Feature Article: The Tsunami of Integral Leadership Development

Russ Volckmann

Have you ever had a Tsunami? No, I don’t mean:

“A tsunami (pronounced tsoo-nah-mee) is a wave train, or series of waves, generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water column. Earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, explosions, and even the impact of cosmic bodies, such as meteorites, can generate tsunamis. Tsunamis can savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life.”

I mean the alcoholic beverage sometimes called a tsunami. Come to think of it, if you aren’t careful it could have the same kind of impact as the other tsunami. I will tell you more about this drink in a moment.

I believe that our discussions of development in the world of Integral Leadership have tsunami-like qualities. A book is published, a thought-leader speaks (as Warren Bennis did at the 1999 International Leadership Association Conference and decried the “heroic” notion of leadership as being inadequate), the dynamics of the business world shift due to changes in the economy or the greed and gluttony of “leaders.” These impulsive disturbances displace our complacent or even our ambitious “orange” notions of leadership and cause destruction to our surface beliefs, assumptions and – once in a while– our behaviors.

One reason for the disturbance we are creating is the very notion of development, itself. Historically, leadership development has been thought of as developing individual skills, knowledge, competencies and/or capacities. Learn to communicate, learn to listen. Learn about financial management, even if you are a non-financial executive, because it is essential for your career. Build your ability to develop and sustain a team. Develop the capacities to deal with the unexpected– chaos, uncertainty, permanent white water.

Attention to the context can be seen in the phenomenon of identification of leadership competencies in so many different companies. The fact that they are not just borrowing a list from somewhere, but developing one of their own suggests that they are aware of the unique needs of their companies. This is in no way a guarantee that the product of these processes is useful or that it is even used.

As ideas of Integral Leadership development are gaining a little more currency, our historic ways are seen as valuable, but insufficient. Leadership development is no longer just about individuals and their efficacy in formal roles in the business. Leadership development is about levels and stages of development, lines of development, behavior and biology, cultural development and development of systems. This perspective starts the tsunami that threatens any complacency about our models and methods of leadership development.

Nowhere is this more perfectly symbolized than Fred Kofman’s key point that awareness is the most important business skill – Conscious Business, Sounds True.

Think about it. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time that I have heard this capacity elevated to this lofty height related to leadership development. Intuitively, it is just true. It “sounds true.” Diminished awareness of self and of context leads to diminished quality of decisions and problem solving.

And that which stimulates awareness thereby becomes essential for leadership development. I would suggest that awareness is an individual concept: the only ways of developing awareness of self and systems involve working at the individual level. Generating awareness at the system level is done through individual development– and more. The more will be the subject of a subsequent discussion. For now, let’s get back to the tsunami.

A key question then for the integral perspective is how can we understand development in terms of lines and levels, individuals and systems, etc. Initially, both in the notion of the holarchy and in Spiral Dynamics we have used a hierarchical model. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with a hierarchical model, despite “green” bridling at the idea (my own green is well lit).

No amount of reframing is likely to eliminate some hierarchical aspects of development. It is a useful structure that provides a lens for viewing snapshots within a development process. As such, it facilitates our communicating about development, its aspects and potentials. The dilemma is when only the hierarchy is used to consider the dynamics of development– even when they involve levels. When we view the movie we discover the swirl of elements from all of the levels of development.

And this brings me back to the tsunami. I don’t know that there is only one recipe for this drink that I have seen served at tropical-theme restaurants. But here is one.

Imagine a drink that contains pineapple juice, orange juice, rum and a coconut liqueur. These ingredients are put in a very large bowl-like glass with some ice cubes and a chunk of dry ice. Very quickly, the dry ice starts putting out a fog-like gas that rises and cascades over the side of the glass. Inside the glass, all of the various liquids appear to be as one, but in reality, they are swirling and churning on microscopic levels.

That is the way I think of integral development as a process with the spiral as development and the interactions of “levels.” It is organic. It is messy. It is chaotic. It is complex. Consequently, it operates by a few simple rules that lead us to an understanding of its dynamics, but totally incapable of predicting performance in any given moment or context.

Mark Edwards has done some interesting work on the “integral cycle of knowledge” and other expansions and extensions of Ken Wilber’s work that may help us to further develop the dynamics of development through an integral lens. His work can be found at Frank Visser’s website, I may be exploring some of this work in subsequent articles.

The implication of this exploration of the tsunami is not to cease all leadership development and give up. The implication is to engage in leadership development that develops the capacity of leaders at all levels and in all contexts to be able to use a snapshot to form the understanding that leads them to discover the few simple rules that drive their organic leadership processes.

One means to do this is the use of integral models of leadership. They provide the capacity to take a snapshot that makes it possible to focus on figure and ground. And when we are dealing with a specific individual in a specific context our focus might best be placed on enhancing the capacity of the individual leader to experience the tsunami and not be overwhelmed by it. Rather, a person leading can ride with the tsunami and use its power to provide effective leadership in concert with others. This requires an integral perspective.

This is our challenge. And thanks for the chance to play bartender!