A Fresh Perspective: Susann Cook-Greuter: Perspectives on Leadership

Russ Volckmann

Dr. Cook-Greuter, is principal of Harthill USA. She is a core member of the Psychology and Business Practice Branches of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, a think tank in Boulder, Colorado. Susanne has a doctorate from Harvard University and is an internationally known authority on Mature Adult Development. She has co-authored two books with Mel Miller on Adult development, creativity and spirituality. Her thesis, “Postautonomous Ego Development”, is a landmark study in the characteristics and assessment of highly developed individuals and leaders.

We pick up the conversation as we focus on the subject of leadership.

Q: You are supporting the notion that one of the things we need to do is develop the healthier aspects of the earlier stages in our systems, even within ourselves. Whether we’re orange or green or yellow we can still have access or we are still influenced by the dynamics of those earlier stages. We need to nurture them in a way that has them shift, becoming constructive processes in our work, in the way we do ourselves in the world. Is that a fair statement?

A: I think this is an excellent statement and the focus I tend to put on that when I explain to students or when we work with this material is it’s a matter of choice. If you are only red, or only an Opportunist, you really have absolutely no capacity to see anything else. If you’re a Diplomat, a real Diplomat, then you have no choice about that behavior. That’s just the way you are. That’s all you can see. However, if you are at a stage beyond Diplomat, Diplomat responses are part of you and you may have a choice in how to integrate them and how to use them when functional. The amount of choice available is one of the major ways stages differentiate from each other. The higher the stage, the more interpretive and behavioral choices you have.

Q: Let’s look at the question of lines, the question of whether or not development is all apace, if you will, in the physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive and other lines of development. Do you see us as potentially at different stages for different aspects (lines) of our being or do we tend to cluster all lines at one stage?

A: Another one of the basic controversies. [Laughter] William James was the first to talk about the “center of gravity” of our meaning making and if you look at the self as the unit that integrates all the other lines, then I would say we expect some coherence. If you look at separate lines such as the cognitive or the moral, then I think that if you measured one first and then measured the other there could be real obvious discrepancies. We also generally believe that certain levels of moral development simply are not possible unless you have the cognitive capacity. The cognitive in that way drives a lot of other stuff. I would say you could be cognitively highly evolved and capable of making sophisticated distinctions in a specific arena and applying your sort of smarts to complex problems, but that doesn’t mean your are a highly evolved and integrated as a person. I have actually observed this on the SCT often enough to have many questions around it.

Q: Then in the case of development as an intervention, especially if we’re going to talk about leadership development, do you see a strategy, a way of approaching that in business organizations or other contexts? Do you have a methodology that you are leaning towards?

A: I wouldn’t call it a methodology. It is not that well developed. But I tend to think that the best approach is to start with teaching or helping people to become familiar with certain skills rather than talking about theory and stages. Skills like listening skills and the kind of skills that are described in ‘Emotional Intelligence’. There are many ways you can help people become alert to some of the differences that are important. Skills like action inquiry and self-reflection can be practiced.

For instance, self-reflection is hard for anybody at the conventional level of development, even Achievers find it hard to deeply self-reflect. Whereas at the post-conventional stages self-reflection becomes just part of who you are. You can’t help but to self-reflect. But to teach that, to encourage more people to self-reflect is to give them means, like have them journal about their experiences, do yoga, or teach them other ways of paying attention to themselves that are different from their regular way of operating or running on automatic pilot. These new practices can then get people to a new place or awareness.

I wouldn’t introduce developmental theory very early on or I may not introduce it at all. But I would try to get people to start to do little mild meditative things. Try, for example, to introduce a few minutes of silence at the beginning of a meeting and observe how that can change the attention of those present. There are other known ways of how meetings can be done differently than usual. A lot of suggestions and material you can find in Senge for instance, in his Field Book. There is a lot out there that can be done. These approaches help people to shift from their ordinary, unconscious approaches for holding meetings to a different kind of meeting, even just a tiny bit different so that there’s a new expectation.

Q: Is it possible that human systems of organization really emerge from one of the levels, or actually are an accumulation of emergence from different levels as they’ve developed over time, and that at some point the whole notion of organization, perhaps even the whole notion of business and exchange are transcended so that if you do develop to some point you can no longer authentically participate in some fashion?

A: I think it’s not that you can’t participate authentically but again the choice here is another one as when Tolbert talks about Magicians. My sense is that Magicians tend not to be ongoing participants in one organization. They’re more the types that would come in from their own free will because they feel they have something unique to contribute or else they are called in as Magicians to do something that the organization on its own capacity cannot do.

It’s one thing that I’m sometimes optimistic about and sometimes not. How can we get the whole culture to move to a more diverse, less self-righteous, less rigid perception of things? I imagine a more global society–one where being a global citizen would be the norm. That is a way of looking at oneself as part of humanity rather than seeing oneself as part of a particular group, race, culture, organization or nation, That’s sort of the ideal, the dream many of us have or we wouldn’t do this kind of work. But there’s also the fact that Western culture is still mostly embedded in the conventional realm. That creates a ceiling or a limit that can be self-reinforcing.

Q: In other words our own personal constructs tend to act as limits or ceilings on our development, on our capacity, on our ability to engage with greater complexity. The same is true of social systems.

A: Yes. Social systems are in some ways even more resistant to change, more tending towards the lower common denominator. It’s even harder to shift because you have all the people who are really attached to a way of work and life, which may be the only one they know. This accounts for most things in politics. If there’s a majority of people who know only their own culture and ideology, then you can imagine how difficult it is to open their minds to other possibilities. Here again I appreciate the beautiful contribution of spiral dynamics that makes life circumstances such an important aspect of how we explain all of this. The tendency to go back, to revert to an earlier stage, to simplify things under stress is common not only in individuals, but in systems too.

Q: I hear a rumor that you’re in the process of writing a book. Is this true?

A: A rumor? It is a very difficult process. It’s almost to years now since we had a meeting at Ken Wilber’s with about 8-10 people trying to get together to write an introductory book about Integral Leadership. We envision a book that is practical and that would translate complex theories into words that could be read and understood widely without losing the necessary complexity and integrity. Anybody who writes knows that this is one of the most difficult things to do. At what point when you simplify are you actually falsifying what you’re meaning? It’s just a problem anybody who writes about science knows only too well. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful achievement for those few who actually have been able to achieve a popular scientific style.

Q: So I’m unclear by your response whether or not that is really an active project.

A: It’s an active project. I met last December with John Foreman, the other head writer on the project in Seattle. We really hammered out one chapter and created the whole outline that we think will work for the book. We have a serious beginning and the question is always, since this is voluntary work, when can we carve out some extra time to work on it? But yes, we’re going ahead with writing and when we get next together we will make a proposal to the rest of the group and they will help us edit, add ideas, change things.

Q: I’ve noticed, when I look at what people are doing around training programs and work around Integral Leadership, it seems to me that the emphasis is principally on the individual. There is the use of assessments and interventions that are very individually oriented. Is that what you’re seeing as well?

A: I do because it seems unless the individuals in a system have the capacity then really the whole system cannot move forward. On the other hand, one can say that if you create a particular context for the system then the growth of individual can be supported. This is so often not the case now. Postconventional development is simply not supported in most institutions. A collaborative inquiry organization is very, very rare to be found. There are attempts at creating this type of second tier organization, but it’s difficult to sustain them. My hunch is, yes, if we have more people at later stages, then it will also be easier to sustain such organizations.

Q: Can you tell me what Integral Leadership is?

A: [Pause – Laughter] Wonderful question! I have some sense of what I understand it to be. It is leadership that is deeply aware of complexities. It can translate what the agreed upon goals are in such a way that it can appeal to different levels. It offers multiple stories, if you will, about the same goals. Gifted leaders translate what needs to be done into stories that appeal to different people so that, at the end, they can actively engage everybody to take leadership. And again, that is easier said than done and needs a flexible understanding and a dynamic response.

Q: So by definition Integral Leadership is second tier?

A: I think so. I do realize that integral has become a catchword as it’s being used. You could also say that integral refers to the four quadrants, and then it doesn’t necessarily mean second tier. When you teach people at any level to take the four quadrants into account for whatever problem or conflict they’re looking at that’s another way of defining integral.

Q: What I’m learning from our conversation is we can work with the four quadrants but we can’t do AQAL because people at earlier levels or stages such as orange and green, are not going to even be able to see the potential of the second tier.

A: That’s right. But it’s still better to have the four quadrants. If you solve a gnarly problem, address a personal conflict or an organizational impasse, if you could look at the four quadrants and how they influence what’s going on, you’re better off than if you don’t, than if you only look at one or the other contributing factor. Partial analysis is so much what has been done in the past. Even systems theory may only look at the system and not at the individual behavior, not the internal aspect of what is happening. You have models and structures you try to put your own organization into, but I don’t think that is enough. Deeper insight and better solutions can be found if you have insight into what is happening in the other quadrants as well and how things are intertwined.

Q: So in a sense Senge’s work is integral in that in The Fifth Discipline and his subsequent work he attends to both the individual and the system. He addresses the individual in relation to mental models and development through Robert Fritz’s work.

A: Senge himself is integral, but I think a lot of people have taken the structural, external stuff from him. They just diagram an organization for the cycles that work or don’t work. If you only use templates for instance or diagnose “root causes” then you have not fully used what is being offered in Senge’s model. That is quite often where systems theory approaches end up.

Q: Are you talking about the system archetypes?

A: Yes.

Q: I recently had called to my attention the fact that Ken Wilber has been going through some significant health problems and he seems to be dealing with them with a quality of strength that is really impressive. Is he actively involved in questions of Integral Leadership at this point?

A: My sense from what he has been sending to the Integral Institute members is that he’s really focusing on writing out all the things that seem to have been coming through him, very rapidly and in amazing amounts through these last few months of suffering and illness. The new ideas are just so prolific and exciting. He’s just trying to keep up writing them down as much as he can and focusing on that. He is absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait to get more segments of the Kosmos trilogy. I really have found his latest writing to be a whole new and exciting integration, different from before, even richer, even deeper, even more differentiated and clear.

Q: Where do you see the work of the Integral Institute, particularly the group that’s working on Integral Leadership, going from here?

A: Trying to write. There are two core groups that are writing books. All of the branches are trying to get the integral ideas more into the mainstream. This is really one of the functions we have. We are really trying to overcome the quite enormous hurdles of doing that, with the humility it takes to do it as well.

Q: Who is working with you?

A: John Foreman, Steve March, and Paul Landraitis, are in our group. Also, David Johnson who works with city boards and multiple constituents to change attitudes so that they want to construct environmentally sound cities by creating the necessary policies. Steve McIntosh, the owner and creative director of Zen & Now is on that book project as well. He makes these wonderful Zen clocks, and has an incredible aesthetic sense. His is really the most sophisticated and fine-tuned entrepreneur I have seen in a long time.

Q: Well, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think would be important for us to include here?

A: There’s so much.

Q: I know.

A: I mean the whole thing about language that’s dear to me we haven’t addressed. I would also like to do some research that includes comparative measures. You alluded to that earlier; there isn’t really much that compares the different measures with each other and that would be interesting.

Q: I hope you get a chance to do that. And where do you go from here, I mean, what’s in the future for Susanne?

A: Susanne wished she had an academic position and some dedicated graduate students that could work with all the data she has collected over the years and do some interesting things with them that she just doesn’t have time for. And I’d love to teach more than I do. Currently, I’m the body at Harthill USA and the company just requires so much administrative attention that I really find myself short on time for doing what I wish to be doing instead: research, creating teaching materials, leading professional workshops, writing the Integral Leadership book, and more time for just reflecting and sharing ideas.

Q: Susanne, I know all wish you well in your fulfilling those possibilities.

A: Thank you.

To read the full interview click here.

Susann Cook-Greuter may be contacted at Susann