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What if we could create an unprecedented flourishing of humanity and nature? What type of leaders and change agents would we need to become in order to cultivate a world far beyond mere sustainability? In this article I report on findings that offer initial insights into the future of leadership. It’s an approach in which we learn to express powerful, latent capacities that may be crucial to getting us out of the trouble we’re in and creating a better world. First, let me offer some context.
If you look at our global development scorecard, it’s clear that things are getting better and things are getting worse. We’re winning in many key areas like poverty alleviation, energy intensity per dollar of GDP, literacy and population growth. And yet we’re also losing in critical areas like greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature anomalies, ecosystem health and corruption.
As a case in point, I attended the latest United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, and there were a number of good things that came out of it. Organizations made 700+ commitments worth hundreds of billions of dollars to drive sustainability. Poverty eradication was elevated to the center of the debate, and all nations committed to developing a post-GDP indicator that includes social and environmental elements. It was also the most participatory conference in history and the business community was more energized around sustainability than ever.
From another perspective, the summit was a disaster. Our global institutions don’t seem to be up to the task of generating, building support for, and rolling out the large-scale, vastly complex programs needed to create a future we all want. For example, I witnessed nation states block the inclusion of crucial ideas in the final output document such as a commitment to women’s reproductive rights or binding targets for emissions. Once again, the 193 nation states were ultimately unable to unite around significant change. And it’s not just government that is failing. Neither civil society nor the business sector have come forth with a unified agenda for the significant structural transformations required.
Related to this, one of the most troubling trends I see across the sustainability movement has to do with our capacity to respond to today’s daunting problems. It seems that more than ever we are in over our heads. The work required to navigate society toward global sustainability is more complex than the mental complexity of most (maybe even all) leaders and change agents in business, government and civil society. There are simply too many interdependencies driving rapid, often unplanned, change and adaptation across systems and cultures. Arguably, no rational mind can understand all of the drivers for global environmental and social change, much less act upon these systems with real certainty.
The increasing rate of change we face is another key issue. Despite how quickly shifts are happening as related to sustainability today,
change may in fact never be this slow again. The challenge of complexity and change isn’t limited to social and environmental development. In a recent IBM survey of 1500 CEOs, the #1 challenge they identified was increasing complexity, and less than half feel prepared to handle it. Whether we like it or not, we are in over our heads, rushing toward an uncertain future while enmeshed in complex systems that are beyond our level of understanding.
Despite all of this, I am resolutely optimistic about our future. I believe that our global society can—in the long-term—go far beyond sustainability and create a world in which humanity and nature truly flourish. My optimism is grounded in the general progress we’ve made—not only socially and technologically—but especially with respect to how we think, feel and make sense of the world around us. Over the long arc of history, it is clear that we are becoming increasingly more conscious—our cognitive, emotional and interpersonal capacities are developing—and I believe that trend will continue and is to our advantage.
In the past 200 years we’ve done more damage to more of the physical earth, natural environment and humanity than ever before in history. We’ve literally negatively impacted the lithosphere (e.g., throwing the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles out of sync), hydrosphere (e.g., acidification of the oceans, sea level rise), atmosphere (e.g., increase of manmade greenhouse gases, ozone depletion), biosphere (e.g., deforestation, species loss) and the anthroposphere (e.g., overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, terrorism).
Yet while things are getting worse, they are also getting better. Never before have we been more aware of the impact we are collectively having and of the dynamic, interconnected systems we are part of. We are collectively smarter about our devastating impact, even if the impact continues. We are becoming more conscious of our global influence as a species, and working to mitigate it more than at any other time. This awareness and understanding—barring a global pandemic or other wildcard that eliminates humanity entirely—isn’t going away. If anything, the trend is toward greater understanding of ourselves, our precarious context, and how to healthily intervene to support sustainable development.
Will our understanding and joint action come too late, resulting in mass suffering? I believe yes, probably for some of us, and possibly for all of us. We seem to have crossed some thresholds—especially around climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle—that may take millennia to recover from and which could significantly impact our near future. Yet in the long run, humanity can course-correct. My bet is that the same developmental drive that has taken us from Cro-Magnon cave living 25,000 years ago to exploring Mars today will also give us the sensibility to eventually live well together within the boundaries of our natural systems. In fact, I’m excited to see what the next two centuries of increasingly conscious human impact on the planet can actually do. We know how negatively impactful we can be when our species acts unconsciously. How positively impactful could we be with generations of increasing awareness and conscious engagement?
This brings us to the topic of our own development as leaders and change agents. After a decade of research into how the human mind develops, I’ve come to understand that a key to helping humanity and nature flourish lies in unlocking our latent cognitive, emotional and interpersonal capacities. In this section I’ll share the details of that research. I’ll finish by pointing to specific practices we can do to cultivate our own deepest capacity.
Increasing numbers of practitioners and researchers have come to recognize that how we know is at least if not more important than what we know. This is especially true when it comes to leading through complex change like sustainability. In a recent paper by the Center for Creative Leadership, they cite ‘vertical learning’ as the number one future trend in leader development. Vertical learning means making deep shifts in the structures of our worldview that change how we see the world. It is contrasted with horizontal learning, which consists of acquiring more knowledge while operating at the same level of cognitive, emotional, and relational complexity. As leaders involved in sustainability, we need horizontal learning to continually upgrade our knowledge about the world. Yet, by engaging in vertical learning, we can also learn to shift how we see the world. And the research indicates that that will make a crucial difference in our leadership effectiveness.1
“Vertical learning means making deep shifts in the structures of our worldview that change how we see the world. It is contrasted with horizontal learning, which consists of acquiring more knowledge while operating at the same level of cognitive, emotional, and relational complexity.”
Think about the fundamentals of what we face regarding human and environmental development. Collectively, we act largely as separate entities competing against each other for limited resources and power in an interdependent and connected world. The complexity sciences tell us we are enmeshed in multitudes of complex adaptive systems (e.g., nation states and organizations, ecosystems and climate systems, technological and financial systems). No one has control over these systems, yet everyone can influence them to some degree. These systems constantly change—sometimes rapidly—and the future is largely unknowable and unpredictable.
Neuroscience and psychology point out that we also have complex, rapidly changing inner worlds that are just as mysterious and unpredictable as our external world. Our moment-to-moment sensations, emotions and thoughts are driven by—among other things—our mental models and constructs, fluxes in neurotransmitters and hormones and shifts in our environment. Finally, the social sciences remind us that our relationships and communication—whether with individuals, groups or the environment—are deeply nuanced and also continually changing.
Given this complex and continually shifting context, we’re concurrently trying to become more socially and environmentally sustainable. Seven billion of us are supposed to figure out how to not only deal with this complex context, but also to get along with and support each other while healthily interacting with tens of millions of other species. That’s a tall order; no wonder progress seems so slow! The question is, who do we need to become to actually pull this off? What type of leader and change agent can act effectively in this space and foster significant change for the greater good?
That is where vertical learning comes in. A number of leadership researchers have theorized about the competencies required to lead through the complex change process that is sustainability. The qualities they contend we need include the ability to understand the perspectives of and work with a broad range of stakeholders; think in systems; engage in emergent organizing; demonstrate emotional awareness; continuously connect with others to sense and make sense of complex realities; adapt as fast as change itself; amplify wisdom through profound reflection and dialogue; engage in transformational interactions; and balance global and local perspectives.
Interestingly, if you look at the research on the capacities that emerge at later stages of cognitive, emotional and interpersonal development, many of them correspond to the same competencies the leadership researchers call for. That is, the capacities we need to address our toughest global challenges already lie within us, waiting to be developed. These latent capacities that come from vertical learning also seem to prepare us to more effectively engage with the intensely complex reality I described above. And considerable research has shown that the development of our consciousness in this way results in greater leadership effectiveness. Let me offer some specifics.
Developmental psychology research shows that human meaning-making develops and becomes more complex over time, roughly growing from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional worldviews. In one commonly used model by Bill Torbert, these evolving worldviews are called ‘action logics.’ Each action logic represents a general stage of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal (including emotional) development. (See the chart on the next pages for descriptions of the most common, mature action logics in adults. Each stage represents greater vertical learning.)
As individuals develop into late-conventional and early post-conventional action logics (i.e., the Achiever and Individualist action logics in the charts), novel capacities arise. These include increased cognitive functioning, strengthened personal and interpersonal awareness, increased understanding of emotions and more accurate empathy. This increase in capacity—in turn—has been strongly linked to better leadership. Specifically, leaders who have developed in this way tend to think more strategically, collaborate more, seek out feedback more often, resolve conflicts better, make greater efforts to develop others, and are more likely to redefine challenges so as to capitalize on connections across them.
With development into even more complex worldviews (e.g., the Strategist, Alchemist and Ironist action logics), additional, deeper capacities arise. These are the ones especially needed to address our complex sustainability challenges. We become able to take a systems view on reality, perceiving the interdependent, dynamic nature of systems. We learn to recognize and directly engage the core assumptions that underlie our own and other’s thinking. We gain the capacity to operate from multiple perspectives simultaneously and manage conflicting frames and emotions concurrently. Individuals at these later stages also report deep access to intuition that supports them to solve problems through creative, non-linear thinking.
As we develop our worldview into more mature action logics, we become more comfortable navigating through increasing levels of complexity and paradox. We learn to transcend polarities and recognize the unity that underlies chaos. Unitive consciousness arises at the latest stages science can measure—the Alchemist and Ironist. Individuals at these stages experience all phenomena as a continuous, uninterrupted flow of perception not separate from oneself. This experience of non-duality becomes the basis of operation for decision-making and engagement with the world. At these stages, mental constructs about the world dissolve, and we experience the world as it really is, instead of being filtered through mental models. This leads to a deep acceptance of oneself, others and the moment, without the taint of judgment. This unitive perspective, researchers contend, grants us a freedom for true responsiveness and adaptiveness that enables us to engage as catalysts for transformative and radical change.
In sum, leaders with these later action logics simply have access to enhanced and powerful mental, emotional and relational capacities that others don’t. This seems to strengthen their ability to respond to complex, ambiguous and sophisticated challenges. If we truly want to address the daunting social and environmental problems we face, then as leaders and change agents we have a responsibility—and precious opportunity—to develop ourselves into these more complex ways of seeing and relating with the world. Vertical learning amongst leaders and change agents is a crucial piece of the puzzle for global sustainability.
If we know that vertical learning leads to greater leadership effectiveness, then how do we do it? The following is a summary of the existing research in this area, much of which has been conducted at the Harvard School of Education. It is important to note that this field of research is still young and more research is required until we understand the mechanisms of internal development better. Nonetheless, here is what researchers suggest we can do. The first seven recommendations have some empirical studies behind them; the subsequent seven are theorized to have impact on vertical learning, yet still need to be empirically researched.
1. Consistently immerse yourself in complex environments (interpersonal, work, educational)
2. Consciously engage in life’s problems (e.g., inquiry, therapy, deep dialogue)
3. Become increasingly aware of and consistently explore inner states
4. Consistently engage in (over a long period) practices that enhance inner awareness (i.e., meditation)
5. Hold a strong desire and commitment to grow
6. Be open and willing to construct a new frame of reference when difficulties arise
7. Cultivate a personality which is open and agreeable (interpersonally warm)
8. Immerse yourself in peak experiences and altered states
9. Use a map of psychological development to better understand the trajectory of your growth
10. Consistently engage in dialogue and interaction with others committed to self-development
11. Regularly self-reflect in a structured way (e.g., using the specific technique of action inquiry)
12. Engage in an integral transformative practice in which you develop your body, mind and spirit, and work to clean up psychological shadow issues
13. Engage in cross-cultural experiences
14. Cultivate a liberal personality that seeks novelty, is experimental, questions the status quo and explores the unconventional.
Typically, it takes five years for an individual to develop to the next action logic. This varies though, depending upon the person, their life conditions and the degree to which they take the reigns of their own development. Some people become arrested at a given developmental stage for decades, others have reportedly experienced rapid development, shifting stages in as little as one or two years. This process is of course not a linear one, but involves many advances and retreats in development along the way.
The above list will hopefully empower you with initial insights to self-author your own vertical learning. I also highly recommend that you work with a qualified psychotherapist, coach and/or meditation teacher to help you make these shifts. Finally, there are leader development programs that focus on cultivating optimal vertical adult development and enable people to make these significant stage shifts.
Part Two of this article will report about primary research I completed on leaders who operate at the very latest action logics science can measure (e.g., Strategists, Alchemists and Ironists) and who are engaged in significant social and/or environmental initiatives.
Barrett specializes in leader development and organizational and systems change. For 20 years he has supported individuals and organizations to navigate complex challenges and unlock deep capacities. His recent work has involved engaging entire sectors to undergo system-wide sustainable development.