A Fresh Perspective: Leadership: A Conversation with Chris Cowan

Russ Volckmann

I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Chris Cowan, coauthor of Spiral Dynamics recently. The conversation ranged over a number of subjects. Initially, the subjects were around ideas related to development, generally. Here we share some comments about leadership and the use of Spiral Dynamics in development.

Q: Would you summarize how you’re using Spiral Dynamics with leaders in business and organizations?

CC: What little I do is just show them that different people respond to different leaders, leadership styles and strategies. You simply have to build in a leadership system. It can be part of strategic planning or whatever. You have to build in a system that first matches where followers are and then stretches about half a notch ahead of that so they have something to follow as opposed to something to match.

Q: How is it a leadership “system?”

CC: We build a whole coherent system, because it’s a leader-follower system dynamic. When you’re looking at organizations you have to do multiple little sub-spirals and think: what’s the management philosophy; what’s the purpose; what’s the individual competency package of this’leader’ person; what’s the nature of this follower; what’s the nature of the past they’re trying to glue together? You have to plug all that stuff in.

Q: I start with the assumption that leadership is a function that exists anywhere in the organization. If you want to create change in your organization then one thing you have to do is start with the executive leadership. The executive leadership can be considered at the very least a leadership sub-system, if not a leadership system in its own right. That leadership system among the executives is one that involves development at the individual level as well as the collective level. Does your approach think in those terms.

CC: Leadership functions exist throughout an organization at multiple layers. You have to develop them where the work is done and where the work is facilitated. We need to ask what are we doing here, and why, and how are we going to be doing it next, and why?

Q: My goodness, what an original idea. (Laughter)

CC: All of those things have to be massaged and intertwined. Leadership is about how to do that. Spiral Dynamics acknowledges that folks expect and need different things from the persons they’re working with. So we draw out different kinds of management/leadership systems. We ask, what’s the nature of their work environment; what’s the nature of the workplace; what’s the nature of how they communicate; what’s the nature of things that motivate or demotivate? You have to create a system where, since you’re going to have a mix of human beings, you will keep them all reasonably comfortable, reasonably productive, not going nuts and continue to grow.

Q: How are you working with leaders?

CC: All I do is training here and there and sit down and chat with them. We don’t have a huge consulting practice at all. All we do is writings and trainings. We just sit down with folks and show them the stuff and listen to what they’re trying to do.

One guy in Holland ran a string of health care facilities. He was put into the position of being managing director to create culture change. He was mandated to be a change leader. We sat with him and explored what he could do. How can he lead given the nature of the people he’s got. We asked him, “What’s the nature of your people; what’s the nature of the existence problems they’re confronting; what are the realities of what they might and might not be able to do?” You have to be reality based and say, “Okay, yeah, you could dream and do this, but reality-wise, this is what is feasible. So how can you accomplish that, get that incremental 10% improvement where everybody is happy?

That’s all I know to do with people. We just sit with them, listen to the problem and try to analyze the problem. We try to leave them with a tool so that when they go about their business they can apply it and then come back with email or phone calls and say, “Help! That didn’t make sense!” or “We agreed to this and this was stupid. What are some alternatives?”

Q: Since you co-wrote Spiral Dynamics has your model or your concepts of leadership changed?

CC: I’ve learned a lot more about Graves’ theories since then. I have loosened up. I was a little more on the yellow soapbox then than I have become of late. I think there is an awful lot of strength throughout all the systems and so the idea of trying to grow people is more and more anathema to me. I like the idea of letting people find congruence where they are. They can do some horizontal change and open the doors for them to make vertical shifts if they want to and as they can. We cannot try to mandate it, to enforce it or to be quite so strong in pushing it.

It’s not an “everybody’s beautiful” thing. People don’t change until they acknowledge more complex existence. You may change their lingo and you may change some of their behaviors. You can certainly adjust some of what they’re doing.

While they’re doing it their fundamental being isn’t going to shift any. I’ve gotten away from that pretense: pretending I was going to change who people are. Now I just worry about how can they do better? How can they be of use? How can their little 75-80 years be better years? And enjoy them.

Q: That’s the spirit in which I work with a leadership holarchy that starts at where are you trying to go? I characterize that as strategic objectives, business objectives: those that are short term; they’re not highly visionary or any of that, although they may be derived from that. Then I ask the question as a collective, what is your leadership purpose? By defining your purpose you establish the definition of your leadership group.

Still at the collective level, what are the leadership resources that are required to implement your purpose and that in effect gives you the impetus for creating a leadership organization within your company. This is still focused on the executive level.

Next, in order to realize your purpose and achieve your objectives and utilize your resources effectively, sometimes the linear dynamics of organization don’t work very well and you’ve got to shift nonlinear stuff among the executives. It is about change and involves teamwork. They’ve got to get inspired as a team. Ultimately, collectively as a set of leaders, they create a vital enterprise. This involves taking what they have built among themselves as executive leaders and engaging with stakeholders from that place. All of that is in support of trying to achieve those business objectives.

CC: You began with the right question, which is, “What business are you in? What’s your purpose here? What are you doing?”

Q: At the individual level, corresponding to leadership purpose is commitment and membership in the group. Corresponding to resources is competence and being a contributor to the organization. Corresponding to inspired teamwork is capacity for innovation as a team player. And corresponding to the vital enterprise is importance of connection to stakeholders as an entrepreneur in the service of the business objectives.

CC: Cool.

Q: That’s what I mean about a structural kind of arrangement, where I think that spiral dynamics has something to say about how people work those issues. I haven’t put that together yet, but it’s intriguing.

CC: You’ve nailed what it really does. Spiral dynamics is a descriptive, not a prescriptive thing. When I say Spiral Dynamics I mean Graves’ work. All the talk about Spiral Dynamics is just re-labeling Graves’ ideas. These ideas are not novel; they’re just his stuff carried forward in large measure.

Q: At a meeting recently someone talked about issues around the application of integral perspectives and I basically affirmed what the person was saying: “As long as you’re descriptive, you’re okay, but as soon as you start getting prescriptive, you’re in trouble.” (Laughter)

CC: I tell people it gives them a scaffolding for a business, because it let’s them put up a platform to surround the structure. They can climb all over this platform and look at it from different angles. They can chip, nick, repair and change the rocks and so forth, but this model basically is that scaffolding and not the structure. They’ve got to have a set of tools in hand when they climb up on the scaffolding. There’s nothing waiting for them, so they’ve got to have Myers-Briggs, leadership models and all that stuff.

Q: Emotional intelligence?

CC: Yeah, emotional intelligence, and, all name it, whatever. They can have anything they want in terms of tools, because this basically lays out a better way to pick which tools to use, when and where. It lets them have a clearer picture of this building. My fantasy is that it is a better picture of what to do and also what not to do. I think its part of the hype that sometimes surrounds this spiral stuff, that it is hyped as more than it is. It is both more than it is and less than it is. And people are looking for answers that this does not pretend to offer. This began as a question of studying the nature of human nature and how it changes.

Q: And what I get from you is that it’s an excellent way of creating a descriptive window, to create meaning out of what you’re experiencing and what you’re seeing. As soon as you turn it into something that says you really ought to want to be yellow, or something like that, then you’ve fallen off into the abyss of prescriptive morality.

CC: That’s precisely it. There’s been a lot of that going on with this stuff lately. That is anathema to understanding the point of view. The point of view fundamentally is, you can’t do that. People aren’t going to change until they’re ready for change. You don’t, you can’t change them. They can change, but you can’t change them. So all the talk about uplifting them and trying to yellow-ize them and make them into the second tier shows a fundamental misunderstanding of this model.