Consciousness, Leadership

The Future of Leadership for Sustainability-Part Two

I recently met with the Chief Operating Officer from one of the largest environmental NGOs in the world. Their latest global strategy drives transformative change in landscapes, river networks, seascapes and policy across 30+ countries. Achieving it would mean significant steps toward global sustainability. He noted that the biggest limiting factor to executing the strategy is leader development. What kind of leaders do they need? The executive described their ideal leader as being a highly strategic thinker able to focus on big problems and opportunities, a superb communicator with excellent people skills, an inspiring fundraiser, risk-oriented, and deeply collaborative. We then discussed how the new science of vertical learning can help their leaders unlock powerful mental and relational capacities that will significantly improve leadership in all those areas. This article summarizes our dialogue and describes sustainability leaders who have already cultivated these advanced capacities of mind and heart. These individuals represent the future of leadership for sustainability, and their profound abilities are latent in everyone.

What is vertical learning? As described in Part One (Kosmos, Fall/Winter 2012), it is the transformation of how one thinks, feels and makes sense of the world. Vertical learning is a shift in mindset from a simpler to a more complex worldview. It is contrasted with horizontal learning, which focuses on what one knows. While horizontal learning enables us to know more, vertical learning broadens our view and permanently heightens our awareness. This significantly improves how we interpret what is happening around us and strengthens the way we relate to others.

Decades of research in developmental psychology have mapped out the major transformations of mindsets possible for adults. Yet 90%+ of US adults haven’t yet grown into the most complex mindsets. This is not an issue of potential; shifts in mindset are possible for everyone with healthy brain functioning. A quality vertical learning environment enables us to triple or even quintuple the speed at which our mindset develops. Numerous studies show that leaders with more complex mindsets are assessed as better leaders. Leaders who make these mindset shifts tend to be more strategic and collaborative, better at seeing patterns and understanding others, more adept at conflict management and stronger at developing people. The bottom line is that vertical learning can enable us to become wiser, more compassionate and more effective three to five times faster than normal development.

To handle large-scale sustainability challenges, leaders need the advanced mental and relational capacities available at more complex mindsets (see Part One). Many leaders aren’t sufficiently prepared to lead complex initiatives. Studies done, for example at the National Security Agency in the US, show that most leaders’ mental complexity doesn’t match the complexity of the tasks required for their work. Mainstream and academic writers from Stanford to Harvard have highlighted this issue in books like Mindset, Five Minds for the Future, Opposable Mind and In Over Our Heads. They identify vertical learning as essential to empower our leaders. Their common argument is that many leaders’ operating system or mindset isn’t up to the challenge of navigating our toughest problems. Nevertheless, leaders can upgrade their operating system with vertical learning that triggers transformation into a more complex mindset.

In sum, to achieve global sustainability and create a thriving future, we need wiser, more compassionate, and more effective leaders capable of making better and more timely decisions. For the first time in history, the science of vertical learning clearly maps this path of leadership transformation and empowers us to consciously walk it.

Conscious Leadership for Sustainability

So what does a leader with these advanced capacities actually do? How do they lead change for sustainability? That was the heart of my research. I studied sustainability leaders from multinational corporations, the United Nations, NGOs and consultancies who were assessed at the very latest mindsets—or action logics—that science can measure.1 I looked at how these leaders design and guide sustainability change initiatives and identified their key competencies. Put simply, the following describes what happens at the intersection of complex sustainability challenges and complex mindsets.

Three themes describe their leadership. They (1) design and lead from a deep inner foundation; (2) leverage powerful internal resources like intuition and frameworks like integral theory; and (3) adaptively manage the design. Each theme has several related findings (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

1 Part One describes Bill Torbert’s popular and powerful map of leadership mindset development. He uses the term action logic to describe mindsets; each represents a different mental and emotional logic that underlies a leader’s actions. The term ‘later action logic’ refers to one of the three most complex mindsets in Torbert’s model: the Strategist, Alchemist or Ironist. Only 5% of the US adult population holds one of these. For more information, see Torbert’s book Action Inquiry and the Harvard Business Review article “Seven Transformations of Leadership.”

2 I interviewed 33 sustainability leaders from North and South America, Europe and Oceania. All had worked in sustainability for at least three years and engaged in initiatives that impacted 1000+ people. ey ranged from 33 to 66 years old, with 39% women and 61% men. Each took a developmental psychology test to assess their action logic. Thirteen were assessed with the three most complex action logics: Strategist, Alchemist and Ironist. For the full findings and references for all data cited, please contact the author.

1. Design from a deep inner foundation with profound trust

These sustainability leaders draw upon a deep inner foundation as the fount of their inspiration, focus and strength for sustainability work. For them, leading sustainability initiatives is an extension of their life’s calling or spiritual practice. It has a transpersonal meaning for most, enabling them to demonstrate their commitment to service and the alleviation of suffering. An example comes from Luz, a 33-year-old NGO leader who was assessed as an Ironist, the most complex of the action logics, held by less than 0.5% of the US adult population. Ironists hold a unitive perspective on the world; they see it as a unified whole. Luz experiences herself in service as spirit. She anchors herself in a state of ‘oneness’ or unity consciousness and from that place engages in sustainability work. This is a profoundly different mindset than most sustainability leaders and results in a comprehensive and highly-nuanced approach to leading sustainability change. Here is how she describes it:

Luz: What I do [to design a sustainability initiative] is follow the evolutionary arc. This might sound really weird but it helps me to anchor [in the One], first and foremost. And then from there, ask, “Okay, what exactly is arising here? Where am I? Where is this community [in their developmental process]? Where is this situation?” What this mainly is as a design process is attuning to the fabric of consciousness as it’s evolving itself and going, “Okay, so where are we here?” . . . At the deepest essence, it feels like a quality of yoga, of seeing the One in whatever Many that’s arising and attuning to that. And then if there is suffering or pain, work to alleviate it. If there is a limitation of perspective, invite more perspectives to be taken. But as much as I can, anchoring from that One, that seems to be the essence.

Not all these leaders are grounded in a unity perspective, but each designs sustainability initiatives from a deep inner foundation. For example, Roger, a multinational executive, uses his sustainability work to bring ‘humanity to the world of business,’ help others appreciate the moment and feel like they are integral to it.

The second finding relates to how these leaders handle uncertainty and ambiguity. They are extremely open to not knowing and comfortable with the uncertainties of design and leadership. They profoundly trust themselves, other actors and the process they’ve created to navigate through any ambiguity. This helps them design and manage complex initiatives amidst unforeseen changes and influences. An example comes from Edward, a 66year-old senior United Nations leader, who was assessed as a Strategist. He believes that, in the face of ambiguity, the group has the wisdom needed for any given situation and the process to uncover it simply needs to be trusted.

Edward: When I’m facilitating with a group, my deep belief . . . is that the answer is present in the room. I treat people with that respect . . . they are pregnant with solutions, answers, wisdom, understanding and strategy. And I do believe that— that people can realize their greatest mind and intention. They may need a good question to provoke it or they may need a good story to shake it loose. They may need to be invited to meditate or to engage in a cultural dance to bring their body/mind to another state . . . . I design the initiative . . . based on the assumption that the people involved are the right people [and have] the power, knowledge, insight, wisdom and the capacity [to do this] . . . . Fundamentally, the future is present . . . these are the right people, this is the right place, time and process. You have to trust the process and not panic.

In sum, these sustainability leaders ground themselves in transpersonal—even spiritual—meaning when they do their work. They face the uncertainty and ambiguity of their projects with deep trust in themselves, their colleagues and the process. In today’s constantly changing, volatile, and uncertain environments this capacity, to be comfortable during intense ambiguity and have a profound meaning underlying one’s work, is a significant leadership advantage.

2. Leverage powerful internal resources and advanced frameworks

The second theme relates to how these leaders go beyond rational analysis to understand a situation and also use powerful theoretical frameworks to make sense of it. First of all, they frequently use intuition and other non-rational ways to get insights. While they all use rational thinking to design and lead, they also strongly leverage intuitive, non-conceptual approaches. The impact and advantage of using intuition, they claim, is that their sustainability initiatives deliver better results, their designs are easier to build, and that the process itself creates an inspired, integrated design capacity. For example, Giselle—a 62-year-old social change consultant assessed as an Alchemist—consciously engages with a ‘field of knowing’ to design her sustainability initiatives. She claims a superior outcome as a result.

Giselle: The design designs me. It’s a shift from believing I’m in control and the originator of the design, to experiencing that the design comes through me and that I am its mind, heart, voice, eyes, ears, hands, and feet, embodying it . . . The outcome is so much more than I could produce if I simply believed that I was producing the design. It’s a paradoxical process whereby releasing to the process, therefore giving up control, one gains a much superior emergence . . . . I think it’s coming from a field of knowing that I have learned how to access . . . . When I was younger, [I was] a very good project manager . . . . As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that I don’t need to design to the ultimate end. I can create the field, the capacity, the space, and what wants to happen will happen, which is very different from what I want to happen will happen . . . . And that is a recurrent experience for me; that shift point with delight and surprise and deep certainty, that “Yes, that’s exactly it!” That’s emergence.

These leaders also use three powerful theoretical frameworks to design their sustainability initiatives and guide their approach. They are: (a) Integral theory, (b) Complexity theory, and (c) Systems theory. These theories help them make sense of challenging situations and navigate complexity. Integral theory is the most commonly used, and they employ it to do deep scanning and assessment of situations, design programs, support their own and others’ development and tailor communications to different mindsets. Edward, for example, noted that he and colleagues built large-scale, multi-country development programs for the UN based upon the integral framework. I have used these three theoretical frameworks for advanced sustainability leader development programs in the Netherlands, Brazil and the US, and I see them increasingly used worldwide. They are essential tools for any change agent.

3. Use adaptive design management

The third theme is that these leaders use adaptive design management to steer sustainability initiatives. This means that they consistently adapt the design as the context shifts, take on different change leadership roles and develop themselves and others along the way. First of all, whether working to build a global sustainability strategy for a multinational, vitalize an NGO sector in West Africa or make the Olympics greener, these leaders face ever-shifting contexts and they quickly adjust their projects appropriately. To do this, they ‘dialogue’ with the system they are working with through experimentation and by trying different approaches, and then observe the response. After altering the design from this feedback, they repeat the process, creating a cycle of dynamic steering.

The second element of adaptive design management is that these leaders adopt different change leadership roles as needed. Sometimes they assertively drive change. They identify important leverage points and then prod the system and stakeholders to change. Other times they take a softer approach and set up the conditions for a system or organization to healthily develop. Examples include bringing together key stakeholders to create a joint vision, building a better economic model for smallholder producers, or even holding the energetic space for an initiative to make progress. Like a farmer, they ensure that the ground is fertile for the seeds of change to take root and then allow nature to ‘do her part.’ By creating the right conditions for change, they enable systems and organizations to organically shift on their own time, in their own way.

The third piece of adaptive design management is that these leaders regularly develop themselves and others. They contend that to succeed in a complex sustainability initiative usually requires everyone—including themselves—to develop somehow. For example, they might identify how to stop sabotaging their own work, teach others about the carbon market or strengthen trust amongst the group. They focus on three types of self-development: Self-understanding, such as meditation; understanding others, such as studying stakeholder positions; and understanding the world, such as studying the financial system. To help others to develop, they often use perspective-taking practices, such as reframing a situation or bringing in a challenging guest speaker with a significantly different philosophy. By exposing people to new concepts, debating ‘sacred cow’ truths, and even inviting people to drop their mental models, they create conditions for change.

Roger’s case exemplifies this. He was a 39-year-old senior sustainability leader within a large multinational, assessed as a Strategist. At the time, he was developing the company’s global sustainability strategy. Roger went through extensive measures (involving almost 200 decision makers and influencers worldwide) to engage broad perspectives and educate about the strategic content and how to do large-scale design.

Roger: What I wanted was to get as many outside views into our business as possible so that our leaders heard from people that they would never be exposed to internally… This was the first time we, as an organization, had done a cross-geography, cross-seniority and cross-functional series of workshops around such a broad aim [with many external voices being heard]. So we involved directly… over 150 people in [our company]. And then we involved 40 external people as well. So we got Greenpeace in the room, others who were advocating deep ecology and health campaigners. And we got the [company] people to hear and to be part of the dialogue.

Roger eventually built a global sustainability strategy that had widespread acceptance across the organization; not easy given their 200,000+ employees. His advanced mental and relational capacities that come from holding a Strategist action logic were instrumental because he could take so many perspectives, easily see the big picture and deeply relate to each position and person in the initiative.

In sum, by dynamically steering the design as context shifts, by taking on different change leadership roles when needed and by developing themselves and those around them, these sustainability leaders use adaptive design management to guide their initiatives. This is a powerful change leadership approach made possible by the advanced capacities of complex mindsets.

Fifteen Advanced Leadership Competencies

Table 1

My findings lead to 15 sustainability leadership competencies (see Table 1). I believe that development of these can help leaders accelerate their growth into later action logics and will result in significant leadership advantages.


The new science of vertical learning is rapidly spreading because it significantly transforms how a leader thinks, feels and engages in the world. The future of leadership for sustainability will follow the trajectory of human development as we unlock powerful mental, relational and even physical capacities. Each mindset transformation brings forth the latent wisdom and compassion needed to handle increasingly sophisticated sustainability challenges.

For me, the question is not if millions of leaders will undergo significant shifts in their mindsets, but when. History shows that our life conditions will drive these adaptations, no matter what.

However, for the first time we have the unique opportunity to self-transform. We can now guide the development of our worldview and bootstrap our minds and hearts into greater insight, power and love. How well we do this will influence how graceful our transition is through these stormy times. We have within us and around us everything required to create an unprecedented flourishing of humanity and Nature. Our charge is to take up the reigns of own mindset development, enable others to do so as well and then bring our full selves to creating the future we want.