A Fresh Perspective: Leadership A Conversation with Ralph Kilmann – April 15, 2002

Russ Volckmann

Ralph Kilmann, may be best known for his contribution to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management instrument that is used widely in training programs and consulting. He has authored or co-authored prolifically beyond that, including titles such as Beyond the Quick Fix, Corporate Transformation, Managing Ego Energy and Gaining Control of the Corporate Culture. His consulting practice has included IBM, Ford, Kodak, Phillips, GE, GM and many others. He is George Love Professor of Organization and Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

Q: After a writing hiatus of five years you’ve come out with a new book called Quantum Organizations. What inspired this work?

RK: Starting in the Seventies I was writing a lot of articles and a book every few years. I was on a clear trajectory to continue enhancing my approach to organizational change and improvement. In the mid-Nineties I reached a plateau where I realized I was just embellishing more of the same. I recognized that I had to examine my own paradigm. I had the sense that I was missing something.

I stopped writing for the first time in almost 30 years and began reading everything to expand my mind. There were things that I had always wanted to read, but never took the trouble. I read about cosmology, the evolution of universe, the evolution of consciousness, quantum physics, relativity theory, evolutionary theory and neuroscience, anything that was different and expanding. I purposely did not write during this period.

Then I had an urge to put it all together. Some people might call it a mid-life crisis or a consolidation of my life, but there was this need to take all this knowledge and put it into a form. By nature, part of that form would be a book. I began writing very intensely, every day, morning and night. It was a labor of love. It was about self-identity and self-expression. Quantum Organizations was the result.

Q: One of your theses seems to be that there is a shifting paradigm or a need for a shift in the paradigm around organization change and around life in general. Is that correct?

RK: Yes. The basic premise is that the current view of organization is rooted in a notion of reality that is false. This comes from the whole Newtonian paradigm that objects move through the universe and bounce off one another. There’s nothing about life, consciousness or people. The understanding of today’s world was largely an outgrowth of the industrial revolution and the original economics.

Freud referred to himself as the Newton of the mind. I found this limiting. What expanded my horizon particularly were quantum physics and cosmology–the very small and the very large–and the evolution of consciousness. I realized that we are imbedded in so many of our current views of organization and we are not seeing reality.

The basic premise that unfolded was that organizations and people are an outgrowth of the same evolutionary process in the universe. To really understand people and organizations we have to have a more accurate view of the very small, the very large and everything in between. The new paradigm evolves to say if the nature of the very small and the very large is about quantum dynamics, relativity theory and the evolution of consciousness, isn’t this what we have to truly understand to work with people and organizations and to help people improve their organizations? This is really what the new paradigm is about.

If you look at our educational system, our communities and our families, you find that life is not being addressed that way. People are not learning about consciousness, the evolution of consciousness and quantum physics. Most people who are working in organizations are still carrying around a very outdated view of reality. And that’s why we need to shift our paradigm.

Q: What is the nature of this shift?

RK: The first premise of the Newtonian model is that there is this inherent split between mind and matter in the universe. This follows from the initial work of Descartes as further elaborated by Newton and his mathematical principles and laws. He said basically that we should keep the mind out of the universe. We can study the universe without having to worry about studying the human mind. There is an objective reality out there and we’re going to find it.

That’s a very different premise than in the new paradigm that says that there’s an interplay of mind and consciousness. Mind not only is where consciousness is partially located, but mind then forms material particles and sets the universe in motion. The whole universe can be thought of as one thought, one great thought, an evolution of consciousness. None of this has any consideration in the Newtonian paradigm. Mind matters, as opposed to we can forget about mind and just hire people’s hands.

Q: Mind matters and consciousness is the ultimate building block for the entire universe?

RK: Absolutely! In our Newtonian organizations, initially through the industrial revolution, there were actually signs in Britain that said “Hired hands, hands for hire.” Eventually we brought more of the person into the organization. We realized they were social creatures. They had needs to be accepted. They had needs for achievement and power. They were a bit more complex.

Most recently we recognized that they have a lot of knowledge and this is the knowledge worker. There isn’t just the blue collar and the white collar. There’s also the knowledge worker.

With the new paradigm we can say that the essence of people is their consciousness. You might ask how can people possibly make good decisions about themselves and their organizations if they’re not fully conscious? When we talk about developing our human assets, developing our people, the bottom line is to develop their consciousness. This is not something that is considered in most organizations.

Q: Consciousness development is a bottom line issue?

RK: Right. The new paradigm really highlights that there is an evolution of consciousness from light to nuclear particles to atoms to inorganic molecules to organic molecules, plants to animals, and then to people. In evolution people became self-aware. As they became self-aware they began being able to reflect the whole evolution of the universe. We can ultimately talk about not just ego development but what the East talks about in terms of spiritual enlightenment where we eventually find ourselves returning to the source. We are the essence of everything that began. This is a different view of life and reality and ultimately of organization.

Q: One of the themes around the new paradigm has to do with mind and consciousness and it’s manifestation. Another one has more to do with the notion of uncertainty in self-organization. Can you comment on that?

RK: Part of the Newtonian model is a theme of determinism, that ultimately we could have mathematical models that can explain everything. If we don’t understand something we just haven’t studied enough yet, but there will be a physical law that explains it all to the nth degree. Everything has a precise answer.

With the quantum view we recognize that there is uncertainty and we can never know all. And to know something about one thing means you won’t know something about something else. Instead of having mathematical formulas, we have probabilities and statistics. A wave, for example, is a probability fog, if you will. It’s a potential for showing where different particles might appear at any time, but you can’t be precise. You don’t know where the electron is going to be at the next moment. You don’t know what orbit it may shift out of. You have a wave, and it’s going to be somewhere in that wave, but that’s the best you can do. The rest is uncertainty.

The drive towards precision, certainty and knowing the right answer not only is embedded in Newtonian organizations, it’s embedded in our educational system. You can look up the answer at the end of the book. The quantum and cosmological views would recognize that we will never know all in precision. It is all about probabilities and statistics. There are wave functions. There are strange attractors. We have to accept the inherent uncertainty in the universe. There is mystery; there will always be mystery. This is a different worldview.

Q: What are the implications for organizations?

RK: Well, an implication is that gaining market share, embarking on a new strategy or creating change in the organization has inherent complexity and uncertainty. It has probabilities. The way you unfold these is by getting all the particles, the people, involved. You have to allow it to unfold. You have to trust that you cannot control it. You have to set it in motion.

There can be wave equations, but statistically you’ll never know exactly what is going to develop. The mind set is so different, because so many times people in organizations don’t feel comfortable acting. They don’t know it all and they still want to control it all. They want to control people. They want to control outcome. They want to control competitors. They want to control themselves. That’s fantasy.

Q: How have you related to Ken Wilber’s work in this process? There’s a chapter called “Critical Success Factors” in which you quote him and generate some models that reflect his thinking.

RK: There are a few people who have extended a great effort–and oftentimes with great success–in trying to integrate a lot of knowledge that flows across the East and West, that flows across philosophy and science and all the various disciplines. Ken Wilbur is one of those who have tried to put a lot of knowledge together, particularly across East and West. In terms of understanding consciousness and the development of consciousness, Ken Wilbur has some very good ideas to offer.

I make use of a couple of his frameworks because he is trying to integrate some of the ego development of the West. He elaborates and develops stages for how egos form, from being very egocentric to socio-centric and ultimately to world-centric, where the ego can embrace the entire world, if not the universe. The Eastern world looks at spirituality and spiritual development in which the mind transcends the person, the ego. This gives higher stages of consciousness and a higher sense that we are all of one, the unity of the universe. Individuals unfold. It involves understanding the evolution of consciousness in every person, let alone the universe.

Q: You’ve laid this out in terms of the interior and exterior, individual and collective as in a holarchy. When you talk about the four manifestations of spirit in the upper right hand quadrant you include the brain and behavior. What we see is both the physical manifestation and action. Is that correct?

RK: Right. Those are both observable. The brain is essential and can be studied as a brain, as an organ. It’s material, if you will. And behavior is also something that is witnessed and can be looked at by others.

Q: Another concern is self-awareness, consciousness in the upper left and the brain and behavior in the upper right. What do you see as the dynamic that manages the relationship between those two quadrants?

RK: They’re both individual in that we speak of the self-awareness of the person. The kind of behavior we observe in that person is as an individual entity. In the lower quadrants we recognize that there are collective dynamics going on. That’s where we bring in what’s going on in the organization, both what’s hidden, what is interior, like the infrastructures, and what is visible and observable, which of course would be the formal systems and the processes.

I use the Wilber model and there are others. Arthur Young has done a fantastic job of integrating the evolution of consciousness. He does it in a very different way, but a lot of the messages are the same as Wilber. If we understand the four manifestations of spirit, we’re going to approach organizations with greater reality.

One way of seeing that we haven’t been in touch with reality is to note approaches that only look at one quadrant. We try to improve an organization by just focusing on the observable systems and processes or by focusing on the culture. Or we try to improve organizations by doing training programs to improve individuals. Each one of these is inherently limited.

When you see the four quadrants and the four signs of spirit, you can say we have to develop approaches that are rooted in reality. I chart out how eight developmental tracks fit across all four quadrants in Wilber’s model. They address all manifestations of spirit.

Q: A way of thinking about the relationship between upper left and upper right is the application of developmental psychology. Kegan, for example, has his notion of shifting from subject to object as a developmental path. What are the methodologies for self-management of the individual for growing consciousness–from having it being simply interior to manifesting it in an aligned way in the world?

RK: Adults spend most of their waking lives in organizations. Whether they are schools, hospitals, communities, business organizations or government, we spend most of our waking lives in some organizational setting. We do this not just to produce products and services. This is the environment for human growth and development.

One way that people can develop is being part of an organization that actively encourages their self-development. An organization can be enlightened enough to create infrastructure systems and processes such that individuals are drawn to look at themselves, develop themselves and evolve. If we can create that kind of environment for individuals to grow and evolve, we will have people who are further along in terms of their self-understanding. Therefore, they can contribute more of themselves to the organization.

A popular phrase is that people are our most valued asset. Across the board organizations will say that, but what does that really mean? What is the organization doing to allow people to find their inherent essence and allow that essence to be fully expressed in the organization as creativity, innovation, involvement and commitment? Our organizations are not allowing and enabling people to use that setting to continue growing and evolving. That cuts across the individual side of the Wilber model as well as the collective side. Organizations are really the core. That’s why I’ve chosen to focus my life on organization as the leverage for human development in our organized life.

Q: This has some implications for thinking about leadership in organizations. What is your notion of leadership?

RK: Leadership, just to put it in context, is one of the most discussed topics in the last 100 years. There originally was a belief that if we had a great leader, all our problems would be solved. We still have that hero myth about leaders: if you find the right leader with the right traits, the right abilities, the right disposition, this will save us. I think there still is that fantasy.

Based on my understanding of the new paradigm, what if we embrace what we know of reality through quantum physics, cosmology, neuroscience and the evolution of consciousness, and we take that all very seriously. What does that say about the notion of leadership?

I come out two ways on this. First, everyone can be a leader. There can be shared leadership and servant leadership throughout the organization. I am not perpetuating the myth that this is one person on top who gives orders and the rest are supposed to follow like a well-oiled machine. That’s the Newtonian model. Leadership is more about adult responsibility in today’s world and today’s quantum paradigm.

What is this person, leader if you will, doing about his or her own self-development? There seems to be a need for a special responsibility to develop oneself. I can’t be a good role model. I can’t impact other people effectively. I can’t help other people grow. I can’t be involved in creating functional and healthy systems and processes if I don’t know who I am and if I haven’t done my work in growing and evolving. So there is a very inherent need for people, if we want to call them leaders, to develop themselves because they are in special situations, special roles where they can touch upon the lives of others. My question for leaders is what have you been doing about your own development, growth, spiritual enlightenment and your own sense of self. In other words, what work have you done in developing your soul and developing your spirit?

The second feature is do leaders understand the nature of systems in today’s world? Do they understand infrastructures, systems and processes? Or do they have an outdated worldview of what is an organization and what is reality in today’s world? It’s not enough just to develop yourself, whether it’s through meditation, therapy or enlightenment. No, that is not enough! We also have to understand the context, the environment of our world. That means leaders have to know some of the things I talked about earlier: that there are these hidden quantum waves in organizations that have tremendous impact on what people see and what people do. We need to help people participate in self-designing and self-managing strategy, structure, reward systems and all the processes and improvements, if we are going to make full use of people as well as providing opportunities for people to self-develop. That’s a two way street.

Organizations are for products and services. But organizations are also the setting where adults spend their lives and therefore are fertile ground for helping people to continue growing and developing, knowing their true essence and expressing their true essence in everything they do. To what extent have our leaders been trained to be aware of the complexities of organization? Are they just equipped to deal with marketing, finance or accounting? To what extent are they aware of systems, processes and infrastructure? Are they in touch with the way reality has unfolded?

Q: Jack Walsh at GE said that one of the most important things he did as a leader was to select and develop people. Is that your proposal?

RK: Well, it has to be system-wide. And what does it mean to select and develop people? What are you selecting and what are you developing? If you appreciate the quantum worldview and the evolution of consciousness, we have to select and develop people to learn more about themselves: to grow, to evolve to greater levels of consciousness and enlightenment. That’s the key.

This is not just about picking people with good math and English scores. This is not just about people who have gone through MBA programs and learned the various functions of the business. This is about what kind of self-work and self-development is taking place. Are these people eager and anxious to learn more about themselves, their essence and how that is expressed on the job and in all their interactions with other people?

We have to make sure that the kind of systems, processes and infrastructures that are in place will support that, will encourage that and will enable that. Then it’s a win-win. The organization can draw out all the qualities in people to come up with the best products, services and the greatest care to the community and the world. At the same time it can support the functional family to continue growth and development and understanding of one’s essence and how it is expressed to reach some form of fulfillment, enlightenment and personal need.

Q: Is leadership going to be moving more towards what Block called stewardship?

RK: Stewardship can occur at any place in the organization. We have hierarchy still embedded in our minds where we have this box on top and there are a couple of boxes underneath and each one of those boxes has a bunch of boxes reporting to it and it cascades down. If you show that picture of the classic organization chart to most people in society they would say that looks like my organization.

I have these pictures in the book of a network that is on top of the planet Earth and connections around the globe. They show that hubs and parts of the network are no more than how many other parts of the network they are connected with. It’s a very different worldview; it’s a different paradigm.

Then we ask what is leadership? Within each of those networks there may be a form of hierarchy. I think there is shared leadership. More people rise to the occasion, depending on their wisdom and expertise There’s going to be less and less of a designated leader who has control of certain resources and other people need to get approval; that’s the old world view.

To read more about Ralph Kilmann’s ideas about Quantum Organization click here.