Leadership Agility with Bill Joiner and Steve Josephs

Russ Volckmann

Russ: Welcome, Bill and Steve. I would like to congratulate you because in October you will have the first integrally informed leadership book to be published by a major publisher in the world. Is that your understanding, too?

Bill: What about Bill Torbert’s Action Inquiry?

Russ: Certainly Action Inquiry includes materials highly relevant to leadership, but I don’t see that as the major focus. But if we include that, then you are second and congratulations are still in order (laughter).

I think of yours as the first, because it is really the first book that focuses on leadership that is being produced by a publisher that has standing both in academic and business communities. Do you think that is a fair statement?

Both: Yes.

Russ: You have been working together for a long time, is that right?

Steve: We’ve been working together a little over five years.

In the Introduction to the book, we use “we” to refer to either one or both of us. That was partly at the urging of our publisher who said, “Readers don’t want to know the nuances of what was Steve and what was Bill, they just want to hear your ideas.” That could give you the impression that we’ve been working together longer than we have, but it’s really that each of us has been work for many years that has led us to this point.

We met in the year 2000 through Bill Torbert and Susanne Cook-Greuter.

Russ: Both of whom have been interviewed in this publication.

Let’s go right to the book. It is a very interesting study from what I’ve seen so far. For the record, I’ve read some preliminary parts of the book—through the second chapter, the last chapter and the end notes.

What have you been doing over the last few years that brought you to this book?

Bill: It really goes back to 1972, when I was a senior in college. I took a course with Bill Torbert that was very significant for me because it introduced me to organizational development, stage development, and meditation. I wrote a paper for that course about stage development theory and then spent the next three years doing research, interviewing people, and developing my own synthesis of stage development theory as it existed at that time. Some of the insights in the book came from that era. I came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1976, largely because Torbert was now teaching there and because it was a center for stage development psychology. My plan was to make connections between organizational development and personal growth using the stage-development perspective.

Russ: There are several people at Harvard who are working with stage development theory, but working very, very differently. If they’re not in the Graduate School, they’re at least associated across disciplines. You not only have Kegan, but Michael Commons and others.

Bill: By the late 1970s, Larry Kohlberg had been there for some time. There was also a new generation at the Ed School, influenced by Piaget and Kohlberg, but broadening the perspective beyond the strictly cognitive approach taken by these two men. Bob Kegan was there. James Fowler was doing work on faith development, and Robert Selman was focusing on the development of childhood friendships. Michael Commons was over at the Medical School, but I wasn’t aware of his work at the time.

Steve: Harry Lasker was also at the Ed School back then.

Bill: Lasker was a very significant influence for us. He was really the first person, as far as I know, who did research on the relationship between leadership and stage development—in his doctoral thesis [Lasker, Harry Morris, PhD. “Ego Development and Motivation: A Cross-Cultural Cognitive-Developmental Analysis of N-Achievement.” The University of Chicago, 1978]. He did field work and workshops to try to help people move from one stage to another and he gained a number of insights from that. I audited one of his courses and learned quite a lot. He is one of many influences on our understanding of developmental stages.

When I came to the Ed School in 1976, I thought I was going to make this grand synthesis between individual and organizational development. Instead I realized that I needed to learn how to become a practitioner, a good OD consultant, understand organizations, and grow up a bit. The stage-development perspective was always in the back of my mind, and I was always writing little things about it to myself, but I rarely showed these pieces to anyone. When I met Steve, he had just gotten turned onto this perspective, and we connected on many different levels. One of the many reasons I am grateful to Steve is that he pulled this out of me front and said, “I really want to do something like this with you.” We could see that there was a lot of interest growing in the integral perspective, the adult developmental perspective, and their practical application. We felt like it was now or never for us to jump in and do it.

Steve: I came at it from a different background, which I think is part of what makes this a good partnership. My interest for many, many years has been in what people in neuro-linguistic programming call modeling—understanding the underlying structures of thought and action and ways of moving through the world that make a top performer. In the early days of NLP, we learned how to model anybody who could do something well. I was particularly interested in business practices—people who negotiated well or made great decisions and so on. Rather than just generating a checklist of best practices, this kind of modeling goes deeper into attitudes and beliefs and what happens on an almost unconscious level, especially at key decision points.

Russ: Did you work with both Bandler and Grinder?

Steve: Yes. I began the Massachusetts Institute of NLP in 1979. In my study of business people—that’s really how I got my business education—I would go into a company and ask if there was anybody who outperformed everyone else by significant multiples; they, themselves, didn’t know why and no one around them knew why. My business was to go in and model that person and use that information to help the company make decisions on selection or inform their training programs. I was interested in these capacities.

I started to realize that there were things happening at a deep level. I had an intuitive sense that something was happening developmentally. I didn’t know anything about adult developmental psychology, but I met Bill Torbert at a party one night and he described to me what he did. I was blown away. He was talking about adult stages of development as applied to leadership. Just hearing him articulate that was a pivotal moment for me.

Later, Bill Torbert and a few of his colleagues were trying to figure out some business directions. He also invited Bill Joiner to attend. They met at my house. Our job was to facilitate the meeting. Bill Joiner and I just really hit it off. We got interested in understanding the specifics of stage development and understanding what is really changing stage to stage. When people move from stage to stage, what does that mean? How do those changes take place? What kinds of activities will encourage stage development?

Bill: Steve became a coach back in the early ‘80’s when coaching was hardly known as a profession. He has incorporated many different methodologies into his practice and become a real master coach.

By the time we started writing the book, we were older guys. We had a lot of experience under our belts. The book includes client stories and an understanding of organizational life that we never could have written in our 20’s or 30’s.

Russ: Before we start getting into the content, in addition to writing the book, have you actually worked together in client contracts? One of you lives on the West Coast and one on the East Coast, right?

Bill: Yes.

We met when Steve was here in Boston. Shortly after this meeting with Bill Torbert and his colleagues, Steve called me up and said, “I’m outlining this book; I want to show it to you.” He walked me through it, and I said, “Well, that’s very interesting, Steve, that’s the same book I’ve just been outlining.”


Steve: Then we each went home and wrote as fast as we could!


Bill: That’s right, be the first to the publisher! Actually, we wound up working together first. We took everything we did with clients in terms of interpersonal collaboration skills and melded them into a program called, “Pivotal Conversations.” We delivered that program together several times. That really gave us a good foundation for working together with clients.

Russ: One of the applications that the two of you are writing about is Pivotal Conversations. It has to do with one-on-one relationships, potentially even group dialogue. Is this the foundation for applying the developmental and integral ideas that you’re offering?

Steve: It’s one of them. In the book we cover three action arenas, one of which is Pivotal Conversations. The others are Team Leadership and Organizational Leadership.

Russ: When you talk about Pivotal Conversations are you talking about leadership or are you talking about something else?

Bill: Well, people often don’t associate interpersonal interactions with leadership, but we do. In fact, the last Pivotal Conversations program we did was for a company that wanted us to train managers who worked in their product development process. They said, “These people need leadership skills.” We asked, “What do you mean?” They said, “There are a lot of tough conversations that have to take place for the product development process to work, up and down the hierarchy and across boundaries. These people are great technically, but they really have trouble with these conversations. That’s what we mean by leadership skills.” Like them, we consider what people learn in our Pivotal Conversations program to be a type of leadership skill.

Russ: You have not distinguished between leadership and management; you see them as either the same thing or as two sides of the same coin, is that correct?

Bill: In the book, we use the two terms “leader” and “manager” interchangeably only when we refer to someone’s role. We do believe that the distinction between leading and managing, as activities, which was originally articulated by Warren Bennis, is a meaningful one. For thirty years now, this paradigm has served a useful purpose. However, at this point, we believe that our framework of levels of leadership agility provides a way to look at this distinction through a finer lens. That is, it’s not just two ways of doing things; it’s five.

Generally speaking, the Expert level is actually a pre-management level. In other words, even if an Expert leader is responsible for managing others, he or she acts more like a supervisor than a full-fledged manager. Achievers, depending on their personality type, may do some of the things people now associate with leadership. But what they are really good at are the classic functions of management. Where we really start to see Bennis’ conception of leadership in action is in the Catalyst’s emphasis on vision and participative decision-making. Co-Creators and Synergists (only about 5% of today’s leaders) build on this kind of leadership and move into levels beyond what Bennis and others have described. So, we’ve found it useful to replace the distinction between management and leadership with a five-level framework that is perhaps a little more sophisticated and a little less stereotypical.

Russ: Would it be fair to say that the lens you’re using is looking at leadership and management within organizations and to understand leadership and management we need to look at them together as opposed to separating them?

Bill: You may be referring to the place where we cite John Kotter’s research on that. He says that the most effective people are those who combine the skills and abilities that are classically considered managing with those that are classically considered leading.

Russ: That is one place. Any approach that does not distinguish between the two is suggesting that they are joined at the hip as concepts. You also add that leadership can be found at all levels of the organization and it’s not necessarily tied to formal position whereas most management functions are.

Bill: As we define it, people can exercise leadership regardless of their position in an organization. There were a number of word choices that we made in writing this book to describe capacities that evolve each time you grow into a new level. For that purpose, our intent was to find terms that could capture what all the levels have in common and not use terms that are descriptive of only one level.

We chose to say that people at all five levels of agility can lead, but what that leadership looks like evolves as you move to more advanced levels of agility. For example, we say that the Expert exhibits a particular level of leadership agility. Experts are more agile than the roughly 10% of managers who still function at pre-Expert levels, but they have a low level of agility compared with the other four levels we describe in the book. At the Achiever level you get good at managing, and then at the three post-heroic levels you get really good at leading.

Russ: We can think of many different kinds of roles in organizations. A key variable is the level of agility. Is that correct?

Steve: In the book we interviewed one particular individual contributor who was at the Co-creator level. This is a pretty sophisticated level of functioning. He really did act like a leader. He was a software developer. Once he got certain ideas, he wanted to see that they lived. He used a lot of very sophisticated leadership skills to make sure that his ideas got a fair shot. He did that very skillfully.

Bill: We didn’t start writing the book with the word “agility” in mind. One of our central research questions was: What exactly is it that develops as people go through these stages? We identified eight distinct capacities that develop all the way from early childhood through the higher stages of adult development. It turned out that every one of them has to do with the ability to respond effectively to complexity and to change. That was when the light bulb went off. No wonder these people are more effective!

We began to see that, when people develop these capacities and translate them into leadership skills, they become better at dealing with higher and higher levels of complexity and change. In other words, they become more agile as leaders. This means that they have a heightened ability to respond effectively to what may be the two deepest trends in the global environment: accelerating change and mounting complexity.

Russ: Certainly those two trends are what’s driving a resurgence in our thinking about leadership, because the demands that are being placed on people in leadership roles are certainly accelerating and the level of complexity that they are having to deal with is also accelerating.

Bill: Absolutely. One of the things that is great about a stage-developmental framework is that it allows us to provide a map for what it means to go to a new level. One of the findings in the research is that only about 10% of managers have the level of agility that’s really needed to be effective in a sustained way in the environment that we are in now.

Russ: What are the valued competencies?

Steve: The best way to look at this is to think of the practical applications. People hire us because they have some kind of initiative in front of them and they want to be more effective in dealing with it. They want to move things forward. I think the beauty of the way this model is laid out is that it focuses on leadership initiatives.

Bill: To get the most out of your leadership initiatives, you need four forms of agility. The eight capacities work in pairs and support the four forms of agility.

Steve: Right, they sit underneath. One form of agility you need for a successful initiative is context-setting agility. This involves being able to scan your environment to choose and scope an initiative and clarify its desired outcomes. A second form of agility is stakeholder agility, which is the ability to identify stakeholders, understand their perspectives, and develop alignment with them. Third is creative agility, which is the ability to identify, diagnose, and solve problems creatively. The last of these four compass points is self-leadership agility. This is the capacity to clarify what kind of leader you want to be and to reflect on and learn from your experience. Underneath each form of agility are two distinct capacities.

Bill: Having identified these eight capacities as what develops through personal stage development, the next question we asked was which of these are relevant to leadership. It turns out that all of them are relevant, because of what Steve just said: They connect with how you need to be agile as you carry out leadership initiatives, whether interpersonal, in leading teams or leading organizations.

For example, context-setting agility is supported by two capacities that evolve further each time you grow into a new stage of development: situational awareness and sense of purpose. Your level of situational awareness influences how much of your environment is really salient for you when you are taking a leadership initiative. Are you an Expert who tends to keep your initiatives inside your own department, or do you look at things in a strategic context, as an Achiever would?

Russ: So from an integral point of view this would mean are you able to look at the cultural and the systemic context of what you’re dealing with. Is that correct?

Bill: Yes. This capacity first emerges at the Achiever level and evolves further at the post-heroic levels. It involves a greater understanding of the human context you’re operating within, relating to it in greater depth and eventually undertaking initiatives that take into account planetary issues. Your sense of purpose evolves from the tactical orientation of the Expert to the strategic orientation of the Achiever to the visionary orientation of the Catalyst and so on. What deepens in the post-heroic stages is the extent to which your leadership is connected with a deep sense of life purpose.

Russ: Here we are dealing with an ontological aspect in the upper left hand quadrant if we were to use a four quadrant model. Is that what you mean?

Bill: It has to do with the connection between what’s deeply meaningful to you as an individual and making a truly significant contribution to the world. It bridges and connects what we think of as the inner and outer dimensions of our lives.

Russ:— in a Mark Edwards sense of integral, if you are familiar with his work. On Integral Naked, there are three conversations between Mark Edwards and Ken Wilbur [See Summary below]. Mark Edwards has published both on Frank Viser’s website and in articles that offer a different way of thinking about the four quadrant model. He treats individual holons and collective holons differently. He is also focused on the interaction in the exchanges among the quadrants, that sort of thing.

Bill: If we’re going to look at things in an integral way, then we need to look at the interdependencies among the four quadrants.

Russ: Exactly.

Bill: Those are the two capacities that relate to context-setting agility.

Russ: And the others?

Steve: The two capacities underlying stakeholder agility are stakeholder understanding and power style. Your level of stakeholder understanding has to do with the depth at which you can see situations from the perspective of your stakeholders. Power style has to do with your assumptions about power and with the extent to which you have balance and integration between your assertive tendencies and your tendency to accommodate others’ needs.

Bill: Two additional capacities provide the support for creative agility, which has to do with your creativity in solving the problems that inevitably arise in carrying out leadership initiatives. The first of these is connective awareness, which is your ability to make meaningful connections between disparate ideas and experiences. The ability to see important relationships between apparent opposites is one aspect of this capacity. The other capacity that supports creative ability is something called reflective judgment. This is a developmental capacity identified and researched by King and Kitchener [Patricia M. King and Karen S. Kitchener (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers], who are followers of William Perry, another stage development psychologist who taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education back in the 1970s. Your level of reflective judgment has to do with the extent to which you understand that all human perceptions and judgments are subjective. The more deeply you understand this, the more you “lighten up” when you encounter conflicting perspectives, which contributes to your creativity in solving problems.

Steve: The fourth form of agility is self-leadership. In our interviews we asked people at different stages of development what leadership means to them. What they said was very revealing. People at the Expert and Achiever stages expressed an heroic conception of leadership. The Expert really wants to be known and respected for expertise and making the right decisions. Achievers really want to enroll others in achieving the outcomes they define. They both think of themselves as being responsible for everything.

If you’re doing executive coaching and you get someone who is overwhelmed by complexity, because they believe they have to do it all themselves, they will say things like, “I’m exhausted. Doesn’t anyone else around here care as much as I do?” Once they get beyond that level, they start listening to other people. They are a little bit more humble. When they finally get to the Synergist level, their sense of self no longer ends at the envelope of the skin. They really see that we are all in the same boat together. It is really interesting to watch this process of development unfold, as people move along from one level to another.

The two capacities that underlie self-leadership are self-awareness—the consciousness of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors—and developmental motivation. At the lower levels of agility people aren’t so much aware of what they feel. At the higher levels that consciousness is much more sensitive and immediate. At the lower levels people don’t necessarily want to reflect. At the higher levels that’s a natural part of what they do all the time.

Bill: We use the term “developmental motivation” to refer to what motivates a person to develop within their current level of leadership agility. For example, what motivates Experts to develop as Experts is a desire for self-improvement. At the Expert and Achiever levels, developmental motivation is fueled by a fair amount of self-judgment. At the Catalyst level, people begin to see that being judgmental toward yourself is often painful, counterproductive and unnecessary. At the post-heroic levels you see leaders who want to do more than just develop professional competencies. They also want to grow as human beings.

Steve: As to what motivates leaders to grow from one stage to another, Bob Kegan does a nice job of describing how the right balance of challenge and support supports development. People begin to feel constrained by their current way of being and they yearn for something different. That accords with my experience, yet I still find the whole process fairly mysterious. I know that people can stay at the same level of development throughout their entire career. They can stay where they were when they were 21 years old and not change at all.

Then there are other people who have a thirst to keep on growing and developing. Their curiosity keeps growing. Their assuredness about what they know starts to fall away as they get past the Achiever level. Life turns into a glorious journey, a never-ending exploration of the wonder of life. Along with that they want to create organizational environments that are wonderful to work in as far as developing everyone’s capacity. They keep expanding the reach of what they are able to contribute through the organization, the community and the world beyond.

Russ: There are so many questions that come up on each of these stages. One of them that is very important is the idea of development, itself, across stages. As you are well aware, Kegan would say, at least in his model, development from one stage to another in adults is typically a very long process—five years or more. Some would even argue that once one has achieved a certain level of development at an earlier stage of life that there isn’t an awful lot of development that is going to occur from there. It seems to me that underlying your whole approach is a very optimistic notion about development or at least the potential for development. Is that a fair assumption? Do you think that through training, through other kinds of developmental activities—the use of meditation or other techniques—that people are actually going to significantly change developmental levels in adult life?

Bill: Regarding the time dimension, Kegan’s framework only describes every other stage in our framework. For example, his Institutional stage is the equivalent of our Achiever, and his next stage, the Inter-Individual, is the equivalent of our Co-Creator. Where Kegan talks about a transition between his two stages, we have an intervening stage called the Catalyst. So Kegan’s “five years or more” would refer to development through two stages or levels in our framework. Still, true development to more advanced stages does take time.

Steve: We are very optimistic about everyone’s potential for growth. At the same time, there’s what I said a minute ago: Some people yearn for more, others seem quite content to stay in their current stage. Can adults who want to develop further do so? Yes, absolutely. The evidence we have for that includes people that we’ve coached and consulted with over a period of time. Using this model of agility levels is very helpful in this respect. It allows us to give clients an idea of where they are in terms of their development.

One of the useful aspects of giving someone a roadmap of how development occurs is that people can get a snapshot of what they would look like in a couple of years if they developed further. This makes their development more efficient, because they actually have an idea of where they are going. That is one of the things that make development happen more quickly. The other thing is, if the coach understands the agility levels and has been through the transition that they’re leading their client through, it happens more quickly. We have many actual examples of people making a shift in levels of leadership agility through coaching. That has been verified by pre and post assessments.

Russ: When we are talking about development from an integral point of view, there is the idea of lines of development. One can see the connections to intellectual and emotional development, but are there other lines of development relevant to your work—development around ethics, morality, spirituality or other lines?

Bill: This is an important topic. As I see it, the categories that Wilber and others use in referring to lines of development are largely artifacts of what different researchers have chosen to focus on—as you mentioned, intellectual development as one line and emotional development as another. For example, Piaget focused much more on intellectual development than on social/emotional development. Robert Selman focused much more on the socio-emotional dimension. But when you study people in action, which has been our focus, these two lines tend to come together. Maybe that’s why Buddhist psychology emphasizes the fact that, in everyday life, thoughts and feelings tend to be intertwined.

If you ask someone, “Do you know anyone who is more developed intellectually than they are emotionally?” they can usually come up with lots of examples. But what do we mean when we say this? Here’s one example: There are a number of people who can grasp integral theory intellectually, yet their emotional life in terms of the way they interact with other people hasn’t necessarily developed to the same level. When we think of intellectual development in this way, we’re usually thinking of a person’s ability to read or write or talk about something theoretically. That can be very different than the way the same person thinks in the midst of action. Our research focused on how leaders process things cognitively and emotionally in the heat of action. By looking at people in an action context we found that the cognitive and the emotional are quite intertwined. Intellectual and social/emotional as different lines of development tend to even out quite a bit.

What emerged in our research as another way to think about different lines of development were the eight capacities we described a few minutes ago. As we really got to understand them, as they are used in action contexts, we noticed that each capacity has both a cognitive aspect and an emotional aspect. When you read the book, I think you’ll be struck by the extent to which all the capacities within a given level reinforce one another.

There’s something else that comes into this. I think it’s one of our most important findings: At every level of leadership agility, there’s a central capacity that informs all the eight capacities we’ve described. We call this central capacity your level of awareness and intent.

For example, Achievers have a capacity for reflecting on experience that has already taken place. They might say to themselves, “Next time I lead a team meeting, I’m going to ask a lot more questions, because my style has been the opposite of that.” Then they walk out later and say, “Oh god, I did it again! I didn’t listen.” They have that reflective capacity, but its limitation is that it doesn’t take place in the meeting, on the spot. Achievers can use their reflective capacity in coaching sessions and in other settings to help them experiment with new behavior. But the Catalyst has this ability to reflect on the spot. That gives them a lot more leverage for changing their behavior. That’s the difference that one level of awareness and intent can make.

We believe that your level of awareness and intent plays the central role in developing and integrating the eight capacities found at each level of development. To use Gregory Bateson’s phrase, at each level these eight capacities form an “ecology of mind.” So, if you’re trying to understand what’s going on in the midst of action, and you’re trying to go beyond theory and really help people develop as leaders, I’m not sure that divorcing, say, intellectual and emotional development is a really productive approach.

Russ: By implication, still using the concept of lines, can we relate what you’ve just ascribed to a line of development a requirement for people to develop further?

Bill: In our research, here’s where differences between lines of development seem to be most clear. At each level of agility, we find the entire range of different personality types, such as those identified by the Myers Briggs Type Inventory or the Enneagram. One of the differences these frameworks highlight is that some people place more emphasis on thinking, while others place more emphasis on feeling. Consequently, we can have two people at the same level of agility, but one has done more to develop the cognitive aspects of that level, while the other has done more to develop the emotional aspects.

We think that this relative emphasis on different lines of development, such as cognitive or emotional is largely a function of “practice.” This goes back to Piaget’s finding that, even with infants in cribs, development takes place through practice, through an action-learning cycle. Each time a person “practices” a particular response, they engage in an action-learning cycle that makes use of the level of awareness and intent that corresponds to their current stage of development. Development to a new level takes place the same way only you engage in these cycles with a new level of awareness and intent.

People tend to engage in these continual cycles of action and learning in ways that reinforce their personality type. For example, let’s say that I’m moving into the Catalyst level and my personality type emphasizes the intellectual over the emotional. The easiest thing for me to do, then, is to apply the Catalyst level of awareness and intent, which involves reflecting on the spot to my thinking process. I might get very good at questioning assumptions, for example. People of a more emotional type gravitate toward becoming more aware of their feelings and their relationships.

One of the things that really struck us in our research is how much room there is for development within each level, particularly when you give attention to different capacities. Some of the most helpful coaching that, say, an Achiever, can get is help in fully applying their Achiever level capacities to areas in their life that they haven’t fully applied them to.

Russ: So you’re not going to be fixing people. You are going to be working with them where they are. The development that takes place is going to be dependent on what’s important to them and what drives them.

Steve: Absolutely, always! Or else it’s likely to fail.

Russ: Would you suggest that the approach you’re taking and what you’re writing about regarding agility is very much in keeping with other leadership development approaches that are integrally based? Is it offering a menu of approaches to have something from each line or else the developmental process will be delayed or undermined?

Bill: In working with clients we focus a lot on the four forms of agility. For example, we can help an Achiever determine how strong they are in context-setting agility versus stakeholder agility, and so on. We help them become more robustly developed in all four of these areas, because when it comes down to making leadership initiatives work really well, you really need all four forms of agility.

Russ: In your leadership agility paper, which is available as a download on your website, you make the statement that consistently effective leadership in this uncertain environment requires, at minimum, mastery of the visionary facilitative orientation found at the Catalyst level of agility. Intuitively that makes sense. The logic of it makes sense, but I’m wondering if we have any evidence other than anecdotal (the number of people that we can identify is pretty small) that higher levels of complexity in development are more effective in dealing with the higher levels of complexity of problems that businesses and organizations are facing in the world today. Do you have anything on that?

Bill: Torbert and his colleague David Rooke published a multi-year study of ten CEOs that backs up this claim, but ten CEOs is fairly anecdotal. Our own most recent study included 220 managers. Of these, 63 functioned at post-heroic levels of agility. We did not do a rigorous empirical study that isolated the variables of complexity and change and correlated them with level of agility. But what we have is pretty compelling. I think when you read the stories in the book you’ll see the kind of pattern we talk about.

Russ: In the story of Robert that’s in your white paper he is a CEO who did a really significant turn around. Is that correct?

Steve: Yes.

Russ: One of the things that came up for me is, from an integral point of view, that we have a tendency to turn the leader role into a heroic role. I know you write about heroic and post heroic models from Bradford and Cohen (Managing for Excellence and Power Up).

When we’re looking at the behavior of CEO’s in a turn around situation, we have a tendency to emphasize to a heroic extent the role of the CEO as leader. We do not take into consideration leadership at other levels of the organization or contextual variables about culture and systems. That’s a concern because if we’re going to take an integral approach to leadership, then we’ve got to look through those lenses. I understand that in this particular book, that is a much bigger scope than you were willing to take on, but I would be interested in your comments about that.

Steve: I think that is an excellent point. In the case of someone like Robert, it really gets down to what Lao Tzu said about leadership. The best leaders are the ones that when they finish, people say, “We did this ourselves.” Unless they help to create and promote an organization that functions that way, where everyone sees themselves as having the capacity to take initiative, then they didn’t really do a good job. It’s a paradoxical thing. That transformation of the organization to get to a place where everyone is more empowered might not have happened unless there was a person at the top who got the ball rolling.

Bill: I thought about this issue while we were writing the book. I thought, what would a fully integral approach be if we considered all the holons? How far out would we need to go? We can look at the leader in an organizational context. We can put that organization into an industry context. We can put that industry into a global context. We can put that into an interplanetary context, and so on. And we could try to describe how all these holons develop. But we have to stop somewhere. In the book the holon we focus on is the individual leader.

Our attempt to deal with context surrounding the individual leader was to describe leadership in three arenas: working relationships, teams, and organizations. We felt it was very important to highlight all three, because leadership is so often equated only with organizational leadership. Each action arena requires a whole different set of skills. We also described the extent to which each leader considered social and environmental issues in the initiatives they took.

What Steve said about the issue you raise is exactly what came to my mind: Post-heroic leadership is inherently paradoxical—Catalysts, by the way, are very interested in paradoxes. On the one hand, Robert took the initiative to get people throughout the organization to participate in developing a new strategy. He held a lot of two-way communication meetings with employees to ensure a high degree of alignment over time. In one sense, that’s what really made the difference. Yet it is equally true that the turnaround took place because so many people throughout the company decided to take constructive leadership. On the one hand, it’s the individual, and on the other hand, it’s the collective.

Russ: Also it’s the context, meaning that even time is a variable. Is it possible that under some conditions you really want to have that Achiever level of leadership versus the Catalyst level or higher?

Bill: Yes, that’s another important point. As leaders develop through these levels they retain all the capacities that they had at the previous levels. For example, the Achiever has the ability to move back and forth between the strategic and the tactical. That sort of capacity keeps expanding as leaders move through the post-heroic levels. That’s very important because otherwise we might think that once they get really developed they lose complete touch with reality, right? They can’t do stuff that’s concrete anymore. But that’s certainly not the case.

Russ: In your work you use elements of a number of developmental models. Why did you intentionally exclude Spiral Dynamics?

Bill: It’s not so much that we excluded it, but rather that we did not incorporate all aspects of its “v-memes,” or stage descriptions, into our synthesis.

Russ: Well, it’s been such an influential model within the integral realm, if you will, that to exclude it as completely as you have seems interesting.

Bill: We reviewed all the leading stage models, including Spiral Dynamics, and we synthesized them with one another and with our own research. We looked at the early pioneers like Piaget, Erikson, and Margaret Mahler. We studied Jane Loevinger’s work on what she calls “ego development,” which synthesized many previous stage theories. We studied Ken Wilber’s ideas and we incorporated the work of Lasker, Kegan, Fowler, and Selman, as well as the work of King and Kitchener who were strongly influenced by William Perry.

Russ: His work, by the way, continues to be influential in research that’s being done among college students.

Bill: Right. That’s where he focused originally.

Anyway, we took a careful look at all the major stage development theories. We found that, in spite of the differences you would expect between researchers and the conceptual frameworks they use, the stages they describe are remarkably similar.

There were only two stage theories that gave us any pause. The first was Larry Kohlberg’s. You asked earlier about moral or ethical development. As you know, Kohlberg formulated two “pre-conventional” stages, two “conventional” stages, and two “post-conventional” stages of moral development. His focus was on how children and adults reason about moral dilemmas. To my knowledge no one has seriously challenged his first four stages, which are very consistent with those found in other stage-development models. But his post-conventional stages were challenged in a number of ways, partly because other academics exposed certain biases in the way he interpreted the data he collected and partly because of new data that didn’t fit the model. A major problem, I think, is that he tried to study moral decision-making as if it were an exclusively intellectual activity. Anyway, we decided to incorporate only those aspects of his post-conventional stages that were consistent with the findings of other stage-development researchers and with our own research on leaders.

The other model that gave us some pause was Spiral Dynamics, and we wound up treating it in a similar manner. The problem we ran into was this: A core of each of their stage descriptions – or “v-memes” – match what we found in the leaders we studied and they matched what other researchers have found. I think people who read our book and are also familiar with Spiral Dynamics will see a number of connections between the two frameworks. At the same time, the “v-memes” described in Spiral Dynamics also include a number of additional elements that are inconsistent with our findings and those of other researchers.

Russ: You are saying there are a whole bunch of catalyst level people that would fall into one of the levels of the spiral other than green?

Bill: No.

Russ: Are you suggesting that they are blue, orange, green and potentially a second tier catalyst level people?

Bill: No. What I’m trying to say is more like this: There are a number of correspondences, say, between the blue level of the Spiral and what we call the Conformer level, the level just prior to Expert. Beck and Cowan’s orange v-meme has a number of characteristics that are descriptive of managers who function at the Expert and Achiever levels. Their green v-meme has a number of characteristics found in our Catalyst-level leaders. For example, as the green v-meme would suggest, when leaders develop from the Achiever to the Catalyst level, they move beyond a strictly rational orientation and they get much more interested in consensus decision-making.

However, in the way Beck and Cowan describe it at the green level people adopt consensus decision-making as a kind of ideology. They adopt a strongly “communitarian” orientation. They value harmony over competitiveness and they believe that all the Earth’s resources and opportunities should be spread equally among all. The thing is: None of our Catalyst-level leaders adopted consensus decision-making as an ideology. In fact, they worked hard to determine when to make a decision by consensus and when to make it by themselves. In addition, only one Catalyst leader had a worldview that approached the green v-meme’s communitarian orientation.

I think there definitely are many people at the Catalyst level who’ve developed a value-and-belief system similar to the green v-meme. That’s what gives the Spiral its face validity, if you will. At the same time, I think there are many people at the Catalyst level whose v-memes don’t correspond to the green level in the Spiral. I don’t mean that they hold orange or yellow v-memes, instead. I mean that they hold other constellations of values and beliefs that aren’t currently captured in the Spiral. For example, if I’m not mistaken, Ken Wilber once said he’d never been through the green level. I think he grew through the corresponding stage. It’s just that the value-and-belief system he held then didn’t match the one depicted in the Spiral.

If you say that all people evolve through a particular set of value-laden worldviews in a particular order and you assume that everyone at a particular stage of development necessarily holds a particular kind of value-and-belief system, then you don’t make room for the full range of values and worldviews that actually exist among people at each stage. The unfortunate result can be a tendency toward stereotyping people at different levels of the Spiral. For example, a year or two ago I read an interview where someone equated Republicans with one level in the Spiral and Democrats with another. That implies that people first become Republicans and then become Democrats. As much as I’d like that to be true, I think we can all think of counter-examples.

Russ: That’s an abuse, I would say.

One of the dangers about the developmental stage models is comparability among them is difficult. It’s really difficult to compare one stage model to another because each one is looking at a different set of variables. So, ego development may be what’s going on with Torbert and Loevinger, but Kegan’s is different. There is not a direct correlation between Kegan’s model and the Loevinger-based model. As a consequence, you’re looking at similar things, but not necessarily a direct correlation. The same would be true with Spiral Dynamics. I’m postulating here that Spiral Dynamics is looking at a different set of variables and does not correspond directly to these other models. Is that a possibility?

Bill: I think it’s a possibility. So let’s think about that for a moment. Before we arrive at that conclusion, I think we need to convince ourselves that Spiral Dynamics does, in fact, focus on a different set of variables than those addressed in other stage-development theories. Spiral Dynamics focuses on the evolution of v-memes, or what we call value-and-belief systems in individuals, groups, and societies. One of its great strengths is that it looks at development not only in the individual but also on a collective scale. It’s also true that other stage-development theories include aspects of individual development that Spiral Dynamics doesn’t necessarily address. However, there is a significant area where Spiral Dynamics and many other stage theories all focus on the same set of variables. This has to do with the development of individual value-and-belief systems.

There are a number of different stage theories that have researched how individual value-and-belief systems evolve. Loevinger, Lasker, Kegan, Fowler, Perry, King and Kitchener all have addressed this issue in their work. And they’ve all basically come to the same conclusions.

For example, they found that people at what we call the Conformer stage get their values and view of the world through a process of unreflective osmosis. Because of the other characteristics of that stage, their values and beliefs tend to be held rigidly. But the content of these values and beliefs can vary quite a bit across different groups and individuals. At the Achiever stage people reflect on their experience, consciously choose their own values and develop their own worldview. In between, at the Expert stage, they’re about midway through this process. As people grow beyond the Achiever stage, they increasingly see the subjectivity of their own v-memes and they become more open to understanding and appreciating other value-and-belief systems. We found this same developmental progression in the leaders we studied.

In other words, these researchers all found that the key differences between people at different stages isn’t the content of their values and beliefs. What they found was an evolving relationship with their value-and-belief systems. In some cases, as people develop into the post-conventional or post-heroic stages, they make big changes in their values and beliefs. In other cases, their v-memes don’t change that much, but they hold their values and beliefs more lightly.

That said, comparing one stage-development theory with another isn’t where our primary interest lies at this point. We’re much more interested in helping people use developmental insights to increase the quality of leadership in our beleaguered world.

Russ: What have been the key strategies for development that you have found have been most consistently required in the work that you’ve done with executives?

Steve: I can speak to that from a coaching perspective. As a coach I’m always looking for opportunities to expand an executive’s capacities. For instance, if an executive is getting ready for what we would call a pivotal conversation, I’ll ask them, “How are you going to approach that conversation? And how will you open it? What kind of frame will you put around it?” Sometimes they aren’t aware that they need to have one. In this example, they might say, “Well, I was going to approach it like this, and here are the main points I would make,” and so on.

I would jot that stuff down, and then use a technique Bill and I have called the Reverse Role Play. We let the executive play the other person, become the other person as much as possible.

Russ: I first encountered that as a Gestalt technique in the early 1970s..

Steve: Yes. Gestalt and other disciplines, too. The question is what is it like to be in the role of the other? That’s one of the things that we work on in the Achiever-Catalyst shift—developing that capacity. In this particular format, I instruct the executive to be in the role of the other person as much as possible. I ask him to talk like them, to sit like them, to use the same cadence they have in their speech and use the same figures of speech. It’s surprising how much people get into it.

Russ: Is what you’re trying to do is support people in creating more capacity for looking at themselves in situations, to examine the issues and the behaviors of other people and so forth from multiple perspectives? You are trying to expand their repertoire of perspectives?

Steve: Exactly. That’s why this kind of exercise is so important. The executive wants to be successful in this negotiation or conversation so there is a good reason to get into it. Once they get into it they discover surprising things by taking the other person’s point of view. After doing that a number of times, they start to realize that there are better ways to open a conversation, to frame a conversation, to invite the other person’s viewpoint to be spoken in the conversation rather than simply, if that’s their approach to persuasion, to present their side of it and be very assertive about it.

Russ: Here is the link to learning and action. The action is rehearsal or visualizing. That’s what you’re supporting in the approach, is that right?

Steve: Right. And then the question is how do you expand that out into a group? How do you run your team meetings as an executive so that multiple points of view can be taken in? What are the kinds of decision processes that you can use that will keep your ability to be decisive in place, when you need that, and still have a deep discussion about the pros and cons of any important issue the team needs to handle?

Russ: Here you’re adding onto pivotal conversations, the team perspective, is that correct?

Steve: Yes, pivotal conversations tend to occur in one-on-one settings. In coaching the idea is to use the client’s various challenges as an opportunity for them to think differently and come at things differently.

Another method that we use, which is consistent with Ken Wilber’s work, is helping the client learn how to create a mental space where they can drop all their preconceptions and thoughts and do that on a regular basis. There are various meditative techniques or clearing-the-mental-deck, techniques that you can introduce, when clients are amenable to it. For those who are interested I help them develop some kind of daily practice that they can do in a variety of circumstances and where they can calm their physiology and relax their thought processes.

Russ: I found something really interesting in your research. You found more and more cases of people at higher levels of development who meditated or used some approach that was comparable to meditation.

Steve: Yes, because when you get into meditation, you find the value of being in a place of not knowing and dropping what you know. Both Bill and I are very strong meditators. I have had a daily practice for 40 years, and I still meditate three hours a day.

We are also very interested in how you take that meditative awareness into business life. How do you take the dissolved or softened self that meditation cultivates and bring it into an environment where you have to be very effective? That’s a wonderful developmental exercise. I think there is no better one.

If I had the choice between a monastic life purely focused on meditation and a lifestyle that included both meditation and functioning in the business world, I would choose the latter. The business world will show you which hopes and fears you cling to and meditation gives you a method for learning, letting go and resting in awareness. Then you return to business again, this time with a little less attachment, less obscuring of your judgment and your compassion. As you develop, the meditative awareness becomes more and more available in the midst of the business world. Bill was talking about awareness and intent. How do you keep expanding your awareness and refining your intent in a situation that isn’t calm, that tests you?

Russ: Would you like to add anything to that Bill?

Bill: In our research sample, we found that Co-Creator and Synergist leaders were much more likely to meditate than those at earlier levels. About 40% of our Co-Creators had a regular meditation practice about 10% had a “semi-regular” practice. Among the Synergists, 50% had a regular practice and 35% were semi-regular meditators.

At the core of all the methods we use with clients is what we call reflective action: the process of alternating between being immersed in an experience and stepping back, reflecting and learning from the experience. Whether that’s done through coaching. through action learning, workshops or whatever, this runs through everything we do. The other thread is what we call attentional practices, which include meditative practices and also things like The Reverse Role Play, where clients learn to use their attention in a different way. Clients use reflective action and attentional practices to develop their level of awareness and intent.

For example, what we see when people move into the Catalyst level is that they get momentary flashes of direct attention that help them reflect better on the spot. At the Co-creator and Synergist levels, we see more people meditating or doing other kinds of things that help them develop a strong experiential awareness which they bring into their daily life.

Russ: I appreciate your taking the time to do this. I know your lives are pretty busy these days. I want to appreciate the contribution you are making in what you are presenting here. So thank you.

Steve: Thank you, Russ. I think the interview was wonderful.

Bill: It’s really a pleasure to be interviewed by somebody who understands this material so deeply, not just conceptually, but experientially, and it’s great to have an opportunity to get the word out about what we’re doing. So thank you.