A Fresh Perspective: Another Spiral A Conversation with Charles Hampden-Turner

Russ Volckmann

Charles Hampden-Turner has written seventeen books. In recent years he has worked closely with Fons Tompenaars and they have co-authored several books on business culture. A recent publication is 21 Leaders for the 21st Century (McGraw-Hill, 2001). We pick up the conversation with my asking about his first book.

Q: One of the things about Radical Man that was so impressive is that it contains what I think is probably the most powerful model of psychosocial development that I’ve ever come across. Yet it has received very little attention in the worlds I travel in. Have you rethought that model in any way since that time?

A: I have rethought it, yes. I don’t think it was wrong, but it wasn’t as useful as my more recent models are. The main modification I’ve made is I’ve retained the notion of a loop, but I put contrasting values on opposite sides of the loop.

It was my fault really for calling it Radical Man, and for ending the presentation with the student revolt. The book sold very well while the radical tide ran. But when the radical tide crashed, the book went down with it.

The new left produced nothing of very permanent value, but I think they were quite prophetic. Let me tell you my thesis, from looking back on my life now. I wouldn’t have said this half way through my journey but looking back this appears to have guided me. My first and main interest has always been in diverse, creative, extraordinary and unusual people. Radical Man was a book about people whose views were diverse because they were radical. And there’s an extraordinary similarity between Radical Man and a book just out, called the Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida. He points out that 85% of American innovations come from a few small enclaves in the country and believe it or not they are the ones that spearheaded the student revolts in the late sixties and early seventies.

It’s Berkeley, Silicon Valley, it’s the Boston area. Should you look at where the students lived then and you now look at America, America’s creative minority is almost identically in the same place. It can be found even in smaller places like Boulder, Colorado. The rest of Colorado is very conservative.

Then I wrote a book called From Poverty to Dignity: Strategy of Poor Americans. Once again I was looking at a highly diverse group of people who were poor because they were black, Puerto Rican or whatever. Therefore I looked at a second type of diversity. I then went to Sane Asylum where I looked at yet another type of diversity: people who were criminal, drug addicted. Again I showed how in fact what saved them was their creativity. What saved them was their sense of humor that was their unusual witty outlook on the world.

If you have been on the outside then being on the outside can be turned into an advantage. My favorite example is the thieves’ theater in which a shoplifter gives presentations in department stores on shoplifting. They turn a big disadvantage into a huge advantage. They also stop themselves going back to shoplifting, because every department store knows their faces and their methods.

My next book was Maps of the Mind. I looked at sixty-five different visions of the human mind. It was then that I got the major breakthrough, which was that as far as content was concerned all these people disagreed with each other. Everybody had a different vision of the human mind and everybody put everybody else down, but everyone saw some bifurcation. Everybody saw crisis. Everybody saw some kind of mediating function and everybody came up with something between a compromise and a reconciliation.

It didn’t really matter what the contrasting entities in the mind were with a bit of the left brain and the right brain, the front brain or the back brain, or whether they were the super ego than the id. Nevertheless there was a battle, a bifurcation, a struggle going on. Reconciliation was the answer. And the book was sent to press too early for me really to point this out. It sold very well, 150,000 copies, but I didn’t get the credit for the sort of creative breakthrough because I didn’t really claim it. But people bought it as a useful guide. Once they bought it they saw that there was more to it than a mere summary of these peoples’ views, that all that all the views were gathered internally, consistent and compatible.

At the same time I went through Delancey Street and wrote Sane Asylum. The books came out within a year of each other. Again I plunged from a highly privileged background. I was Chairman of the Conservative Association at Cambridge University. Nearly everybody in the Association has now either been a Prime Minister or Capitalist. They and their sons have been at the top of English society. I’ve seen them rise. I’ve seen most of them fall and they’re now mostly retired.

I’m 68 myself. If I played my cards straight of course I could have probably been with them. But I was completely sickened by conservative philosophy. There was no way I could go back. I suddenly found myself catapulted from an elite, privileged and sheltered background. I was even nervous around working class people. I knew hardly any of them.

Now I found myself with people who had been in San Quentin and were every color of the rainbow, every sexual persuasion. The culture shock was very considerable. Yet in a funny way it made me, because I’d always been on the side of the poor before, even if at some level of abstraction. I actually was almost burned out. I actually hated working with them. I’d been through the war on poverty and nothing had really worked. I felt we were doing more harm than good, really, and the whole thing was on the verge of being wound up anyway.

I discovered that Delancey Street had a curiously kind of paradoxical logic to it. It was very liberal and radical facing out to the world. And it was conservative, almost Archie Bunker-like, seen inwardly. It had absolutely no time for hard luck stories or for the fashionable liberal sympathy for the under dog, etc. I decided that it was this curious mixture of liberalism and conservatism that was really the answer, which was the reconciliation.

It was in that place because poor people and criminals are so obviously split and characters are so ludicrously exaggerated like Super Fly, things like that. That’s a papier mache character. Because they’ve not been properly raised or loved, they’ve picked up every stupid cliché from the culture and they take American folklore and simply run it into the ground. I mean, they take it so literally. They don’t interpret it. They are simply like comic book cutouts really.

I became more of a social critic of popular American culture. I saw that it actually manufactures its own criminality. It makes me more of a critic but it is also deeply moving. I felt that if these people could change then anyone could change. We should never give up on another human being because these people had been to hell and back again. That was probably the most influential book I wrote, the most exciting and the most moving. It is the only one where I got down to the grass roots and wallowed in the mud and got up again. The exciting thing was that I was actually more sure of my thesis after this than I had been before. As an existentialist I always believed that you have to face absurdity and oddity to be certain. But until I’d done it, I didn’t believe it. I’ve always felt like a whole person after that. It gave me confidence and it was exciting.

But at the same time, my wife and my children were asking for a middle class existence. The more exciting parts of my life ceased probably at that point. I worked for SRI at Menlo Park to try and earn some money. I got into the values and life style group. They were invited by Shell Oil to go to England and do [strategic planning] scenarios. My wife, an American, had always wanted to live in England. Once we got over there she didn’t want to come back. I needed a corporate salary to educate my children. I couldn’t do it on an academic salary. Private education is extremely expensive. I was really stuck in Shell for four years. I bought in there. It was fun because you create scenarios from the whole world scene taken very broadly, scanned very broadly as I have always done.

Q: You used the word stuck.

A: Well, Shell is very monastic. People talk about oil all the time and they’re not terribly interested in anything else. Well, not everybody. The planning department was different and the Dutch people in Shell were tremendously supportive of me. It was in Shell that my theory was first taken seriously.

Q: Did you meet Fons Trompenaars (co-author of 21 Leaders for the 21st Century and several other books on business culture) at Shell Oil?

A: Yes. We knew each other and we were playing footsie. I liked him but I couldn’t see how I could help him. He created even more dichotomies. As far as I was concerned the world was full of dichotomies. There were just too many. It took me till 1987-88 when I began to do a little work for him. But it was more of a favor and I didn’t really realize that I could help him, much less make a career of it until about 1988-89.

It was quite simple really. Increasingly my work was on dilemmas. He pointed out –– and he was quite right –– that when people cross cultures they face another system of socialization. Two people who are both really good boys or girls are in conflict and completely and fundamentally disagree. He said if I wanted to do dilemmas then he would find out the differences. He has the world’s biggest database on cultural differences. I could start with doing the resolutions. That’s been our division of labor for the last 12 or 14 years.

He’s done extremely well and pulled me after him into relative affluence. It was his company. He sold it for a lot of money to KPMG. He’s a multimillionaire and I’m not. But I was glad,

Our needs were never that great after Cambridge. I don’t like to be full time in business or full time in academia. I get bored with academia because I don’t get out into the world. I get tired and burned out in the world. I need somewhere to reflect. I’ve always had one foot in each camp. That doesn’t really help your career. You finish up being marginal to everyone.

But anyway, things have turned out very well and my last four or five books have been written with Fons. I’m now writing a book that sums up my whole life. I’m not sure what to call it yet. ‘Healthy, Wealthy and Wise’ is a working title, but that doesn’t really explain what it’s about. It’s about nine different sources of diversity and about nine different ways of reconciling or resolving those types of diversity. It is sad, but the world is globalizing for better or for worse. The cultural and values distances are overwhelming. We’re either going to kill each other in a clash of civilizations or we’re going to have to learn to bridge these differences.

There are, for instance, differences between personalities, between functions and roles, differences between genders. I go through all the sources of diversity and I point out that wealth has always been created by outsiders. It was always spearheaded by outsiders. Outsiders aren’t necessarily diverse in their opinions, but a few are different skin color, a few are of a different religion or a different race.

They realize that they are different anyway and they think, “Well we might as well take advantage of our marginal position.” One-third of all the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are either Indian or Chinese immigrants who’ve come over to American since 1970. This is a remarkable statistic. Between them they have created 58 billion dollars in wealth, as of 2000. That is probably down now because of the bust of the boom.

But it is the same as the industrial revolution. Fifty to fifty-five per cent of all the great entrepreneurs were nonconformists. If you were a nonconformist in those days you couldn’t get into Oxford or Cambridge. You couldn’t get into any of the professions. You couldn’t get near the crown of course, because the crown was head of the Church of England. These people were obliged to redefine their achievement as something they had created or invented, something they had made up. And it has always been like that. Wealth is created by these minorities.

Q: How would you contrast that notion of nonconformist with what you found among the leaders that you write about in 21 Leaders for the 21st Century?

A: Well, they’re nearly all marginal. For example, Richard Branson is a hippy and has been marginal all his life. But people like the head of Club Med, Philippe Bourguignon, is bringing American methods to France and is furiously criticized in the press. I think he’s quite right. The French, given a chance, would create a super expensive dream vacation and would go broke.

Look at Val Goodin’s innovations in the British United Provident Association, which is a private health insurance company. His approach to training people to work with members was by getting them in a room together and recalling their own memories and bereavement of their parents, children, whatever. When they are working with members they answer the telephone. When people call in and say that they need help, they are there as the calls come in. They don’t give people the philosophy of the corporation. They tell each other about the bereavements and the sadness and the tragedy in their own families and how they coped with it. The training is the most fantastic weekend anyone has ever had. The resources are all in the people. The strength is all in the people. If somebody’s had a heart bypass and calls up they put their heart bypass veteran on the telephone. He makes all the difference in the world. So you read between the lines.

Look at the leadership of Christian Majgaard at Lego. Lego is the toy of the millennium. It’s a wonderful invention getting parents to work with kids. Basically, what the toy does is bond the family as the child constructs some things for the parental audience. So they’ve all got wonderful creative ideas to work on.

Michael Dell was brilliantly creative. Look at how he burst his way in with a second generation computer company after all the big ones were established. He had to invent a complete new way of direct distribution. If you read the chapters, every one of these entrepreneurs, these leaders, is marginal in their culture.

Look at Sergei Kiriyenko, the former Russian Prime Minister. There is a wonderful chapter on him. He was very up against it. Before he became the youngest prime Minister ever of Russia, he had turned around three companies in the most incredibly terrible circumstances. Russia had newly become Capitalist and didn’t even know what Capitalism meant. It didn’t even know what a manager was. With sheer invention in the face of chaos Kiriyenko did a wonderful job.

Q: Have you looked at all at Spiral Dynamics?

A: Well, not really. Key people, my friends, keep telling me about it. Is it Claire Graves?

Q: Well, it’s built on the work of Claire Graves, by Don Beck and Chris Cowen.

Graves suggests that there are stages of development. I’m wondering if any of the work of Graves, Loevinger, Kegan, any of these people have been a part of your sphere of interest.

A: I used to take Loevenger very seriously. I knew Claire Graves when he was kind of super Maslovian with just more stages.

I’m a little uneasy myself about stage theories. They give out the wrong message. I think the stage that you’re at really shouldn’t be attributed to your personality, your brilliance or sagacity. I don’t like the individualizing of stage theories. Any stage theory depends upon the culture in which you are. You can self-actualize. It becomes possible if the company gives you money and room and space and encouragement to do so. The idea that you can self-actualize as a starving artist is problematic. The starving gets you back to your physiological need. All of these theories are really a series of cultural interactions between the person and the wider environment and shouldn’t be used as automatic value judgments on people’s worth and that worries me.

It also worries me that when you get to the top usually you’re a covert student in the Harvard Education School. The principle of conscience shows up at level six on Kolber’s scale. The mere utterance of the principle of conscience doesn’t really get you anywhere. It is not an automatic virtue. It just means you understand virtue. It seems to me that there should be a level seven and a level seven is mending the hierarchy below you. There’s only been a dilemma because all the levels evolved and developed are in conflict. For example, if you can’t get a drug to help your wife, it isn’t enough to steal the drug and announce that you’re doing it as a principle of conscience. You have to steal the drug. You have to explain why you’re doing it. You have to agitate for a new law and allow people to save their relatives without necessarily enriching the drug companies. And you have to change the rewards and punishment. In other words, you have to go all the way up and down the hierarchy bending those rungs. That is the ultimate venture.

Q: That reminds me of Gandhi.

A: Yes, he did that, but for that matter Martin Luther King did the same thing.

Q: Yes, of course.

A: Martin Luther King altered the principle of conscience, which he then made into a new form of social commitment. He then agitated to change the Civil Rights Act. Then he created new roles for people in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He offered new reasons for punishing the white racists and withholding punishment from black people. He essentially mended the whole hierarchy and that’s what you have to do. So I’m uneasy about stage theories.

Q: Well, I think what you’re saying is very much in harmony with what Don Beck is saying in Spiral Dynamics. He brought Spiral Dynamics to South Africa during the Apartheid era and was instrumental in using that approach, that methodology or that perspective to help in the process of ending Apartheid. The whole idea is that the spiral goes beyond six levels, and the seventh and above levels are really about valuing the healthy aspects of all of the levels below them. It is about honoring them and integrating them. I think there is some shared direction here that’s being evolved.

Another step that is being taken that I think integrates us with the notions that you’ve been talking about in terms of the importance of the culture is that Spiral Dynamics and Don Beck have been working very closely with Ken Wilber in his approach using holons and holarchies. Are you familiar with his work?

A: I know Ken Wilber. He was in the Association of Humanistic Psychology with me in 1974. He was writing books then. He’s been very successful, I note.

Q: Yes, and very prolific in his writing.

A: And too religious for me.

Q: I would think he would probably say he is spiritual rather than religious.

The holon is a four cell matrix. In the upper left quadrant is what is internal to the individual, all the values, beliefs, assumptions, goals and aspirations. The upper right hand quadrant is what is observable about the individual from biology to behavior. The lower left hand quadrant is about the culture that individual is a part of in whatever setting we’re looking at, and the lower right hand quadrant is the systems, the structures, the collective dynamics if you will, that are going on. So the notion here is to try and take a look at what is the nature of this, from a developmental point of view, as well as from a level of complexity point of view. It is about looking at the relationship between individual, collective, what’s in internal and hidden, if you will, and what is overt.

A: You might look, for a genuine cultural view, at Milton Bennett and Mitch Hammer. They have created a six stage level of culture bridging the distance to remote people. It’s really quite clever.

And you might consider coming for his summer school, SSIIC, Summer School Institute for International Communication. It takes place over three weeks just outside of Portland every year. I’ll be teaching there. I’ve taught there every year for five years. I’ll do that this summer. I’m also teaching a course on innovation. It is a new one.

All these people who have diversity issues are sort of stuck in diversity. They’re hired to be a black face, brown face or Chinese face. If anything goes wrong then they’re in trouble with the powers that be. They really have no role except to front for the organization. They bear increasing frustrations. Now my thesis is on the destiny of diverse people as they innovate. That’s the best way they can take advantage of their situation.

Q: The presentation of leadership as a process or as an approach to reconciling dilemmas, is that all there is to leadership? Not that that’s not enough. It’s complex enough, but what would you add to that formulation that it’s about reconciling dilemmas?

A: Well, the notion of reconciling dilemmas is not reductive in any way. It just addresses itself to structure and not to content. It is about every value under the sun, but it has this structure. There are lots of people underneath you and they are clamoring for your help or your guidance. They’ll want many different things from you. The higher you go in an organization almost by definition, the more people there are “underneath you” and the more people there are who need your help and guidance and the more likely you are to be pulled in opposite or contrasting directions

Ever since Tom Peters we know that leaders have to manage values. He never said what managing values consists of. But managing that is really managing dilemmas, because values come in pairs. If you met a man from Mars and he asked what is cooperation, you’d have to describe competition in order to create contrast that makes cooperation meaningful. The same in regard to competition. When asked what that meant, you’d have to describe cooperation to create contrast, which makes competition meaningful. Leaders manage values, as far as I’m concerned, and there are as many values as there are synonyms and antonyms in an encyclopedia or dictionary of pseudonyms, about 20,000.

Q: Out of all of these values, are there any particular constellations of values that you see as being challenged from a leadership point of view at this time?

A: Dilemmas arise in certain industries and are presented to leaders by changing technology, by changing opportunities. You can go up the abstraction ladder. If you do you will find most of the world’s concrete dilemmas fall underneath that heading, the seven dimensions of Fons’ and my work on a very high level of abstraction. They’re useful because lots of everyday dilemmas can be grouped under the seven headings. The dilemma I’ve just given you, which is diversity vs. the integration of diversity is a huge superordinate dilemma, which really captures thousands of dilemma but heeds the laws of the level of abstractions.

You can make the big dilemmas much fewer but you will only make them abstract. So then you take them from every day human comprehension.

Q: We can use them as a taxonomy to look for dilemmas that people like Branson were encountering, like specific aims vs. diffuse contexts.

A: Indeed, but when you/re talking about why people buy one product or why people become enraptured or happy or sad, it is all these every day concrete things.

Q: Which brings us back to the 20,000.

A: That’s right. That’s what I was taught in Delancey Street. It’s when you have a person weeping in your arms that you really realize what it is all about. You can talk about compassion as a high level of abstraction, you can talk about the learned innocence of people, but you don’t really understand it until you are touching it.

There are abstract levels that include other dilemmas under these dilemmas, but there are no real fundamental dilemmas in the sense of more fundamental than any other. When you get through you have a thing in your mind which we will call the researcher’s model and you encounter another human being and they have the informant’s model. They are informing you. And there is a dilemma between the researcher’s model and the informant’s model. That’s the first issue that every researcher has to encounter: that he has a way of thinking but that the human being that he is dealing with isn’t a blank slate. He’s already conceptualized and organized the environment in which he lives. If he is a successful businessman he is probably made better and wiser discrimination than I have. He’s certainly making more money than me. And you’ve got to take the discriminations he makes equally seriously with yours. So I usually deal with the dichotomies, the bifurcations, the contrasting values the person I’m talking to seems to represent. He may conceive of it in a pathological way, like Bush, or someone like that. He may feel that strength is the only thing that matters and vulnerability is for suckers and things like that. So there are pathologic conceptions of values, and I have to object to this, but within limits, and as far as I am able to I deal with the world as my informant conceives it.

Q: When you’re working with leaders, growing leaders in social systems and in business, what is the strategy for helping them understand and recognize the dynamics of dilemmas? Is it simply an educational strategy, or is there something more that is necessary?

A: Well, it rationalizes, it educates, it codifies it really. It’s not a substitute for rationality. Great leaders do the right things out of a kind of intuitive wisdom. Unfortunately, intuitive wisdom can’t and doesn’t diffuse very widely through the corporation. You can agree that somebody makes good decisions, to be smart, charismatic, things like that, but you can’t really share that decision with him or her, and you don’t really properly understand their decision. What we found in 21 leaders was that not a single leader, not one, objected to having his leadership cast in the form of dilemmas. That’s extraordinary. Now only Martin Gillo [Advanced Micro Devices] knew us before and I think he actually actively uses our theory. And Keriyenko refused to talk to us without seeing our approach, so we sent it ahead. When we saw him he had already organized his life by these dilemmas.

With these exceptions, every single one of these leaders was (A) new to the theory and (B) when shown his life story conceptualized in the way we did it said, “Thank you, I like that. I didn’t know I was that bright. I didn’t know I was so smart. But this is a good way or thinking about what I do.”

That’s a double-edged sword. In a sense we haven’t invented anything new. It’s been there all the time. But we have created a codification of intuitive processes of leadership. Abraham Kaplan, the philosopher, said there was a logic in use, a creative logic in use, of which we know almost nothing. And there is a reconstructed logic with the hypothetical deductive method is a good example. And the hypothetical deductive method is a logic reconstructed after the fact. The truth is that you sit down on a test tube. It sticks to your trousers and stops sizzling. Then you turn round, look at the seat of your pants and say, hey, what’s this sizzle?

But that isn’t the way it’s written up. It’s written up like I had this hypothesis that I then rigorously tested and came up with this answer. So there is how things are actually invented and created. There is how we think of it afterwards when we’re writing it up and reconstructing the logic. I think we’ve happened on how people actually think to begin with. I can’t imagine we’d have gotten twenty-one people agreeing with us that this was a good way of codifying their thoughts. It’s a substitute for judgment. It’s not a sure fire technique. It’s a way of capturing ex post facto a wise form of decision-making, a way of edifying it. It’s a way of mapping it. You put it on a map and you can turn the dual axis into 10 x 10 grids and you can locate yourself on that grid and say I am here and I need to move over there.

Q: But what I find really exciting about it, not unlike the psychosocial development model in Radical Man, is how organic it is, how alive it is. It’s not a set of rigid principles or structures.

A: Well, I’ve done that all my life, all my working life. When I went to Harvard Business School I knew I’d never stop and I knew rather than using the Business School to make a lot of money I used the Business School to maximize my autonomy. And I walked away from any job that ever asked me to do something I didn’t want to do. And I have attained personal initiative over my own intellectual agenda, and asked questions in the order I wanted. I’ve been very lucky.

Q: And so have we. Thank you.

To read the full interview click here.