A Fresh Perspective: A Conversation with Bill Torbert, July 11, 2002

Russ Volckmann

William R. Torbert, PhD, author and teacher, consultant and artist in his own right, works with Susann Cook-Greuter and others in the application of integral and transformational concepts in leadership and organizations. His most recent book, co-authored with Dalmar Fisher and David Rooke is entitled Personal and Organisational Transformations: Through Action Inquiry. After teaching at Yale, SMU, and Harvard, Bill has been at Boston College for the past 23 years, serving as Graduate Dean of the School of Management for 9 years and Director of the PhD program in Organizational Transformation.

Q: I noticed in your 1993 book, Sources of Excellence, you are focusing on business leadership. What was it about business leadership or organizational leadership that attracted you?

BT: When I got here to Boston College as Dean of the MBA program, I realized that I was engaged in a traditional leadership function. At the same time we were trying to educate leaders. At that point I began to look at business leadership and political leadership in a more disciplined way than I had before. But it’s hard to say exactly when it began because in a way it goes back right to Bill Coffin. I was excited by him, because he was a leader who was both intellectual and practical.

My 1991 book, The Power of Balance, has a whole chapter on philosopher kings and queens. I discuss six contemporary leaders, most of whom are not that well known and who exhibited a capacity for developmental leadership and effect. The 1987 book, Managing the Corporate Dream, is also heavily focused on business leadership.

Q: In Sources of Excellence you indicate that you were doing what you called “a highly critical re-reading of modern history and economic theory from a perspective that speaks about and attempts to illustrate an unusual process of upstream leadership that is set properly to complement productive, goal-oriented downstream leadership.” Could you say something about this concept?

BT: The ultimate idea about action inquiry is to be both in action and inquiry at the same time. Our attention normally runs downstream. we’re attracted to a topic for some reason or other, maybe because of our own intention. It passes through our thought, into words and gestures and out to another person. That’s the way attention normally flows. I call that the downstream flow of attention. The upstream flow is back from “What am I seeing,” “What kind of reaction am I getting from the outside world.” Are my actions in fact appropriate and having the influence I intend them to? I first question whether my performance at the bodily visible level is adequate. I might change that. That would be single loop learning. At the same time the response questions my overall structure or strategy, my action logic. I may need to do some double loop learning and change the way I’m going about this whole thing or what I imagine is really happening. Then, finally, if I’m open enough to it, there could be a question that flows all the way back. This is triple loop feedback that goes back to the way I’m attending in the first place. That’s the upstream direction. A great upstream leader is one who re-galvanizes people’s vision and questions the way in which they have been seeing things. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the two great Presidents for creating the vision of union and recreating the vision of union in the midst of action.

Q: By moving into triple loop learning, aren’t you getting into the question of meaning and identity?

BT: Absolutely. I think both double loop and triple loop do. I see any developmental transformation as a double loop change. The action logic of the person or the system changes. And in your early action logic is your identity. It’s the quality of the later action logics that they recognize that any particular structure I’m working in isn’t necessarily my identity. My identity is actually in the ongoing action and inquiry into a particular action logic.

Q: When you speak of action logic what model are you referring to?

BT: It’s the phrase that I’ve come to use for what other people call developmental stages. I think the notion of stages is very abstract and raises all sorts of problems about it, especially at the later developmental action logics. The latest action logics aren’t stage-like in their nature. They don’t capture you in the way the earlier ones do. In Kegan’s notion of subject and object, in each movement towards a later developmental position you take the action logic you were formerly subject to and turn it into object. You manipulate it by yourself. This moves us to a place where we can be so alert and awake that we recognize that our every thought is simply an expression of a particular action logic. we’re not caught by any of our action logics or we’re caught for shorter periods of time. we’re able to swim back upstream again. We experience that part of the problem we just created was by getting identified or stuck in a particular action logic.

Q: In the book that you co-wrote, Personal and Organisational Transformations, what I might have thought of as stages, like Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist, Magician, these are all different kinds of action logics.

BT: Yes, I like this theme a lot better. A lot of the earlier works have words like stages, but that’s what I mean. In my understanding of each of these action logics, they aren’t simply mental logics. They encompass your action repertory and, at the same time, limit or widen it, depending on the quality of the action logic.

Q: What is the relationship between action logics and vMemes in Spiral Dynamics?

BT: I think there’s a close relationship. I think we’re looking at the same phenomena and seeing them very nearly the same.

Q: Is there something that differentiates this work from Spiral Dynamics?

BT: we’re gradually exploring that through people like Susann Cook-Greuter, who is really looking at the way they work methodologically. I’ve read some of the stuff. I’m unable to find the real core of the research base of it, even though I’ve looked a bit. I’ve looked at some stuff about the original work and it’s just hard to find the original data, but when I read about the different colors, they’re similar in some ways and different in some ways. Don Beck and Jenny Wade are both now talking about there being two ways of moving from the conventional to the post conventional: an adaptation of the feminist work on individual achievement vs. a more communal orientation. I haven’t been able to find empirical support for that myself. In my work it seems that it is progressive. What I call the Expert is the more tightly bound, more archetypically masculine perspective. The Achiever is a slightly more feminine, relational position. They have their sequence working a little bit differently at that point. Their blue seems to me to be very, very, very close to my Diplomat. Green seems to be very close to what we are now calling the Individualist, the position in between Achiever and Strategist that we hadn’t differentiated for a long time, even though it can be differentiated in the scoring system.

Q: In the book you actually link them together.

BT: Yes. we’re doing another edition and we’re going to break out the Individualist some more along with the parallel organizational stage that we’ll probably call the Social Network.

Q: we’re bandying around a couple of terms that I want to check to see what the quality of meaning is for you. The two terms are leader and leadership. What is the relationship between those two terms in your mind? Are they the same? Is one just the larger picture of the other or what?

BT: First, I think it is good to separate the notion of leader or leadership from any particular role in an organization. A CEO may or may not function actually as a leader. There has been a lot of discussion of the distinction between management and leadership or a manager and a leader. An Achiever can be an effective manager and a Strategist can be an effective leader. A Strategist in any position in an organization is likely to take leadership. And a Strategist is also someone who recognizes that you don’t want to isolate leadership in a single person, so the Strategist will tend to try to create a collaborative situation in which multiple people can exercise leadership, whatever their formal position. By contrast, an Achiever and the earlier action logics will tend to see leadership more hierarchically and will tend to identify themselves as the leader in an exclusive way rather than as a leader who can facilitate more general leadership.

Q: There may be a pattern of meaning associated with leadership at each of the action logics.

BT: Oh, definitely, that’s right! I do think that. One of the sentence stems we added to the Loevinger Sentence Completion Test, because there were no sentences relating to managers, is a sentence stem which says, “A good boss .” It would be fascinating to do an article just on what Diplomats say about the boss compared to what Experts say vs. what Achievers and Strategists say. One of the things you find is that at the later action-logics, people don’t like the notion of boss. And so they’ll often pick an argument with the beginning of the sentence stem.

Q: I remember when I did it I think my response was something very brief, something like, “A good boss is no boss.” What have you learned about the performance of CEO’s looking through these lenses?

BT: I think they are the vortex of the paradox of leadership. Given what I’ve learned, I believe that the CEO is tremendously important because there are people of all action logics in his or her organization. It’s not going to cut the mustard to simply be lovey-dovey and advocate collaboration. It just isn’t enough. There are emergencies and there are times when the CEO has to put their ass on the line, partly because other people won’t do it and partly because people are projecting their needs for leadership onto the CEO.

There is this constant movement back and forth between performing in a way that earlier stage people will recognize as leadership and performing in a way that gradually involves the entire organizational system so that the members of the organization evolve out of those early action logics. I remember when I came here and wanted to lead a major change in the MBA curriculum (which eventually turned the curriculum into an action oriented one rather than merely a bunch of separate courses and separate disciplines). I had no credibility at the outset.

One of the first things I did was unilaterally send out a memo saying, “It has come to my attention that professors fail students in courses and then change the failure later to an Incomplete by allowing the student to do something more in order not to get a failure.” I said, “It’s perfectly legitimate to give somebody an Incomplete when you have negotiated with the student and they can’t finish the course and you agree that they will do something after it’s over. You hand in your Incomplete and when they finish you change the grade. There is a grade change form for that. But if a student has simply failed and has failed to make an agreement with you about how to complete the course, then that’s a Failure. There will no longer be any changes of failures into Incompletes.”

I was only reasserting a University policy, but I did it unilaterally. It was no-nonsense. There is a bottom line here in terms of basic quality. It made people respect me; it was little things like that. And then we had a big emergency. I had my first student meeting when I was hoping to make friends with the students and get to know people. I had come in the middle of a semester and they virtually had placards out denouncing one particular teacher from a minority population. The teacher was just really fundamentally inadequate, but once a person is teaching a course you can’t usually change them during the course.

Through a series of conversations he agreed to step down and somebody else volunteered to step in. In three days I had gotten a change in the teacher through a completely consultative and collaborative process, but still, completely led by me. Those early incidents began to give people confidence that I would take action in real cases for relatively just outcomes and that I couldn’t be pushed around too much. Slowly, slowly over the next year we developed a collaborative team that eventually persuaded the faculty to pass this curriculum.

Q: Oh. All of this has led to some findings as you’ve applied these to doing your research. You’ve actually had some findings about CEO performance. Could you summarize those?

BT: Well, the findings we’re talking about right now come from a post hoc study. Several of my collaborators, including the Harthill group in England–David Rooke is my co-author on the main study–and I had done a number of consulting engagements, many of them over a period of several years. We were interested in seeing whether we could help organizations transform more than once. Of course, these were all cases in which we had been invited in by somebody, not always at the initiative of the CEO. Sometimes it would be somebody else in the organization who took the initiative, usually somebody at the vice-presidential level. In a number of cases, it was the CEO.

Just the fact that they were interested in this kind of work indicated that, on average, they might be slightly later action logic than you’d expect to find in the general population. We did ask them, on a voluntary basis, if they and their senior teams would like to get feedback on the sentence completion tests. So all the CEO’s and most of the members of their teams took these and received feedback on them.

What we found was that half of the CEO’s measured at the Strategist stage. This is characterized as more mutually oriented and more timing oriented. It is more oriented towards action inquiry without necessarily knowing the word, but just more able to do first and second person inquiry as well as more formal third person inquiry, say about their competitive situation.

Half of the CEO’s were at an earlier action logic: one diplomat, two experts and two achievers. After several years we felt quite effective with them, but we realized when we started to talk about it that there were several cases where we had not been effective. We decided to do a study of it.

We got three of us who had been deeply involved to identify the organizational stages, which had never been quantified before. We had paragraph descriptions of them as well as quite a few case illustrations. We all knew these ten cases that we had been involved with quite well. Three of us each independently tried to use our knowledge of the organizational stage theory to make judgments about whether they had transformed or not, and how much.

We were first of all delighted to discover that we had very high reliability on the findings and basically agreed on all ten cases. In one case we had a disagreement about just how many transformations had occurred. So we had a more than .9 reliability on that. What we found was that all five of the CEO’s who were at the Strategist action logic had been associated with successful transformations, on average two successful transformations. All the cases where there was no transformation, and the one case in which there was regression, were associated with CEO’s who were at earlier action logics than the Strategist.

Another interesting point we didn’t make in the article was that all the consultants measured at the Strategist or later than Strategist logic. The one who measured at a later than Strategist action logic was the only one who was associated with CEOs who were not yet Strategists but who nevertheless supported organizational transformation with the help of the consultant. That seems to suggest that perhaps a very late action-logic consultant can actually bridge the dilemma of a CEO who really isn’t up to fully modeling the collaborative role. Somehow, this consultant can influence that CEO to get involved in changes that permit other people to start developing in the organization. But that was just one consultant and two CEOs. This doesn’t have a lot of weight as a quantitative finding.

Q: Was there any link between these transformations and the bottom line for these companies?

BT: Oh, absolutely! We studied that separately. The bottom line, the position in the industry and the reputation of the company all changed very, very positively for the companies that had positive transformations. The two that simply didn’t transform were more or less treading water and may be slightly worse off at the end in terms of bottom line and industry standing. The one that regressed experienced tremendous negative effects on industry position and even some ethical issues. In that one, by the way, the consultant resigned from the job because of the repeated incapacity to have any influence. In the end the CEO resigned.

Q: Was there comparability of intervention methodologies across the cases?

BT: In a general there was a strong compatibility. I’ve just done another sort of analysis of this where I now have this model of 27 different types of action research. I’ve been counting up how many different kinds of action research get used in different cases, and I applied this to the earlier study of the ten organizations. There wasn’t any kind of precise comparability because the methods really were tailor made for each separate situation. However, always a part of the intervention at some point would be to try to develop a culture where every meeting at the senior management level had all members of the meeting exercising the leadership role (as they became adept with this they would take this approach to their subordinates and so on down). This goes back to our question of leadership. We were really trying to develop a distributed sense of leadership in a formal way. We created five or six or seven different leadership roles and then they would get gradually rotated around the team over a period of several years.

Q: You would have a rotating Chair at the meeting, for example, and things like that.

BT: Exactly right! You’d have the meeting Chair, the agenda creator, the process manager, the assessment person who would provide at the end of the meeting a little instrument or a little five minute debriefing. You’d have somebody in charge of projects that were supposed to be completed by the team in between meetings. This would smarten things up and get people feeling like you got results from meetings. People got a lot of feedback about their leadership capacities. That’s just one of a dozen or more types of action research that were conducted in each organization. Participation in taking the sentence completion tests and receiving feedback was a common one, and so on.

Q: Are there any kind of guiding principles of what effective leadership is or what organizations need to do to develop leadership?

BT: In Sources of Excellence I say there are four leadership virtues. They correspond to this notion of four territories of reality: the outside world, one’s own performance, one’s action logic and the capacity for attention or vision. Visioning is one of the leadership virtues. That’s obviously not particular to me. A lot of people have said it, but I’m talking about generating increasingly wide and deep visioning throughout a family, organization or society that goes beyond quantitative development (e.g. larger market share) to include qualitative development (e.g. a triple bottom line that integrates environmental, social, and economic sustainability).

The second virtue I call empowering, which is also no new thing but it doesn’t just mean empowering other people. I speak of it as exercising power in an appropriately vulnerable, mutuality enhancing, transforming way.

The third leadership virtue I call timing. I speak of artistry in action–performance that weaves together the immediate, the long term and the eternal.

Q: That’s beautiful. And the fourth?

BT: The fourth virtue I call schooling. Creating learning organizations where adults simultaneously learn and produce.