A Fresh Perspective: Applying a Developmental Approach: A Conversation with Alain Gauthier, June 29, 2002

Russ Volckmann

Alain Gauthier has served over the past 36 years a large variety of client organizations in France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada and the United States. He first worked as an associate of McKinsey & Company in Europe, then as a partner of a Paris-based consulting firm, and is currently Executive Director of Core Leadership Development in Oakland, CA.

Alain has supervised and prefaced the French adaptation of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, as well as its two sequels: The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook and The Dance of Change. He contributed to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook and is a co-author of Learning Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace. For more about his extensive experience go to

Q: In the world of integral and developmental psychology we are very concerned with theories and models and concepts. I’m really interested in the perspectives of a consultant in being a bridge between this challenging realm of ideas, and the world of CEO’s and executives in business.

Not only do you have exceptional experience in this country with consulting firms and clients, but also in Europe. You have a bicultural perspective. What are some of the key concepts and ideas related to integral and developmental psychology that you are bringing to your work?

AG: Most of the executives that I am working with, whether in for profit or not for profit, in Europe or in this country, have been so immersed in the flatland that Ken Wilber noted as being in the right-hand quadrants [individual behaviors, and structures, systems-ed.]. The first thing that I do is to help them recognize the importance of conscious work in the left-hand quadrants [individual intentions, assumptions, values, and collective culture, values-ed.] and its connection to the right hand quadrants so that deep and sustainable change can happen. This is easier in organizations that have a clear purpose and built-in values, such as the Catholic health care systems I am currently working with.

The difficulty is to systemically connect in a developmental way to the gap that exists between the espoused values and the actual behaviors that take place both at the individual level and the collective level. I’m using more and more Bill Torbert’s Action Inquiry model [Look for the forthcoming interview with Bill Torbert in the August issue of Integral Leadership Review-ed.] in which you start with intentions, articulate a plan, go to action and evaluate the consequences of your action.

The level of intentions can be traced to the spiritual level. To be able to connect in the moment with the intentions of both the individual and collective is a hallmark of a highly developed executive.

Q: What is it about Action Inquiry that is a powerful approach from your point of view?

AG: I am a highly visual and conceptually-oriented person. This vertical model helps me integrate things by acknowledging that in our daily doing we have intentions that are connected to our highest aspirations. Yet when we act, our mental models and emotions will determine often the quality of our actions and their consequences.

Action Inquiry is an integrating tool that brings together the notions of single, double and triple loop inquiries. These relate to the capacity for reflection, for reflective leadership.

I’m introducing it in my consulting and educational work along with the notion of creative tension between vision and current reality. It goes to one of the core issues that are more and more evident in our economic system, especially when you see all the scandals right now about the accounting practices of some large companies. It goes to the willingness to be aware of the gap that exists between what we say we intend and what we actually do and the consequences it creates.

Q: What is it about Action Inquiry that is a powerful contribution to working those kinds of issues?

AG: It’s this notion that we actually need to develop in ourselves the capacity to inquire in the moment of action, not afterwards, not distinguish reflection from action but actually integrate reflection in action. That’s the key according to Bill Torbert and Robert Kegan. We can become capable of using concrete opportunities in daily life to engage in Action Inquiry. This is what actually brings online our deepest capacities. Our willingness to train ourselves to be reflective in the moment and do what is at stake.

Q: Three concepts that are key to this are single, double and triple loop learning. You referred to them as single, double and triple loop inquiries. I know of at least three or four different approaches to talking about these ideas. Would you talk a little bit about what single, double and triple loop refers to here?

AG: The single loop is the easiest because it actually compares the consequences of our actions to what we were trying to do initially. Then we are willing to modify how we do things if we observe a discrepancy between the intended outcomes of the action and the consequences it creates. Double loop is about what I need to modify in my thinking – in the way I frame or plan my actions. I can discover what is not necessarily adequate in the way I articulate my plan or strategy and link actions logically one to the other.

Q: Are we talking about mental models in the double loop?

AG: Yes, It’s getting to the mental models. It is about surfacing and challenging the assumptions that are behind the plans that I build. Triple loop inquiry, the highest and most difficult level, helps me see how my intentions are possibly betrayed through automatic ways of thinking. It also enables me to challenge my intention or vision in the light of what I experience.

Q: In your presentation to the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL West, June 2002, Palo Alto) you talked about single, double and triple loop inquiry. Single loop is the relationship between assessing and performing, which is what you described as looking at our actions and the results. It’s an obvious self-management process. Right?

AG: Yes.

Q: Then the double loop is the relationship apparently between that set of interactions in the whole idea of strategizing, planning or mental models required for those activities.

AG: Yes, it is.

Q: Then triple loop is getting at the visioning/intention level that you linked to the level of spirit. Another way that I’ve heard [from Mike Jay, B\Coach Systems-Ed] is that the triple loop is learning about the learner.

AG: Yes, that is another way of expressing it. The distinction I make is between advocating, which is a way of speaking in which you actually are advocating ways of doing things and are largely conscious, and reframing in which you realize that you may be advocating within a certain concept or intention that you’ve never completely challenged. You need to go to vision and intuition to do something that goes beyond logic in order to reframe.

Q: So when we go beyond logic then we begin to deal with things that are spiritual in essence, non-linear, even including the nature of our being.

AG: Yes. And that’s where the deeper intentions really surface. Bill Torbert’s work shows the relationship between stages of personal/organization development [Personal and Organizational Development-ed.] And these Action Inquiry loops. It is only at later stages, strategist and beyond, that people are beginning to practice triple loop inquiry. They develop the capacity to be fully present in the moment while being aware of past patterns and seeing a range of possible futures. They are connected to their deeper intentions, their mental models, their current behavior and its consequences.

Q: The idea of learning in the moment, of inquiring in the moment, is exciting because it relates knowing and learning to consciousness and awareness. I’m reminded that Fred Kaufman talks about consciousness as a critical business skill related to knowing in a holarchic sense.

Do you find that there are executives who are considering development in this way?

AG: Yes. I was at a conference, Spirit in Business in New York, about two months ago and there were some testimonies on the part of executives. They were from American Express, Ben and Jerry’s, Hewlett Packard, other corporations and not-for-profit organizations. Some acknowledged that through some personal practices – including meditation, journaling and reflection – they were actually increasing their capacity to be in the moment, even in fairly demanding situations, rather than being prisoner of an automatic way of reacting to crises, difficulties, etc.

Q: Well, that moves us right into the work of Robert Kegan [The Evolving Self, In Over Our Heads] because it’s all about being subject to and holding as object.

AG: Kegan’s work has greatly contributed to my understanding that the moment that we are able to move from being subject to certain assumptions to holding them as “objects”, we gain a reflective capacity that we didn’t have before. This relates to an executive’s capacity to exercise that reflective capability both at work and outside of work.

Q: I have found that to be a very powerful intervention in working with a CEO. I have a client who is in a highly politicized environment and continually being confronted with various challenges. His understanding of the subject-object concept and his learned ability to reflect and practice shifting to holding as object has made a huge difference in his ability to help keep his organization in a position of strength.

AG: Yes. I personally use a list of developmental approaches and tools that invites executives to realize that it takes a mix of individual and collective practices to develop that reflective capacity, particularly within the context of the team that they operate in.

Q: That is probably his biggest organizational challenge at the moment. He is providing executive coaching and restructuring his whole executive team to bring in this capacity as a critical element for the evolution of his organization.

AG: Right. The increasing time pressures, shortening life cycles, multiple competitive challenges that need to be addressed simultaneously could result in squeezing even more reflection out of an executive’s daily life if that action inquiry competency is not developed.

Q: So there’s a risk there.

AG: Yes, definitely. The immersion in linear time can prevent one from having access to the other two experiences of time that Torbert describes: the “eternal now” or capacity to be fully in the moment, and “quantum time” where one is aware of past, present and possible futures simultaneously. The capacity to be aware of and use of these three dimensions of time – mostly found at later stages of development – can only be developed with the help of a reflective partner and colleagues at work that are willing to embark on the same journey.

Q: The increasing level of complexity in the business or organizational world today is the source of that requirement. Where you’ve got complexity and the potential for conflict and challenge, you need to have people who can bring a variety of perspectives and sets of information together to make even better decisions. No matter how conscious any one of us may be, there are still going to be scotomas, blind spots, in the aspects of the business that we’re not aware of.

AG: That’s right. There are two trends, one for and one against what we are just discussing. The trend that I think is favorable to a reexamination of how executives and their teams function is that more people realize that the old ways of doing things are achieving less and less. The unfavorable trend is the tendency to look for quick fixes and apply flavor-of the month management “solutions”. When they are willing to be honest and lucid, few leaders find themselves well prepared for the complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradoxes that they are dealing with. In fact designing creative ways to work with paradoxes is something that I think needs to be emphasized.

I am engaging my clients in making a distinction about their ability to change how they look at polarized phenomena. Some situations that are seen as dilemmas may be better understood as paradoxes. A dilemma usually has two different and conflicting aspects and we try to choose the lesser evil between the two. With paradoxes there are apparently irreconcilable elements, but we can transcend these.

Q: We can’t resolve it but we can transcend it?

AG: We can transcend and include the two apparent contradictions into something that is broader. But for that we have to work with it. An example of paradox is “you need others to be truly yourself”. That’s the paradox of all time! I believe that one possible practice is to help executives and executive teams size up the paradoxes they are working with and be willing to spend some time exploring how to transcend and include these in creative outcomes.

Q: Quite a challenge. Can you provide an example of one that has been confronted, transcended and included?

AG: One that we have been dealing with has to do with the concept of the Global SoL Network. Because of the very wide variety of conditions around the world where SoL “fractals” are trying to help their members build organizations that are worthy of their peoples’ highest aspirations, there is a great deal of autonomy that is needed for these “fractals” to organize themselves with their members. At the same time, they cannot be as intelligent as they could be in meeting the real needs and exercising that autonomy if they are not linked to something broader. How do you reconcile autonomy and being connected in a network that has some common purpose and some common principles? How do you foster “integrated autonomy”?

Q: Did they come up with a way to transcend and include those positions?

AG: There are some emerging and evolving solutions like a minimum infrastructure to help members and fractals connect to one another when they feel a need to do so. Second, some of us can play the role of “stewards” to help fractals and members self-assess and benefit from the wisdom that exists in other parts of the system. These stewards can share what they’ve experienced in other fractals and/or provide interpretation of some of the SoL purpose and principles that could help fractals and members deal constructively with some of their questions and issues.

These would be just a couple of examples. A few colleagues and I are in the process of making this work on paradoxes as concrete to executives as we can. My clients are intrigued about this.

Q: It would be very interesting to have a group of executives sitting around and engaged in looking through that lens and see what they come up with.

AG: Yes. Charles Handy in ‘The Age of Paradox’ says that paradoxes cannot be solved at the level at which they are expressed. They need to be first accepted, lived with, coped with, made sense of and then possibly transcended. People have to grapple with what is there.

Q: So here’s the connection between action inquiry and paradox, because paradox has to be engaged within the moment, worked and developed in the moment.

AG: That’s very true.

Q: That’s exciting. What we’re talking about is cutting-edge stuff.

AG: Oh I am absolutely convinced it’s cutting edge. That’s why a few of us are grappling with this the best way we can. I know that ultimately one of my key challenges is to suspend every kind of conceptual framework so that it doesn’t prevent me from being totally present to the moment of what is happening. Conceptual frameworks such as Wilber’s or Torbert’s represent bridges to the unknown for many of us, but it is essential not to stop at them and not be limited by them

Q: What helps us suspend our mental models?

AG: The people who are most successful are very much centered in their heart’s intelligence and in their whole body. There is an openness and a connectedness in the moment with the people who are there. They are able to lower their “center of gravity” from the conceptual abstract framework down to what is really present now, and be in touch with the spiritual and emotional dimensions of the situation. This allows for intuition, feelings as well as sensations to emerge so that there is more connection to what is.

For example, I consciously use belly breathing when I see difficult questions coming at me when I am facilitating a meeting. If I actually stop the internal mind chatter and breathe from the belly up, I find a way to get the mental and emotional tension out of my system. I also reconnect much faster with the participants and where they are. This prevents me from getting stuck in the conceptual or intellectual realm alone

Q: You were talking about people coming from the heart and being connected with their body, being aware and conscious. This ties directly into the notions of developmental psychology and the developmental model that Susann Cook- Greuter and Bill Torbert have been using from Loevinger’s and Kegan’s work. This raises a really fundamental question. We work with systems and models to identify consciousness and awareness levels, and we tend to treat them as boxes…

AG: Or rungs on a ladder.

Q: Right. There’s a hierarchy. As soon as you introduce the hierarchy most of us are going to see one level as better than another level. Many shy away from boxes or ladders. Yet, given increasing complexity, the need for including growing diversity and experimentation for dealing with the implications of all of that, higher or more encompassing levels of consciousness become critically important.

AG: I am currently investigating ways of representing the strands of development as a web, rather than a ladder, with many connections and possible regressions between the different levels. That is closer I think to what Ken Wilbur talks about in an integral approach that is all quadrants, all levels and spans many lines of development.

Many of us do shy away from anything that would include hierarchy. I prefer to use the terms holonarchy or holarchy. This notion says that each holon level in the holarchy transcends and includes the previous one. This is absolutely true in terms of development. In Robert Kegan’s work on development there is recognition of the capacity to move from concrete situations to the first level of abstraction, then to a system of abstractions, and then to systems of principles. That’s all over the place: in moral development or in reflective judgment.

Let’s not be too linear and hierarchical, but holarchy is there. I know Ken Wilber had to deal with a lot of flack about this, and Bill Torbert too. Their models appear linear, but they’re not linear in essence. They are embedding the notion of holarchy. I don’t think we should shy away from it. I’m not going to shy away from it.

Q: In working with CEO’s, executives and organizations, having a model that is hierarchical would be a comfort to them.

AG: Initially it is a comfort. That may be the entry door for some of them. Most people who have had the kind of training I have had – business school and then years either in a in a large consulting firm or big corporation – need maps and paths to get oriented. Why not offer a model as the first step in a journey into a territory that will reveal itself as much more complex, a lot less linear, than it looks initially. I like the notion of some comfort to make the first step a little more reassuring. Why not have a little comfort before opening Pandora’s box of development, and experiencing significant discomfort that is associated with deep learning?

Q: It sure is hard to find comfort once you engage, isn’t it?

AG: True. There is a risk in wanting to prolong that sense of comfort, though. There is a risk in using Torbert’s terminology in a non-learning way. An achiever might tend initially to look at stages like strategist, alchemist and even ironist and think “Well, I really am already there. I am so good at what I do.” So they will discount what is involved in moving to these later stages. On the other hand someone who is a strategist will want to be an alchemist because he or she now understands that it is a much more encompassing level. It is also a much more freeing level.

Q: Bill Torbert has done a fair amount of research about these levels among CEO’s and executives.

AG: Yes, and I’m using the findings of that action research and Jim Collins’ Good to Great to invite executives to enter into conscious developmental efforts. Torbert’s research is based on a ten-year longitudinal study of how the personal development of CEO’s affected the development of their organizations. Jim Collins has identified through extensive research 11 companies that achieved a transition from good to great under the leadership of a “level-five” CEO.

Level-five CEOs all exhibit a paradoxical blend of personal humility and an iron will to transform their organization. They are rarely visible as leaders outside of their organizations but they work diligently and relentlessly in the service of great ambitions for their organization. Level-five CEO’s are at least strategists in their capacity to look at all the stakeholders that need to be involved and to connect things systemically that were not connected before. They are not on an ego trip anymore, and are happy to play their role of vigilant steward/guide with great consistency over a long period of time.

I view one of my roles as translating these research findings, models and ideas into developmental approaches, practices and tools that are concrete and practical enough so that executives and other leaders say “Hey, there is something of real value here for myself and my organization”

Q: Do you find any variance between what you are encountering in Europe and in the United States in terms of openness and receptivity to these ideas?

AF: Yes and no. It is interesting to know that the sample of managers and consultants that have taken the Leadership Development Profile developed by Susann Cook-Greuter and Bill Torbert is about half European and half American.

Q: Mainly UK, right?

AG: Mainly UK and some people in the Netherlands and other Northern European countries. Of course the European sample is somewhat because these are people mostly interested in development. That’s why they take the test. It looks like these Europeans are about one stage of development ahead of their American counterparts. One could explain that also by the fact that the US is still a younger country, a younger culture with a kind of ‘go west young man’ attitude. Europeans have had to exercise restraint, work within a smaller space and integrate many more factors for a longer time than Americans have.

Q: They have had more practice!

AG: They have more practice integrating, in fact dealing with paradoxes and dilemmas. This showed up in a workshop on this subject I did recently in Boston at the SoL Annual Meeting. Although there were people from 20 countries at the large meeting, I had five Swedes, one Dutch, one British and one German and a few Americans in my workshop, no Frenchmen, no Italians, no Spaniards. Europe is not one homogeneous whole. There seems to be more appetite for these ideas and more practice among Scandinavians. Under the influence of whatever legacy the Catholic Church has left, the Latin part of Europe seems slower to awaken to these domains.

There are some differences that I am still trying to understand. But I think there is a very general longing for going beyond what Bill O’Brien, former CEO of an insurance company, called the “BS of existing businesses.”

Q: The “BS”?

AG: Yeah, the “horse manure”. Many business executives talk about their company’s purpose, vision, values, and developing the human capital, but their practices are so far away from that!

Q: As a practitioner, Alain, what is your strategy for trying to move forward and bring these ideas and perspectives to play in the world of business?

AG: First is to put even more emphasis than I have put so far into my own development. I am more and more conscious that I cannot have any lasting influence in this domain unless I really walk the talk personally. And that puts a lot more emphasis on how I am in the moment with my clients. How do I do all these things we are talking about? How do I do single, double and triple loop action inquiries in every moment in my life and with my clients?

Q: It reminds me that in 1984, Bob Tannenbaum gave a talk to the Organization Development Network. It was at a time when people were really focusing a lot on the development of tools and techniques. His message was that the most important tool you bring to your work is you. And so, we’re relearning an old lesson here.

AG: I agree. We paid homage to Bill O’Brien at the June SoL Annual Meeting because he has influenced many of us at SoL, and now faces a terminal illness. He used to say that the success of an intervention depends mostly on the internal condition of the intervener.

Q: Other elements of your strategy for moving this work forward?

AG: The first is work on myself. Second, is to find predisposed executives who are beginning to see the connection between their own stage of development and the development of their company. CEOs who are passionate about developing their company, not just from an economic perspective but as a place where people have the opportunity to really grow personally.

I am busily trying to identify where these executives are. My sense is that there are quite a few in businesses that are already trying to take a higher road on ecological or social issues. In other words, the companies that are really going for triple-bottom-line accountability are likely to have more of these people in them, because they have to take a much more systemic and intergenerational view in their decision-making. These executives are also likely to want to interact collaboratively with others who are struggling with similar issues.

Q: So we have to start where the people are ready.

AG: Exactly. Find innovators and early adopters in this domain. Personal development is based on volunteerism, so there have to be internal reasons why people are willing to move in that direction.

The third strategy is to transform some of these conceptual models into a set of practices. I have a couple of pages in my presentations where I give examples of first-person, second-person and third-person research or practices that enable people to move toward later stages of development. A lot of work is to be done in that direction.

Q: And what would be an example of that?

AG: One of the practices is to use Bob Kegan’s [and Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work-ed.] four-column methodology to surface and challenge “big assumptions” that hold us back and the “seven languages” necessary for moving beyond them. That’s one example.

Q: These languages address not just the individual but the collective level as well.

AG: Oh, absolutely. Development happens as a result of both individual and team or group efforts. Executive and other leaders need to be part of a learning team or a learning group to do that challenging work on themselves. We can’t do it alone. We need others to be truly ourselves, as Carl Jung once said.