A Fresh Perspective: Another Phoenix Rising Excerpt from a Conversation with Sara Ross

Russ Volckmann

Another Phoenix Rising, Sara RossThis interview with Sara Ross took place about a year ago. At the time she was engaged in an exchange with Dr. Don Beck on the subject of critical inquiry in the integral community. This is her abstract of a paper she offered to the Integral Leadership and organization development listserve.

“The purpose of this conversational ‘letter’ is to catalyze a transformation of the culture that characterizes much of the community networked by the work of Ken Wilber and his integral theory, and that of Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics (SD). The paper attempts to disrupt certain assumptions that sustain the largely un-integral culture. Asserting that certain confusions are at the root of troublesome beliefs and behaviors, it describes problematic aspects of the culture and why they must be transformed. Because the SD language and mindset permeate the culture’s thinking, the author employs the objective “outsider” language and lens of cognitive science to supply new accuracy to understandings of key stages of development and their transitions. The paper is a well-argued effort to dislodge and confuse certain entrenched assumptions inherited from SD’s presentation. Impelled by the basic moral intuition to foster wholeness in the midst of change, it sketches ways to love confusion while hating it, along with integral methodologies that can gradually transform individuals along with the culture and practice. It closes with the invitation, ways, and means for the community to launch itself into a new integral age.”

I consider Sara’s work important because it calls on us to get much clearer about what is involved in development, where it will take us and how do we accomplish it. I recommend the paper to anyone who is seriously interested in applications of integral theory, Spiral Dynamics and developmental psychology to individual learning and development.

Q: Some readers may not know you or your work, Sara. Can you provide a little background?

A: Well, in my past life I was a CPA. Once I started my own practice I got involved in public issues and community leadership work. I’d also done a lot of work at the parish level and was really frustrated from hitting my head against the wall because I happen to be a little more progressive than most. Later I decided to sell my CPA practice and go back to school to learn one on one ministry, started reading all the Vatican II documents and was integrating all of them and the worldview they were trying to birth. That was back in the eighties. I spent the nineties doing my public issues work as action research and ended up doing a lot of similar work for Kettering Foundation. I am living my dream of integrating public work, spiritual work, and development work while just being a life-long learner. I’m back in school working on my doctorate in international political development at Union Institute & University, in nearby Cincinnati.

Q: As a result of reading your postings on the Internet and some of your writing it is clear that the scope of your knowledge or breadth of reading and understanding of work of people ranging from Torbert to Wilber seems quite extraordinary. How did that happen?

A: Its background started in the eighties. I kept reading and I went into theology and philosophy, and in the meantime I had one of those classic unlovely experiences they call the dark night of the soul. It was dark and it was long. I found myself knowing nothing anymore and asking everything even if it made no sense to ask the question. It led me into everything. So I have read probably something of everything there is.

Years later I realized I had come up with my own synthesis. I started to recognize it’s all the same story and everything was connected in my mind. Then, when I happened to first read Wilber I realized that I knew this, because it was already kind of synthesized. The link to your question is that all that was in place when things in I-I weren’t “adding up,” and I dove back into studying loads of adult development stuff to figure out what was going on.

Q: What’s your connection with Bill Torbert?

A: I first got acquainted with him, I guess in 1999 or 2000. Thomas Jordan introduced us. He wanted a little group of people to help him think about how to do an organizational assessment manual using an integral approach and I said I sure want to do that, and Torbert and several others did, too. So that’s how I got to know Bill.

Q: What I’ve seen of your work is that you’ve been bringing together a lot of the things that many of the others in the integral world are familiar with and applying them in the public sector in the community context through research and publicly speaking. Furthermore, you have expressed concern for and an interest in development of the integral community itself. Is that a fair summary?

A: You know, it’s funny Russ, because I don’t really divide things in my mind. Again, it’s all the same story and it’s always about changing the culture. It’s always about putting in practice the new ways of being together politically, new ways of relating. It’s all political. How can we alter our ways of relating in a developmental way so we can accomplish the things that need to be done in this world? You could divide it into my public work and my research, but to me it’s all the same thing because the same core dynamics are needed everywhere.

Q: So it’s metasystemic.

A: Oh, yes.

Q: And by looking at it through your lens, your metasystemic lens, then what we’re looking at is a Sara Ross doing herself metasystemically in the world, whatever we want to label it.

A: Yes, because there isn’t anything I’m not interested in or care about and it’s all the same story. It’s really simple.

Q: I read “Integral Public Practice for Complex Public Issues.” What you offer there is a methodology for use in community, which I assume would be scalable to any size of community, but when I read it I had in mind kind of the small community, be it a community of individuals extracted from a larger community, or be it the public community like a town or a city.

A: Yes. I see the basic structure as being not only scalable in the public realm but also cross-boundary. I mean, it’s organizational. It could be legislative or national.

The Kettering Foundation’s insights form part of this work. Its insight was the crucial one for any time you have people with multiple world views together. Now Kettering has no developmental awareness in its approach. But its insight was, some years ago, that the usual framing of any question–whether it’s in an organization or publicly–is often posed in a yes/no fashion. Therefore we have debate. Issues are usually cast in a closed-minded fashion. But its insight was that you have to use open-ended questions. You have to create a vehicle for the prevailing points of view to have their say, but more than to have their say. Kettering’s driver is that citizens have to make a choice. To do that, folks have to deliberate.

This is the crucial part of it: it’s to share and exchange life experiences about why you have the view you have on an issue. How does it impact you, your interests, and those close to you? Then in deliberating, wrestle with the trade-offs in what’s valuable, the competing internal and external tensions. That’s one of the transformative elements. It is still pretty basic human stuff. Where I differ with Kettering is that my analyses of issues says it’s not about making “a” choice– it’s about deciding how to use the new understandings of complexity that requires some of what every worldview and life experience demands in different skillfully used combinations. But their main insight was framing questions in such a way that they’re depolarized and open to all the perspectives so that they are then worked through.

Q: Is the notion of getting to the genius of the both/and instead stuck in the either/or?

A: Right!

Q: Also, does this relate to double or even triple loop learning that has to do with the learner learning about the learner.

A: Yes. That’s not something Kettering does, but that’s a crucial, absolutely indispensable element in any work from one person on up.

Q: Further, is this the idea of dialogue?

A: Um hmm. Dialogue is work. It’s political work. It’s ways of relating. What makes human relationships work is languaging. You cannot language without communicating. You can’t communicate without dialoguing, unless you want to debate the other person down, the other side down. Dialogue is the only way of communicating, it’s the only way to get from point A to point B.

The hub of all of my work, in all of the leadership and public process kind of work that I’ve done, is conversation as the process container. The structure of the conversation is the important thing. Nobody wants to spend any time talking for the sake of talking. I develop processes that are structured. They’re methodical. There’s a reason for every part of the conversation and what that stage needs to produce to evolve the dialogue toward the next productive ends of knowledge creation and decision making.

The process described in the paper is a complete process beginning with how you decide what you’re talking about. And that is believe it or not, Russ, in my experience the single most important first step, whether it’s organizational or public or private relationships issues. How do we really name what the problem is, accurately? And then we start learning how systemic everything is because you could name it this way, and we could name it that way, depending on what affects or effects of the problem we’re concerned about.

Q: The way you define the problem constrains the solution; it defines the solution. Is that the message you’re offering here?

A: With another message along with it:   we can’t think we’re done with only identifying one aspect, because there are so many different layers, so many different connections. If we grapple with a so-called problem or issue as just an isolated issue we’ll never get done addressing all its entangled roots. I’m working on a multi-layered process in my head involving what methodical way people would understand what should be addressed first and then next and then next, because I don’t think we can ever deal with one thing and walk away from it.

Q: And do you have some hints at what that methodology is?

A: It’s a parallel sequence. It’s starting out with people identifying all of the elements, all of the connections, the way my methodology starts. Have everyone engaged in that at the beginning so they can prioritize the order of attention so no one goes nuts with how complex it is. Then there can be parallel systemic efforts worked on simultaneously with a good feedback system so that everyone can hear how each aspect is getting addressed, get on board, and know their role in it. We get internal buy-in. We have to internalize why something should be done before we’re able to do it. In “integral” terms, it’s about consciously creating new “left-hand quadrant” commitments of individual and collective understandings to enact new “right-hand” behaviors.

Q: Here’s where the role of dialogue becomes socially important because it’s about hearing each other and in some way unblocking what is coming from the other.

A: Yes. And learning together! When you get right down to it I think ultimately we all have to be engaged in the mental and social and political processes of thinking and doing.

Q: I’m working with someone right now who is an executive in the public sector and he has been heading up a program that essentially is bringing critical services to disadvantaged people in the community. What has occurred over the last year or so is that a coalition of people, mainly from the business and public sector world of local government have sought in the face of shrinking resources to access the resources this other program has. It is federally funded and doesn’t draw on local resources.

These interests have positioned themselves to exercise greater and greater control to divert the resources into programs where they actually have either a direct financial or a direct political interest. The dilemma is that any attempt at dialogue is met with subterfuge and political action that further undermines the position of this person in this leadership role. So the point is that not everybody has good will when it comes to politics, money and power. How does that connect to the kind of dialogic processes that you’re talking about?

A: One of my first reactions is to think of the old proverbial three legged stool. At least in some circles the three-legged stool is seen as business, government and well, I’ll say civil society. And that’s the element I hear missing from your scenario there.

Q: Is the civil society?

A: Plain old citizens who have an interest in the whole gig.

Q: In this case I think plain old citizens don’t know what’s going on, and since it deals with a disadvantaged sector of the community that most of the plain old citizens don’t directly care about. That creates a problem.

A: Okay. That is the perfect application for something like the process we have been talking about, because so often we see the problem as being restricted to a disadvantaged population. I know umpteen million stories that go this way. Once people start analyzing what’s been called the presenting issue, the question that needs to be addressed, people very quickly see what the connections are and they no longer isolate that disadvantaged population. They begin to see how it comes around and impacts their quality of life, the community’s welfare. But what I really want to say is this comes back to my issue-naming process. Are we treating others as “its,” as “the problem”? Are we “doing to” or “doing for” them– or can we shift our modus operandi and do things “with” them, starting with engaging them in defining the problems and needs from all perspectives. That sounds like a piece that’s missing, not treating them as agents, but recipients. That’s one of the ways to get better clarity about the real nature of the issue and public support for that spending. The transparency of that is another element. When it’s discussed in public things become more transparent. That’s really where, to me, its strength as a political element has its greatest power.

Q:Is there’s any parallel between what we’ve been talking about and the experience you’ve been having with the integral community in terms of your attempt to nudge us all around the question of community?

A: Very much so. I think the parallel is that until we start doing things differently, via whatever catalyst it might be–whether it is a letter I write or a process to be done–there isn’t much to shake people out of entrenched assumptions and mind sets about well, what we’re doing is the way it ought to be. It isn’t until we experience something different that I think we start to wake up, our blinders open a little bit wider around our eyes and we get some peripheral vision and some new learning experience.

The big question spans both: how can we start to do things differently? We need people stepping in saying, “Here is a way; let’s try this.” Usually people answer, “Yeah, let’s try this because what we’re doing isn’t working.” There are almost always, to use the magnet image, iron filings that are attracted to the magnet. They try it and it works.

Q: The critique that you made was that we were creating boundaries, if you will, by our choices of attention on particular theoretical constructs. I’m stating this rather abstractly, but.

A: That’s a very good way to say it. That’s what it is. Delicately, too.

Q: What you were advocating was that we needed to pry open the range of attention a little more in order to really address our own learning, our own development, and so forth. Is that a fair statement?

A: Yes.

Q: we’re moving towards an orthodoxy that we need to transcend and include.

A: Yes. And the difference, the challenge I have found is that certain mind sets cannot grasp the concept of the culture. Isn’t it funny, that in an integral community where we have that lower left quadrant that’s all about cultural norms and beliefs? If we don’t build in that self-reflective element in everything we’re doing we will have a cultural change and we won’t even see it, for good or for ill.

Q: In your writing (about a year ago) if I can paraphrase, you indicated that while we are purporting to hold up an approach, a model that transcends and includes, that is oriented to learning, somehow we are getting into a dogma.

A: Oh, very much.

Q: And how do you characterize the dogma?

A: The prevailing dogma is believe as I believe, do as I say, and if you don’t do either of those then you’re first tier. If you do come follow me then you’re one of the saved. So it’s a very ideological culture, and that’s recognized by a lot of people.

Q: Then you’re suggesting that there’s a certain amount of intellectual hubris that’s at the leadership of this movement?

A: Unfortunately it’s not just in the leadership. It has contaminated much of the population.

Q: And what are they attached to?

A: I think it is different for different people, but it is largely a very linear thinking culture, it’s a very orange-blue culture. There seems to be a lot of attachment to the “enlightenment bandwagon.” That seems to be the anchor we must revolve around or not be among the saved or second tier. That whole second tier terminology has slanted the dynamics from the beginning. It’s like the old mind/body split. We transcend our earthly way of being so we can earn Heaven. It is the same kind of thing–not healthy.

Q: One of the questions about myself is maybe I’m just too green or I’m too much of an individualist and I haven’t developed my strategist level yet. I would be automatically judging myself as not having developed to a stage where I could comprehend the point beyond those levels. Isn’t that the kind of response you got?

A: It’s the response I predicted I’d get. It’s the in-built catch-22 in that culture. Those on the bandwagon “get it” and are second tier; others by default must be first tier. What I wrote dissented with those norms.

Q: What I’ve been hearing in the responses to you is a judgment that you see the issue the way you do because of the level of development you’re at.

A: I think that’s right– it’s the catch-22’s programmed response.

Q: How would you respond to that, because it seems to me to be representative of what you’re talking about, the whole dynamic?

A: I really don’t have a response to it, other than understanding that that’s just the way things are here. At the same time, by and large what I heard from people is that they also had been recognizing there was something not “integral” there.

Q: And what is it that you think we, as a community, need to be doing?

A: I think we need to recognize we can’t change others. I’d set up the Phoenix forum, to provide a way to start thinking together about if we need an integral community. If we do, what do we need it for? What function do we need to meet and what form might help serve it? Unfortunately, there were software delays before it could be activated, and by then it seemed the energy had dissipated in those dozens who had written to me after the letter. So be it. Each thing in its own time.

Q: Anything else about the kind of response that you got that you’d care to comment on?

A: The biggest invitation of these times–especially in a community where everyone does a lot of talking about development and what it is–the biggest invitation to begin to translate knowledge of stages of development into methodologies. For a leader or a researcher or anyone trying to be a change agent, I find it useless after a certain point to keep talking about the “what” of the stages. My big gig is to develop the “how.” How do we put this knowledge into productive application? And that means, to me, methodological processes.

Q: What do your approaches mean for the idea of leadership?

A: The relevance for leadership in all of this is discriminating between learning static information about the “whats,” and developing dynamic knowledge about “how.” I know there are some people doing some good things, but there is a chasm between telling and talking about what ought to be and creating the methodology that brings it into being. Everyone isn’t that creative or has the time and energy to dedicate to figure out how do I turn this information into something usable?

The trick is, the need is, to develop the productive processes for people to address their pressing problems or informational challenges. Or their visioning! You name it! Provide the methodology that leads to some new kinds of strategies that effect whatever they want to effect. It’s the biggest gap. How do you do it?

Q: The whole idea of Integral Leadership is to provide a window on how can we make leadership from an integral perspective actionable. And so I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that?

A:   Well, I guess there are a lot of different definitions of leadership, which is one of the first things I always pay attention to: how is somebody defining the term.

Q: I don’t mean heroic leadership. I’m asking about leadership as a phenomenon that is manifested in any system. It doesn’t necessarily come from someone who is in a formal position within that system.

A: Good, okay. And the question is, how do we make leadership actionable?

Q: Yeah, how can the integral approach or the approaches you’ve been talking about help us learn how to make leadership effective and actionable?

A: First, I think it’s useful to recognize that when we start to work with a new framework, like integral theory’s all-quadrants, all levels, or Torbert’s equally integral 1 st -, 2 nd -, 3 rd -person inquiry, we have a developmental learning curve to go through. It takes time to outgrow a mechanical application and develop a fluid, dynamic understanding, first, then second, a process to use it.

These are good frameworks for designing efforts, no doubt about it. Yet it means we must internalize the ongoing interplay of “me,” “us,” and our environments, and that takes time, and we aren’t all skilled at the same things. Sometime folks stop at just trying to use individuals’ stages of development and forget the cultural processes and social structure aspects of an integral approach. I think we need to help each other craft methods and evaluative processes to assess how we’re doing, and share what we know, what we’ve developed.

My process has particular applications, but it might also be a generic model of how to integrate the “what” and the “how” to work with all quadrants, all levels, in a practical, productive way. It responds to your leadership question insofar as it engages and invites forward the capacities needed, wherever they lie, to address things. My hunch is that if we make the well-articulated issues or challenges our “organizing principles” and design consciously integral efforts around them, it re-orients us in a productive way.

Q: Thank you, Sara.

Sara: Thanks, Russ.

Both of the papers referred to here are posted at the Integral Politics articles page at