspectives within the organization. At any given developmental level, a CFO will think differently from an academic, who will think differently from a student, so on and so forth.

Russ: I have really been appreciating the time you’ve been taking with this. I wonder, as you’ve thought about this interview, whether there is an aspect that you wanted to touch on that we haven’t so far? I feel like I could talk with you for hours about these things, because you’ve raised so many interesting dynamics, developments and aspects to the things we’ve been talking about. Is there a piece of this that we have not gotten to that you had hoped we would?

Harry: I guess it’s this idea—something that I’ve only realized recently—that in the things that I consider myself trying to do, nobody thinks of me as a leader. I don’t even think of myself as a leader. These ideas are all twinkles in my eye, the things I believe in. Probably, people who know me well would be surprised to know that I’m doing some of these things. I guess that we tend to think of leaders as very public people showered with accolades (and sometimes other things). I think there is a much more important form of leadership for which there are many more people who potentially could be leaders in the way in which I’m defining it. For these autonomous leaders, there are no accolades. There is no general recognition that might be due. You might not ever get there, but you might make a very big difference. I think if we sit back and turn leadership into a spectator sport and watch morons go at it publicly, we’re all in trouble.

Russ: I thought you said you weren’t going to comment on the current administration.


Harry: Well, I couldn’t resist.

The problem has been leadership that purposively and skillfully plays on lower stage issues: security and conformity, literally. The entire national discourse has been lowered, and those that have alternative views are drowned out, intimidated or made to look extreme. It’s classic leadership that appeals to lower stage issues, and, as in the 1930’s, it has been very damaging.

It’s especially problematic because the nastiness factor is out there. The nasty problems survive. In a global world, those nasty problems are coming into physical contact with each other and with all of us. We need people to think of themselves, maybe not as leaders, but as people who can make a difference in the development of one aspect of this world or another. They must not be afraid to engage. They must not be afraid to go out and take on something they really care about.

Russ: That’s an inspirational challenge. I would hope that the Integral Leadership Review might have a voice in that process. The other thing I wonder about is if that’s a fifth project for you.

Harry: It could be who knows? I have no idea where the field of leadership is. I’ve probably strayed all over the map from the obvious to the inane, but it’s the way it’s felt to me.

Russ: There is one little nut here that I don’t think we’ve been able to tap into and that is there is something deeper that is driving you. It’s really important and I don’t know if we’ve expressed that.

Harry: Who knows what really drives one? I seek difficult challenges because that is where the value lays—the value of making a difference in the world, leaving it more developed, making it more able to perform and do things for other humans. Development is the driving fascination-—creating development or merely watching it take place.

I think one of the things that makes a grandchild or any child so captivating for humans is that we can watch that whole development process happening again before our eyes. I find it inspirational to be involved in the quest for development whether I get there or not. When I’m engaged in that quest, I feel like I’m experiencing my humanity. If you’re able to do good works in this sense, it makes it more possible for other people to do the same in their way.

So, you are right; to roll these many rocks up hill, you have to have some energy driving it. I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t rewarding in this way.

Russ: You’re really getting at the heart of leadership. It has to do with something that is greater than anyone of us. It is inspiring, not only to us, but also potentially to others. I want to thank you very much for all you’ve shared.

Harry: Thank you for the opportunity.