Fresh Perspective: Integral Leadership Development: A Conversation with Bert Parlee

Russ Volckmann

Bert Parlee

Q: You seem to be involved in so many things – your work with Integral Institute, with Integral Development Associates, with the Stagen Institute, teaching at JFK University, your role with Ken Wilber, leading an integral workshop at Esalen in Big Sur – that there are a number of different approaches we could have to this conversation. Let’s go right to the heart of my interests: What are you doing that is related to Integral Leadership?

A: There’s II, IDA, there’s the organizational psychology program in which I mainly teach in the coaching department at JFK. I must say it’s becoming a luxury I’m not sure I can afford much longer. I’m also teaching at Notre Dame and their executive leadership program. All relate to leadership.

Q: Are you actually instructing, coaching or both?

A: Instructing.

Q: I talked with Bob Anderson and I know he’s doing some coaching in that program.

A: Yes, he has his Leadership Circle 360 that he works with there. I’m also working as a facilitator and coach with the Stagen Institute’s program for CEOs.

As for leadership, I think just a wide angle, high perspective frame of the whole thing is that what we seem to have now at the dawn of this century. With a few decades behind us there has been a real shift from what we would understand to be traditional, more command and control, hierarchical systems giving way to different kinds of systems where teamwork and collaboration are more and more in alignment with the cultural changes that are coming to be the norm. In particular, we are moving more towards collaboration into—if we use the language of development—more realistic, relativistic, meaning making systems. These are reaching up and stretching, trying to move into a multi-systemic system, which for those of us with integral sensibility would understand as second tier vision logic and post formal operational thinking. This also involves a lot of change as we shift into global dynamics: Tom Freeman’s idea of the flat world. It requires people to shift, adapt and hone their niches much more finely and collaborate with all other players with all sorts of in-sourcing and outsourcing ways that are pretty challenging for people.

Q: You said it is becoming the norm. Do you know of organizations where you are seeing this become the norm? If we think about some of the dominant organizations—at least politically and in the business world—there isn’t an awful lot of evidence of that.

A: You mean in the federal governmental system?

Q: And I’m thinking of businesses like the Halliburtons of the world.

A: Well, some of those systems certainly less so than others. If we take an example of Halliburton, we see the kind of meltdown that occurred there. They are running into problems and difficulties. The restructuring of that organization will be much more in alignment with some of the things we just talked about. The change process is as slow to adopt as it can manage. Some people have reliable markets; there are old systems in place that allow some of the already existing systems to continue to be functional in the way that they have been. But it seems that more and more the way supply chains go it’s asking the world and organizations within it to be adaptive to some of the ways that are now described as being flat, as being collaborative. It’s probably only a matter of time before most organizations have to align themselves with some of these new ways of doing business with one another.

Q: With the growing emergence of the roles of women in business organizations and elsewhere do you see that there is a connection between what you’re talking about and a shift from a dominator to a partnership culture in Riane Eisler’s sense?

A: Oh, absolutely! There are all kinds of legal structures in place that look for and ask for that. This becomes huge in its own right while there is more accountability asked for. There is more of that looked for as people’s meaning making systems are aligning with those values and those codes. People look with increasing suspicion at structures where there is no representation of something minority, something female. At least to some degree it becomes very suspect.

Q: Is this true only in our U.S. culture or European as well?

A: A question like that, which is a really good question, is a political question in that there are clearly differences and degrees of adaptation of those meaning making systems. America and Europe are in many ways ahead of the curve. That cultural change that has been occurring in the last half century has been happening predominantly in Western cultures. By the West we mean liberal democracies and more or less capitalist systems that are well regulated by governments.

To a large degree, there is a middle way. You also get countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and other parts of the world that are not just in Europe or in America with variations of this. But I think it’s true that America is the leading edge. There is some disagreement. Some people think Europe is ahead in some ways and there are certain arguments to be made there. I just came back from several weeks in Europe and watched the way that there is more progress in some areas, but certainly a lot less in others. There is no doubt that Western liberal democracies continue to lead the charge on these cultural developments. It’s different here.

Q: The variations certainly highlight the challenges of globalization.

A: Yes. It really speaks to a step-by-step process. This is one of the ways that integral brings a lot of value. Ken Wilber, Don Beck and others recognize that beginning with systems that are quite tribal and having them shift immediately to egalitarian, reciprocal, democratic societies is not realistic. We have to go through the developmental steps in gradually getting here. Demands to inappropriately accelerate that process are going to be problematic.

Q: It’s probably not as easy to leapfrog value systems as leapfrogging technology, is it?

A: Right! The leapfrog of technology will help in accelerating some of the cultural code changes. But even then, there is going to be a somewhat gradual process that will have to occur. It can’t be as quick as technological leapfrogging.

Q: You also mentioned the move to second tier. This is, of course, a developmental hypothesis. By all accounts, when we’re talking about second tier, at least in terms of stage development and not just states, we’re really talking about a miniscule proportion of the population. My sense is that what Wilber’s trying to accomplish is to focus on that transition arena where people who are centered in green in first tier are preparing to make a shift that would have them embracing more of second tier. Is that hypothesis accurate?

A: I think it is. I think that’s really what’s coming. We’re in the middle of engaging with the cultural creative mindset and worldview of the Boomer Generation. It has been toying with the idea of shifting—and has been given lots of opportunities in the last decade to see the limitations of that worldview—into this other meaning making system. This has been challenging and hard, because it is hard. There are a lot of dimensions to finding a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal of its own meaning making system that it has struggled so hard to birth. That’s exactly what the work of someone like Ken Wilber provides: how to language and articulate a second tier perspective and worldview so it doesn’t seem to people like it’s only a regression.

Q: The whole concept of Integral is being used at least a couple of different ways. One is as the description of a stage of development and the other as a full range of theory and models. If that’s accurate, then when you’re thinking about leadership development are you thinking primarily in terms of that movement into second tier or are you thinking of the full range of stages of development in the perspectives you’re taking?

For example, leadership development in Leo Burke’s program at Notre Dame where you are teaching and the CEO program at the Stagen Institute each involve working principally with people who are coming from Orange and helping them learn about the potentials for development and about how they might engage with those at other levels of development. Is that accurate? They are working with first tier, mostly with Orange. Orange is challenged in dealing with Blue or Green. Orange is not going to be able to see yellow very clearly.

A: We’re talking apples and oranges a bit here. When you were asking your last question, I was giving a larger overview and it seemed like we were talking on a meta-systemic level. But in terms of real leaders and real organizations, it’s much more a situation where we’re working with individuals who are moving from traditional meaning making systems to autonomous, independent ones: Blue to Orange in Spiral Dynamics terms. We are also working with people who are already in the strive-drive, achievement mindset of Orange into the egalitarian, collaborative sensibility of Green: relativistic, realistic. So that’s much more where the action is. Absolutely. What we try to do is frame it with some of the simple elements of Integral around the quadrants where we show the individual and collective internal and external dimensions of any individual or organizational system. That’s helpful. One of the things that we learned at IDA some years ago is that we always try to present meaning making systems more as types than we do as a vertical system, which…

Q: Is that because of the resistance to the stages idea and to the verticality ide A: hierarchy?

A: Yes. We’ve learned that it’s easier and more skillful to talk about if people start seeing verticality to validate their perceptions. Yes, this is what you see. But we don’t like to talk about it as better or worse, higher or lower. The frame that has become the most useful is—Torbert and others have been using this—is earlier and later development. Then there is the whole thing about lines of development, which is a whole other part of the conversation.

Q: Yes, because even Susanne Cook-Greuter talks about moving up to the higher levels of the model that she and Torbert are using. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make you happier, which suggests that maybe it’s not as vertical as we would like, at least among some dimensions of human experience. In any case, you’re really focused in on using what we’re learning and developing around integral theory and practice to work with people who are not attuned to it yet. Do you think that by exposing them to these types or stages, these ideas of first and second tier—the different value sets and so forth—that it is going to leverage their movement vertically by promoting development?

A: When you present people with a larger perspective that identifies different ways to understand the self and their world there are no guarantees. It has more and more of a possibility of opening people to see the world a little differently. When they see from where they come, it often builds in that developmental perspective. They reflect, “Oh, that looks familiar. That one looks reasonable, in fact, it seemed like I was at this once before. I was at that one and that one. How does that make sense to you, Joe?  I see a similar sort of pattern here in the way I’ve developed, too.” If they see that, it’s presented in a non-threatening way where it’s just typological and they make their own developmental presumptions, which we can validate, then when they see another stage that doesn’t seem to have been part of their experience yet. They become more interested in the system that has taken their very own real experience into account. They are more likely to assume that there may be some legitimacy to what seems to be next. Then we can have conversations about how to cultivate some of the steps to be taken to get there. They will explore this, if that new level of development brings with it more capacities within which to make change, adapt, ultimately to be successful.

Q: That’s very clear when it comes to one’s own development. If they gain this perspective, are they able to scaffold that kind of information, that way of seeing the world, into shifts and alterations in their interpersonal and collective relationships?

A: It begins by giving them an appreciation of other meaning making systems as they encounter them in organizations and elsewhere. There is good sympathy and recognition that different people understand the world in different ways. We try to build in some of these principles associated with meeting people where they are: first joining the people before there is really a good opportunity and chance to lead. There needs to be a fulfillment of recognition, affirmation, validation of people where they are, such that they then feel disposed to open themselves to some new learning that a person who is coming into alignment with this developmental model can then start presenting a little bit. We let them know that at different levels there are ways to affirm people. For instance, at Blue or at the traditional level, we really validate their sense of duty, of obligation, of responsibility, of efficiency, things of that nature. Then we start using the language a little bit. These are half steps forward. They can be encouraged if success requires them to shift and change.

These are some of the small steps that can be taken to move in that direction. It really is beginning with meeting people where they are—always—and affirming that. That’s why it’s not really about trying to get people to go into second tier or anything like that, but looking at where they are and what are the beliefs that keep people where they are? This is where I think some of Kegan’s work has tremendous value. One of the things I use most frequently is his languages of change process. We have most of those overt, espoused value intentions to shift and grow, be free and develop. We also have what he’s called competing commitments based on big assumptions that lock us pretty solidly in place as to organization.

Q: Yes. It’s not just the individual, but the social languages as well.

A: Yes.

Q: Clearly, the work of Don Beck in South Africa and in Zambia in the mining industry, the work he did with Alan Tonkin and others, was about helping people, especially in leadership and management roles, recognize the dynamics of the lower stages, Purple moving into Red was prevalent in those industries and may still be. That’s looking downward from a higher level of development: people who are in Blue, Orange or whatever, being able to see those. Do you think by helping them see upward by presenting them with these ideas, concepts and models that they are able to take that and use it to be more effective in that direction of communication, as well?

A: It depends on from what level we begin. This becomes a little more effective at the achievement or the Orange mindset where there is much more capacity to understand verticality. We can use it at traditional and below as a typological model. In fact, that’s one of the best things to help people at the traditional mindset to see: there are different ways of being in the world.

When you can help people see that some individuals are introverted and others are extroverted and use feeling, thinking, sensing, intuition and so forth, that really starts building into diversity, which is really valuable relative to personal difference. But I wouldn’t want to try and make too much of a vertical system or anything lower than achievement. Those in the achievement mindset, because of what they have developed and how they have progressed, can usually reflect on their own life and the way they’ve moved from traditional to some kind of independent meaning making systems. They can also see that there are all sorts of ways for them to win. This is fundamentally important. They can develop more capacities and grow into more complex individuals that can hold more as they face complex challenges.

Q: So by implication, someone who is in the achievement orientation can begin to at least comprehend the existence of the other levels—in Spiral Dynamics terms, the Green and second tier levels—and be able to recognize that they have individuals and sometimes even key individuals in their organizations who have those orientations. As a consequence they are able to at least appreciate their worldview, their perspectives and the contributions that they’re bringing to their organizations. Do you think that’s true?

A: I think it is, yes.

Q: What are some of the ways—types of projects, types of programs, methodologies—that you have been involved in developing? You have been doing this, as we’ve pointed out, in a number of different contexts over what has to be several years now, right?

A: Yes. Again, one of the most valuable ways of getting this into action is a valuable little tool by Bob Kegan, the languages of change that he’s constructed. It’s good for any level moving to whatever the next one might be. That has been quite wonderful.

Q: I have used that with clients, individually and with groups and in training coaches, so I’m aware of that methodology and I think it is important. I’m also thinking about the kind of thing that Fred Kofman presents in Conscious Business. What I thought was brilliant about Fred’s Conscious Business was that he took a second tier perspective. He took a perspective that allowed him to bring in a lot of the historical methodologies that have been used in training and development for decades and reframe them and recast them in that context. That was brilliantly done. In a way, by taking techniques like Kegan’s methodology around the languages of change and bringing it into a program that has an integral perspective, it is also a brilliant way of bringing those tools to life and making them work in a developmental way.

A: Can you give me an example of what Fred does a little more explicitly?

Q: Well, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to the CD’s. He brings in actual training techniques, methodologies, frameworks around communication that have been around for some period of time and yet talks about them in the context of awareness and consciousness in business.

A: I see what you mean. Fred was schooled in the Fernando Flores experiential learning approach. He drew on a lot of work of the early action learning approach. When you combine those things with an integral perspective, you’ve got a lot of capacity.

Q: Yes, that’s what I was referring to. We find this approach in organization development and training.

A: I think so much of Integral’s contribution is making intelligent use of a lot of other people’s work. It is based on honoring and including. So much of the value comes from being able to tool it to different purposes. Some of what Fred does, for instance looking at communication and how it can go wrong between people, is so valuable to develop conversations in ways that identify what are the words that are actually spoken and then bring in the complexity of what is assumed, what is heard, what feelings are experienced. It gives people tools with which they can make explicit elements of their inner experience.

It’s such a valuable way to bring in reflective observation to the process. Then you’ve got a tool kit with which you can explore disconnects, confusion, mal-attunement, things of that nature. These are simple and structured ways and create more opportunity to get the clarity and resolution.

One of the other ways Integral is adapting to some of what’s going on out there in the leadership world is the incredible rise in emotional intelligence. This is a line of development and, of course, there are all kinds of parallel work going on here in various lines of emotional intelligence. The business world has embraced that. It’s trying to become more sensitive and attuned to addressing emotional intelligence in this culture.

Emotional intelligence matches up very nicely with the quadrants: self-awareness in the upper left and self-management in the upper right quadrant. There are several qualities and attributes associated with those. There are processes and structures that allow you to employ these things in ways that give people an experiential recognition and awareness of what they’re actually doing and what might be more effective.

Q: There is also social awareness in the lower left, which equates with the awareness of culture or at least parallels it, and relationship management that has to do with how one conceives of and engages with one’s systems environment.

A: Exactly, yes. That rounds them out.

Q: That brings up the subject of lines. Lines is a concept that is very malleable in the sense that you can generate as long a list of lines as is useful. You can start off with the physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional as four basic lines, but then you can get into Gardner’s multiple intelligences or the emotional intelligences of Goldman and others and generate multiple lines. So, is that a concept that you have been bringing to the work that you’ve been doing with leadership development? What are some examples of that?

A: It is and it’s important because the tendency often is for us to understand something at a cognitive level, When we do that, it is tempting to believe that with just a cognitive understanding that somehow means that we are operating at that level. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We help people see that as just a way of taking a perspective on the world. Having a cognitive understanding is such a great step forward. In a larger sense it is also quite limited. We actually develop to different degrees and different ways with different parts of ourselves.

Helping people get a sense of the differences and the unevenness of development is valuable and it’s humbling. For instance, we take some of the things you do. We talk about the real value in development being a series of small, ongoing baby steps, half steps, as well as practices that allow you to develop something. That thing that separates competency from mastery is sometimes the repetition of exercises that allow you to be world class, to be very proficient at something.

Think of physical practices—we really recommend that people do exercises—actually go to the gym, have cardiovascular exercises, some kind of stretching, yoga. Some people do martial arts trainings—Aikido, Tai Chi—and have a healthy diet. That’s an essential part of worshiping the body as a container, as a temple. Lots of metaphors can be used as a firm foundation from which other things can develop.

We talk about cognitive practices and include various forms of challenged reading at a certain level that helps us grow: Incorporating new vocabulary into our self-expression—various things of that nature—crossword puzzles, all sorts of things you can do with that. And there are intra-personal practices: expressing appreciation, practicing self awareness, doing journaling, taking different perspectives on issues and situations, seeing what it’s like to come from a different perspective and how that can grow us.  We promote awareness of different states of experience when they’re going on. Interpersonal practices are practicing random acts of kindness or asking empowering questions of people. Using the right language without four letter words for some people may be interpersonal practice.  This also starts getting into moral and ethical lines of development. There are many ways of helping people see these different lines and it usually makes intuitive sense that these be played out for them.

Q: One of the powerful things about an Integral program, whether it’s life practice or leadership, is that it brings in all those lines and helps people be more aware of them by looking at how they can integrate them, how they can bring them into their lives and develop more integrally. I’m assuming that as in the Integral Institute programs that some of the other things you’ve been doing have addressed the lines involved in working with people in business. Is that true?

A: Oh yes.

Q: What are some examples of that?

A: Some of the ones I just gave you, because a lot of the work that coaches end up doing with leaders and leadership training is helping people who are otherwise somewhat adept at being generative and building power in different ways. The work is helping them align with their own emotional, interpersonal and moral development. A lot the practices have immediate benefits for people when they really attempt to bring those practices into their lives and their relations with others. Those are noticed quickly by other people: “Ha! This is different! He never used to care that much, ask my opinion, demonstrate this or that.” Those are some of the most valued ways of bringing people forward.

Q: That’s a wonderful example on an individual level. I would still like to hear about more specific ways you’ve done that in various types of programs. But it brings up what is really an important question when we’re thinking about leadership development. I make a distinction between leader and leadership. But when we’re talking about leader, we’re talking about a snapshot; it’s not a formal position in an organization. A leader can emerge from various parts of organizations. Leadership is more like the movie, the dynamic of the emergence of leaders, the ebb and flow, that process in a system. When we’re talking about developing leaders, we’re talking about developing potentially anybody in an organization. But if we’re talking about leadership, we’ve got to go beyond the individual and start dealing with the culture and systems, too. In the work you’ve been doing, you have been working with individual Integral development. Have you worked with systemic, collective or organizational aspects of that as well?

A: What we do is have people—and you’ve been to some of the trainings at the Integral Institute where we have different group experiences and processes that we take people through—and have them interact with one another. There are various kinds of simulation challenges that at various moments require people to sequentially compete when that is what is called for, to collaborate at other moments, to be able to shift and adapt in different ways with other people. If they’re going to be successful, it requires self disclosure, self expression, restraint, stepping forward actively and imaginatively, being willing to take all sorts of different interpersonal and emotional risks, and to try out new strategies. There are a lot of ways we can get people in action as teams to the same effect that we give people individual practices.

Q: The question I’m raising though is that to do this in a training program is one thing. To address the system is another. One of the reasons why I would imagine the Stagen Institute draws on people like you to coach their participants is that they recognize that taking them through a couple of days at the beginning of the program or every quarter is not necessarily going to result in significant change on the individual or organizational level. It needs to be supported by something that allows people to use what they’ve learned, to think about it, to reflect on it, to make the shifts and changes they need to over time. We know that lack of follow up from training programs and organizations have historically been a big problem, because people tend to drop most of what they’ve learned within 90 days or so when they go back into systems where there is no support for what they’ve learned. In the development programs that you’ve been involved with, how have you gone about, over time, addressing the question of change in a system, in an organization and not just for the individual.

A: That’s where the value of ongoing coaching would come into play. That’s really the main tool to keep people clearly aligned with that in the forefront of their awareness as they go about their day-to-day, week to week experience. A coach is working with them on how this is applied. In the Stagen Leadership Program we have a very structured curriculum that involves people initially looking at what their vision is, laying out a real exploration of their values, articulating principles, purpose, vision and then looking at ways of strategically thinking about their challenges. They look at how they’re really going to manage their time and attention in the challenges ahead as leaders.

Q: Thanks, Bert. Anything you want to add?

A: No, I’m just excited that you’re doing this—that you’re taking on this interview process and whatever this is going to be, I think it’s going to be a valuable contribution. You’re asking a lot of the right questions in trying to understand what some of the elements of this way of working with people are, so I’m happy to be participating.