Occupy The System: An Integral Perspective on Leading Through Social Change

Eric Reynolds

Eric Reynolds

[This is a revised version of a paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a PhD seminar, Integral Leadership, offered at Saybrook University by Russ Volckmann in the Fall 2012. The assignment was to bring an integral lens to three articles on leadership that were not required reading for the course. – Ed.]


Leadership and the theoretical body of knowledge around it, like all things, is evolving. The days of leadership being thought of as the sole purview of the elite few are coming to a close, as the collective begins to realize the transformative power it has been giving up simply because that seems to be the way things have always been done. As humanity collectively shifts its attention from what “is” and begins to creatively respond to what is possible, leadership ceases to be the focal point of power. It is now the active process of coming together, the process of relating and acting towards a common purpose, complexifying with intent and cohering with compassion.

Occupy The System: An Integral Perspective on Transformative Leadership

Mark Edwards (2010) defines Integral Theory as

a theory of perspectives. Developed by American philosopher Ken Wilber, [it] states that there are at least five “irreducible” elements in any phenomenon: quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types… Quadrants refer to the four basic perspectives one can take on any phenomenon: subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective, commonly referred to by their pronouns, “I,” “We,” “It,” and “Its.” The other four elements—levels, lines, states, and types—arise in each of the four quadrants. Excluding any one of these elements, results in a less comprehensive understanding of that phenomenon. (3)

Integral Theory, and Wilber’s AQAL model, which refers to all quadrants and all lines, as well as all levels, states, and types, will be used as a framework for analyzing three current articles on various aspects of the topics of leaders, leading, and leadership. The first two articles introduce a model and a theory of leadership, while the third is an account of participatory leadership and inside out transformation of the Nova Scotia public healthcare system. This paper, alongside a reframing of leadership, examines whether these articles address all quadrants, all lines, etc., if so in what way, and ultimately, to what, if any, effect.

Leaders, Leading, and Leadership: What’s the Difference?

There is a movement, though not yet particularly noticeable in the mainstream, towards an increasingly differentiated interpretation of the concepts evoked by the words leaders, leading, and leadership than has been in the literature of leadership over the past decades, and even centuries.  There is certainly no lack of leadership theories. As Donna Ladkin (2011)  in Rethinking Leadership notes, “Situational leadership, trait-based leadership, transformational leadership, distributed leadership, servant leadership, collaborative leadership, shared leadership, charismatic leadership, authentic leadership – the list goes on and on” (15). And yet, in focusing on the leader as the unit of leadership, they tend to “[collapse] ‘leadership’, a collective process that encompasses not only leaders but also their followers and the context in which they come into contact, into ‘leaders’, an individually-based unit of analysis” (5). In other words, leadership research tends to focus on “those in charge” while missing the bigger picture of the underlying patterns and relationships of which those labeled “Leader” are only a small part.

This paper uses a distinction between leader and leadership that is contained in the following quote by Alfonso Montouri (2010), from the ReVision article “Transformative Leadership for the 21st Century: Reflections of the Design of a Graduate Leadership Curriculum”, such that leadership is

not merely the function of the characteristics of a lone individual, but occurs in, and in fact arguably can said to be, a network of interactions in a context. A leader can be a nexus, a systemic attractor, a catalyst, a facilitator; a leader can push or pull, but always in the context of a set of relationships. (5)

In other words, leadership is not so much a phenomena resulting specifically from the actions of those in formal lead roles, as it is the observable meta-phenomena of groups negotiating the complex exchange and synthesis of memetic, somatic, ecological, environmental and other types of information at roughly 40 million bits per second per person in the attempt to find balance and coherence within a multitude of seemingly conflicting needs, desires, and perspectives. Given the complexity of a single human being’s psychological make-up, the plethora of roles a person must assume on a given day, the many varying and often competing affiliations one has, and the increasing pace and complexity of modern life, any definition of leadership that does not consider these other variables is myopic, at best.

In this context, then, to lead would be the act of anything that facilitates leadership. Eric Reynolds (2012), in defining transformative leadership and the characteristics of a transformative leader in the human sense, implies that being such a leader is less an act of getting somewhere and more a mode of coactively synergizing with what is wanting to collectively emerge.

Transformative leadership implies an understanding and an acceptance of the fact that the world is in flux at all times, and that there are near infinite factors which come together to create reality as we perceive it. A Transformative Leader is able to look past form and beyond current paradigms, consider new models, and be open to new ways of doing things, even if the outcome is unknown. He or she can identify alternative future narratives which will mobilize people towards greater cooperation and purpose. By remaining true to the essence of this vision, while being malleable as to its ultimate form, a Transformative Leader is able to incorporate feedback at all levels, broadening the vision appropriately. The idea then becomes a movement, and takes on a life of its own. (4-5)

Indeed, this very distinction is the sort of understanding which emerges from using a meta-theoretical perspective like Integral Theory to consider multiple layers and perspectives of a given topic. A leader, then becomes anyone or anything which can “mobilize… towards greater cooperation and purpose”, regardless of position, power, or even form from a traditional standpoint.

Epoch of Transformation: An Interpersonal Leadership Model for the 21st Century

Nick Ross, BA, FRSA, (2012) opens the paper titled as above in the Integral Leadership Review with the following from the abstract “Existing and emergent global challenges are placing ever greater demands on leadership today. In order to meet those challenges more effectively, there is a growing need for leaders to overcome the limitations of existing ways of thinking and operating” (2). Ross argues that this ability is correlated with the psychological health of the leader. In terms of the four quadrants of the AQAL model, his claim is that the internal psychological development of a leader has a great deal to do with the leader’s ability to address the complexity and ambiguity of today’s global environment, giving one the necessary cognitive, emotional, somatic and, dare I say, spiritual development to lead in such times.

The central argument of this paper rests on the following assumption: that the ability to reconcile the tension between a leader’s external and inner worlds is fundamental to 21st century leadership development (Jironet xiii)… It is the capacity to find alignment, coherence, and a dynamic harmony within and between these inner and outer states that reflects the leader’s capacity for greater mental complexity. The ability to self-organise across an array of mental states towards high levels of effectiveness is critical for today’s leader. (Ross, 2)

Ross, under the subheading Interpersonal Leadership, provides two important distinctions as to what he means by this term. First, he recognizes that each of us “is made up of a multiplicity of selves or states” (3). Who we are in a given situation has everything to do with the context of the situation, the roles we identify with, and our personal experience. The term also “references the principle of collaboration between diverse disciplines across an array of fields, leading towards more integrated and complex levels of understanding among individuals, groups and organizations. Interpersonal leadership invites diversity of thought and experience” (3).

Ross’s model essentially separates the conscious states that a leader needs to be able to successfully navigate in “increasingly nuanced, integrated, and aligned ways” in order to have the greatest effect on the system into four quadrants (Q1 – Q4), each of which invites the leader to respond to one of the corresponding questions, or mediations: Q1 What can I achieve? Q2 Who am I? Q3 What am I? Q4 How can I serve?

Executive development within this framework can be understood as the capacity to respond to each question in increasingly nuanced, integrated, and aligned ways. This is state integration according to Siegel. Evolution means alignment between states and towards ever higher purposes, whilst development refers to the conscious and intentional capacity to access and exit from the different states as context demands. (10)

These states are also specifically access points between the internal and external environment, and the personal and transpersonal selves. In other words, the more facility one gains with moving in and out of these various states – given the context of the situation, or the better one becomes at adapting one’s ways of being, knowing, doing, and relating to who or what is in front of them, and whether they need to be tuning into the physical or more subtle layers of the dynamic – the greater one is able to facilitate leadership, i.e. lead.

It may be beneficial to recap, as the traditional and emergent meanings of the memetic metaphor called “leadership” easily co-mingle, and the new can become lost in one’s resonances with the old. It is a “natural” reaction, conditioned by thousands of years of practice, to read the above and immediately interpret it as mostly, if not only, relevant to those people “in charge”, while being largely irrelevant to “everybody else”. The main point being elucidated here is that the herd moves in relation to the herd, no matter which cow has the L for Leader stamped on his forehead. As the whole herd begins to realize this, as well as gain quality, facilitated access to the appropriate hard and soft technologies for development, it will evolve.

Complexity Leadership Theory: An Interactive Perspective on Leading in Complex Adaptive Systems

Lichtenstein, et al., in the above titled 2006 article, capture the need for their theory quoting Heckscher as follows:

There is a growing sense that effective organizational change has its own dynamic, a process that cannot simply follow strategic shifts and that is longer and subtler than can be managed by the insights of many people trying to improve the whole, and it accumulates, as it were, over long periods. (1)

They also more fully define this concept of leadership as a product “of interactions among agents… leaders in the formal sense can enable the conditions within which the process occurs, but they are not the direct source of the exchange” (1).

Central to their theory, building on this concept of leadership as a series of interactions, is the concept of adaptive leadership, which occurs not by “getting followers to follow the leader’s wishes; rather, leadership occurs when interacting agents generate adaptive outcomes” (4). In human terms, then, an adaptive leader recognizes that organizational structures are not simple outpourings of some corporate designer, but are in effect “events… held together and regulated in dense, circular, lengthy strands of causality perceived by members” (p. 4). Interestingly, this evokes a parallel in the work of Steven Rose from his 2005 book The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow’s Neuroscience, when delineating the process in which memories and other functional systems in the brain are held together. You see, “systems do not exist in the brain in abstract; they are called into play by actions, and are as transient and dynamic as the actions themselves” (163).

Traditional leadership theories purport to have the ability to assess a leaders’ likelihood of achieving specific “results” by adopting said theories. The core understanding, both of complexity theory generally, and complexity leadership in this context, however, is that everything, including this ephemeral concept of leadership, is an emergent property, a “something” more complex than the sum of its parts and technically inexplicable without expanding another holonic order of complexity to explain it.

By focusing on how leadership may occur in any interaction, this new perspective dramatically expands the potential for creativity, influence, and positive change in an organization. More than simplistic notions of empowerment, this approach encourages all members to be leaders – to “own” their leadership within each interaction, potentially evoking a much broader array of responses from everyone in an organization (8). Whereas leadership research has been focused on durable, distinctive properties of entities, a complexity-inspired model of leadership in events presents an alternative conceptual framework, based in relationships, complex interactions, and influences that occur in the “space between” individuals. (9)

Again, the implications here cannot be overstated. In an already complex and rapidly complexifying environment, the predictive potential and overall ability of the collective to respond as a whole to calamity, let alone emergent potential, can be far more effectively leveraged by addressing the average level of development of the group. This is an operational given for corporate middle management and higher, which is where the majority of the market, and hence research focus, for “leadership development” still rests. Team building and executive development programs abound for this reason, and yet the traditional mindset fails to see the transformative power of transferring these practices to “those being led”.

System Change through People Power: A Look at How the Nova Scotia Public Health Care System Transformed from the Inside Out.

This final article by Alan Moore (2012) is a short description, not of an academic theory, but of an inspiring example of theory being put aside in favor of what Moore refers to as participatory leadership. He describes a process in which “public health practitioners and others are co-designing solutions to challenge organizational issues” (p. 1). Janet Braunstein Moody, the director of the Nova Scotia heath care system, “describes the process as initiating, sensing, ‘presencing,’ creating, and evolving, where the defining purpose of he organization and how the work is done is supported by intensive collaborative practices” (1).

The results are in. Better decision making, greater commitment, individual growth, and more agility have been measured as a result of Moody’s commitment to a holistic leadership approach. This is an example of what Moore (2012) refers to as the Human-OS, a human centric operating system. “Upgrading our world and our enterprises to a human-centric operating system (OS) offers us greater opportunity, freedom, empowerment, mutualism, diversity, efficiency, independence, and even beauty” (3).

It is important to note that no miracles were needed and no outside experts could be entrusted with, or given credit for, this shining example of what can be. Indeed, Moody seems to be operating on a very simple premise, which practically speaking is the whole point of this paper. She didn’t need to hire external consultants, or fix major problems, or even train her people differently. She “simply” needed to allow them to mix and share in new ways, to facilitate the communication and co-mixing of the embodied yet culturally buried brilliance of the beings who make up the health care system.


Theories are important, as they inform our understanding and give us the tools to respond with increasing fidelity to all. However, as is evidenced by the case study in Nova Scotia, at some point theory must be set aside for the messier but far more dynamic and interesting process of doing something, perhaps now more than ever. However, if there is anything to be learned from these theories, it might be that we all need to jump in, but with our eyes wide open and our senses alert to possibilities that are beyond our current imagination, though they be the natural outgrowth of the mixing of our collective creative juices.

In support of this I offer a final quote to conclude from an article by Russ Volckmann (2002), from the archives of the Integral Leadership Review, entitled “Leadership System Change: It’s an Evolutionary Process – Integral Leadership, Part 15.”

…in order to develop, leadership systems must have individuals engaged in self-management practices, attunement with the leadership culture, and engagement with other individuals. The boundary spanning dynamics of these activities will promote leadership system evolution… The leadership system is an organic, messy, quantum phenomenon that is unpredictable. It lives and evolves in an unpredictable environment. Consequently, our approach to leadership development in an organization requires a process approach.


Edwards, M. (2010). Organisational transformation for sustainability: An integral metatheory.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Ladkin, D. (2010). Rethinking Leadership. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar

Lichtenstein, B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Douglas, J. & Schreiber, C. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. ECO, 8(4), pp. 2-12.

Moore, A. (2012, September 20). System change through people power: A look at how Nova Scotia public health care system transformed from the inside out. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Rose, S. (2005). The future of the brain: The promise and perils of tomorrow’s neuroscience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Ross, N. (April, 2012). Epoch of transformation: An interpersonal leadership model for the 21st Century – Part 1. Integral Leadership Review. Retrieved from

Volckmann, R. (May, 2002). Feature article: leadership system change: It’s an evolutionary process – Integral leadership, part 15. Integral Leadership Review. Retrieved from

About the Author

Eric Reynolds received his MA in Transformative Leadership from the California Institute of Integral Studies and is currently researching the concept of Next Stage organizations for his PhD in Organizational Leadership and Transformation (OLT) at Saybrook University. He is a transdisciplinary scholar with deep fondness for all knowledge, a deeply passionate bridge for the many silos of human knowing, being, doing and relating.,  LinkedInFaceBook