An integral approach to executive leadership development

This document is to advocate and illustrate an integral approach to executive leadership development. It offers a context for joint inquiry, suggests a specific definition of development, reviews relevant research findings, and explores some individual and team growth opportunities.
Context for Inquiry

Organizations are in the midst of a post-industrial transformation, characterized by paradox, increasing complexity and uncertainty. Executive leaders in all sectors find that most of their education and prior experience has not prepared them adequately to face the corresponding challenges and responsibilities.

Changes in global economics with the resulting social consequences, the decreasing meaningfulness of work, threats to our living environment, and diminishing prospects for future generations – all point to the urgent need for a new discipline which Bernard Lietaer calls ecosophy: how to live wisely on our planet by searching for a new balance between traditional or Yang forms of capital (financial and physical) and Yin forms of capital (social and natural).

My conviction is that executives should be the first to practice and embody this discipline if the organizations they lead are to become life enhancing. Yet how open and aware will they need to be in order to acknowledge that outer changes are preceded by inner changes? And what is required of them to be able to tap intelligence in its many forms, individually and collectively, so that creative and audacious experiments light the way toward an organic transformation of their organization, in the context of social and planetary evolution?

In that context, the following questions about executive development could be considered for a joint inquiry within a leadership team:

  1. Over the last few years, have we experienced complex adaptive challenges that required substantial cognitive and behavioral change at the executive level? How have we dealt with them, and what have we learned from them?
  2. What are the key factors that differentiate our organization’s most successful change efforts from the less successful ones? Are executives’ mindset and behavior one of them?
  3. Given the current economic and social climate, is this a propitious time to consciously invest in accelerating the development of our executive leaders? Do we sense that it could have a significant impact on the value creation and evolution of our organization?

Integral Approach and Development Defined

An integral approach connects the subjective and objective aspects of both individual and collective experience. To achieve profound and sustainable change, it integrates modifications in the corresponding four domains: personal intentions, worldviews and values; individual observable behaviors and emotions; culture, collective worldviews and shared visions; structures, strategies and physical/technical systems.

Personal and organizational development consists in a series of stages or transformations. When moving to a later stage, the worldview one has been identified with is transcended and included in a wider worldview. Development unfolds in a certain order and is irreversible, although it can stop at any stage. A person or organization may occasionally regress to a previous stage, but they will be conscious of it. It is possible at a later stage to understand the action logic of previous stages, but a person at an earlier stage will tend to interpret what they perceive of the next stages through the filter of their own worldview. This has been a source of confusion and misunderstandings in a number of change initiatives.

As development unfolds, there is an increasing level of autonomy, freedom, inclusivity, ability to reflect, and skillful interaction with the environment. The experience of emergence in the now and co-evolution with the surrounding systems gradually replaces the worldview of prediction and control. Facing new external challenges and becoming aware of one’s own developmental stage both stimulate development. Individual growth influences organizational growth and vice versa. Development “wants” to happen but it can be encouraged and facilitated.

There are several tools now available to assess individual and organizational stages of development. We will refer here primarily to the ones designed by William Torbert and Susan Cook-Greuter, based mainly on the work of Robert Kegan, Lawrence Kohlberg and Jane Loevinger. Characteristics of some of these stages and the transformations involved in shifting from one to the other are summarized in Exhibits 1 and 2.

Key Research Findings

Four recent research programs point to the importance of leaders’ ability to shift their ways of thinking and behaving for the success of profound/lasting organizational change and performance improvement.

  1. A study of more than 100 companies engaged in major change efforts reveals that only 15% yielded tangible and durable results; personal and cultural change were often ignored or underestimated, particularly in mergers and acquisitions. A higher success rate can only be achieved if change efforts are managed in an integral way that addresses both inner/invisible dimensions (i.e. intentional and cultural) and outer/visible ones (i.e. behavioral and structural), at the individual and organizational levels.
  2. A five-year survey of over 1400 companies among the Fortune 500 has led author James Collins to identify 11 corporations which have transformed from “good” to “great” performance over the last 25 years. At the time of their transformation, these enterprises were led by “Level 5” CEOs who all shared common characteristics: they built enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will; they apportioned credit to factors outside themselves when things went well, and took personal responsibility for unsatisfactory results; they set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.
  3. Longitudinal research, conducted for ten years by William Torbert and his colleagues in ten small to medium-size organizations, shows that seven of them became industry leaders under the leadership of a CEO (or some of his key team members in two cases) who had achieved a higher level of personal development than their three other counterparts:
  4. The more successful leaders recognized that there are multiple ways of framing reality, and understood that personal and organizational change require mutual, voluntary initiatives, not just top-down hierarchical guidance.
  5. They realized that power exercised in such a way as to make oneself vulnerable to transformation can generate voluntary transformation in others, rather than compliance or resistance.
  6. They intentionally focused the organization’s attention on the discrepancy between its intention to change and its actual performance, and helped their team members develop to the point of recognizing and correcting incongruities among their visions, strategies, actual behaviors and outcomes.
  7. All of them used an outside consultant – for a minimum of four years – and most of them treated him or her as a close confidant in their steps toward building a true learning organization.
  8. The first phase of a SoL (Society for Organizational Learning) Research Project on Leadership, based on 23 dialogue-interviews by Otto Scharmer with thought leaders, has led to the following propositions:
  9. Measures that used to account for hard variables are increasingly seen as abstract and secondary, while soft variables such as intentions, interpretations and relationships are increasingly considered part of the most essential and primary sphere of value creation.
  10. There is a resurgence of interest in how the quality of consciousness determines the quality of performance and experience: to sense and seize emerging business opportunities in high-velocity, hyper-competitive business environments, leaders and their consultants will need to become more mindful of the deep sources from which profound innovation and behavior change emanate.
  11. Today, leadership practices focus primarily on what is visible. The relevance in mapping the invisible territory of leadership is to develop a deeper level of knowing, a deeper level of awareness. This will enhance both decision-making and creativity.
  12. Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance, says that “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor”. The core process of future leadership is deeply connected with the capacity of presencing: to use one’s Self as a blank canvas for sensing and bringing into presence that which wants to emerge.
  13. Organizational leaders need to clarify their deep intention, immerse themselves openly in the reality that is emerging, listen to their inner response, crystallize a project that will become an attractor, and move to instant execution. As executives, their new focus will be to create spaces that allow individuals and teams to move from co-sensing to co-inspiring and to co-creating the new, in order to unleash and sustain large-scale innovation and change. And there is a new role for consultants in helping leaders embody these principles and practices.
  14. Recent scientific data shows that, in addition to rational intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ), there is a third type of intelligence which Dana Zohar calls spiritual intelligence (SQ), that can be developed.
  15. Based on the synchronous neural oscillations across the whole brain, SQ offers a process that unifies, integrates, and transforms material arising from the serial neural wiring of IQ and the associative neural wiring of EQ. It facilitates a dialogue between reason and emotion, and provides the self with an active, unifying, meaning-giving center.
  16. The indications of a highly developed SQ include: the capacity to be flexible; a high degree of self-awareness; the quality of being inspired by vision and values; a tendency to see the connections between diverse things; a marked tendency to ask “Why?” or “What if?” questions and to seek “fundamental” answers; a facility for working against convention.
  17. SQ can be improved by committing to a path of self-reflection and daily practice that corresponds to one’s personality style, enabling one to lead more and more from one’s center.
Executive Development OpportunitiesKeeping in mind the proposed questions and research findings, two complementary types of executive development opportunities could be explored: individual development and collective development.

1. Individual Development

  1. The purpose of an individual development program, entered on a voluntary basis, would be to increase each participating executive’s core effectiveness by creating the conditions for accelerating a shift to the next stage of personal development.
  2. For example, shifting from an Achiever to a Strategist stage (see Exhibits 1 and 2) would mean that an executive would:
    • adopt a frame which sees other frames as valid, relevant and usable;
    • be open to reframing his or her viewpoint and purposes in a situation, and helping others reframe, consciously seeking and choosing new frames that accommodate the disparities, paradoxes and fluidity of multiple views of reality;
    • explicitly seek out and act on double-loop feedback that highlights incongruities and incompleteness within their meaning-making system;
    • access and act on their intuition and deep knowing, and encourage others to do the same, when facing complex issues;
    • define their effectiveness as consisting in setting a stage in which their own as well as others’ aims can be expressed, rather than in getting their own solutions and processes adopted;
    • combine hard and soft skills to better enable the people they work with to be aware of and integrate their perceptions and emotions in their choice of strategy and behavior.
    • see implementation as an iterative process involving creation of new, shared meanings, leading to the reframing of problems.

An individual development program would combine – over a period of one to two years – a series of group meetings and individual coaching sessions. Some of the individual practices that would be encouraged in such a program are mentioned in Exhibit 3.

2. Collective Development

The purpose of a collective development effort would be to enhance the organization’s capacity to design and implement significant changes, as well as to open the field for individual development work. It could start at an executive team level, and then extend organically to the rest of the organization through other teams and networks.

For example, when a team develops beyond a Systematic Productivity stage to a Collaborative Inquiry stage, it recognizes that the organization’s vision requires continual re-searching and re-formulating, if members’ actions are to become truly vision-oriented. At the same time, team members may begin to appreciate that there are inevitably gaps between the espoused vision, values and strategies, on the one hand, and their actual behavior and effects, on the other hand.

The Collaborative Inquiry culture and structures that could be built over time among executives would be characterized by:

  • explicit, shared reflection about the organization’s vision and the creative tension between reality and vision;
  • open interpersonal relations with disclosure, support and confrontation of apparent value differences;
  • systematic team and individual performance appraisal on multiple indexes;
  • creative resolution of paradoxes such as inquiry/productivity, freedom/control, quality/quantity;
  • interactive development of unique, self-amending structures that would support the extension and enrichment of the new culture in the rest of the organization.

A team offsite that would get this effort underway could include a strategic dialogue about the significant changes needed to bridge the gap between vision and prevalent current reality, as well as a joint inquiry into corresponding individual development needs.

Individual, team and organizational development work would complement and reinforce each other over time. For instance, it will take a critical mass of Strategists to build a self-sustaining Collaborative Inquiry culture within the organization or one of its parts. The nature and quality of interactions with an evolving environment would also have a key influence on the actual transformation of the organization and its members. Exhibit 3 illustrates some of the collective practices that would enable members of a leadership team to move in that direction, and thus plant the seeds for a new culture to emerge.

Potential Value to Individual Executives and their Organization

Capitalizing on executives’ development opportunities would benefit both the individual executives and their organization.

1. Potential value to individual executives

  1. Enhanced ability to perceive and adapt to new challenges
  2. Deeper systemic understanding of multidimensional issues, and greater impact with an economy of means (i.e. greater personal mastery)
  3. Increased capability to enable in others significant behavioral changes that require a shift in the structure of thinking.
  4. Renewed interest and meaning in their work through new developmental challenges and opportunities.

2. Potential value to the organization

  1. Increased capability to tap individual and collective intelligence in designing, enabling and stewarding significant and lasting changes.
  2. Greater effectiveness of significant change interventions, particularly in the implementation phase.
  3. Expanded capacity to stay ahead of the industry’s evolution.
  4. Opportunity to adopt new human resource practices and processes based on a developmental approach.


Exhibit 1

Key Characteristics of Six Stages of Development

Individual stage
Organizat-  ional stage
Way to pursue goal Time horizon Strategy focused on What rules

Community  of Inquiry

The way can be known, but not by reason alone More than one generation Optimize among competing goals across generations Deep processes rule principles

Collaborative Inquiry

The best way for now, all views considered Three to twenty- one years Collaborate with diverse stakeholders Most valuable principles rule relativism
Individualist/ Egalitarian

Social Network

All ways are equally valid One to ten years Maximize individual satisfaction within the network Relativism rules single system view

Systematic Productivity

The most successful way One to three years Satisfy customers through complex coordination System effectiveness rules craft logic


The most logical way Months Quick, efficient, error-free tasks Craft logic rules norms


The one right way Past and today Adhere to existing norms Norms rule needs


Adapted by Alain Gauthier from William Torbert


Exhibit 2

Examples of Transformations from One Stage to the Next


Alchemist: Reframes and transforms any situation in the moment, without any preconception, by jousting with internal and external polarizations

Strategist: Identifies with principles and concepts which allow him/her to see any framing as relative and to address conflicts and dilemmas creatively

Individualist/Egalitarian: Identifies with a relativistic view and focuses on living out his/her values, free of obligations and imposed objectives, while respecting others’ choices and avoiding conflicts

Achiever: Identifies with system efficiency objectives, and submits functional or craft logics to instrumental rationality

Expert: Identifies with a rigorous craft logic to solve problems most efficiently, without being influenced by the norms, opinions or feelings of people outside his craft


Adapted by Alain Gauthier from William Torbert


Exhibit 3

Examples of Practices Enabling a Shift
from Achiever to Strategist and Beyond
and from Systemic Productivity to Collaborative Inquiry

  • Become aware of stages of development and the legitimacy of each one; assess one’s personal state and that of the organization.
  • Engage in individual action inquiry
  • Journaling one’s personal observations, reflections and learning
  • Become aware of one’s contradictory wants and desires
  • Practicing Robert Kegan’s Four Internal Languages to surface and challenge one’s Big Assumptions
  • Deepening one’s intuition and inner knowing through consciousness practices.
  • Engage in collective action inquiry
  • Using the ladder of inference; suspending assumptions
  • Practicing high-quality advocacy and inquiry, and genuine listening
  • Addressing conflicts as opportunities to learn
  • Applying systems thinking archetypes to complex issues and relationships
  • Working creatively with dilemmas and paradoxes
  • Practicing Robert Kegan’s Three Social Languages of ongoing regards, shared agreements and co-constructive feedback.
  • Build a shared vision with diverse stakeholders, grounded on appreciative inquiry, as a prerequisite for a type-two change (i.e. system evolution vs. homeostasis).



Exhibit 4



  • Ken Wilber: A Theory of Everything – An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, Shambhala, 2000
  • Jim Collins: Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Harper Business, 2001
  • Bill Torbert and Associates: Action Inquiry – The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership, Berrett-Koehler, 2004
  • Dalmar Fisher, David Rooke, Bill Torbert: Personal and Organizational Transformations through Action Inquiry, Edge/Work Press, 2000
  • W. Brian Arthur, Jonathan Day, Joseph Jaworski, Michael Jung, Ikujiro Nonaka, C. Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge: Leadership in the Context of Emerging Worlds – Illuminating the Blind Spot, McKinsey-Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) Leadership Project, Summary Paper, 2000
  • Dana Zohar & Dr. Ian Marshall: SQ – Connecting with Our Spiritual Intelligence, Bloomsbury, 2000

About Alain

Alain Gauthier’s current focus as an author, consultant, facilitator, educator, and coach is on evolutionary co-leadership development and collective learning as prerequisites for cultivating deep and lasting change in and across organizations. A graduate from H.E.C. (Paris) and an M.B.A. from Stanford University, he has served over the past 45 years a large variety of client organizations in Europe, Japan and North America. He first worked as a senior 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 and Founder of the Global Transforming Ensemble, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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