Most of us recognise the obvious – that the world is undergoing a period of dynamic disruption driven by many factors including technology, globalisation, population growth, climate change, and the current transition from the information age into the ‘imagination age’. An emerging age where creativity and imagination are becoming the primary creators of economic value – a paradigm shift requiring significant transformation.
An imperative for the success and realisation of any significant transformation is leadership. The World Economic Forum Global Outlook Agenda in 2013 stated that “Leadership remains the biggest challenge of all for 2013 and beyond”. Few, however, would argue the difficulty we are still experiencing in delivering effective leadership in both business and politics.
My work as a consultant with the leaders and leadership teams of organisations and corporations provides me with continual evidence that anxiety, chronic stress (the mismatch between a leader’s level of mental complexity / capability and the complexity they are now expected to manage), high levels of leader / employee disillusionment and disengagement, coupled with constant change and disruption, critically demand more evolved and enlightened approaches to leadership and wise organisational stewardship.
The Call for Evolutionary Leadership.
The issues faced by leaders of today are not simply technical or transactional. Many of today’s significant issues can be more accurately perceived as adaptive challenges.
An adaptive challenge requires us and our thinking to be transformed by the problems themselves. Einstein captured this sentiment as “no problem can be solved from the same level of thinking (consciousness) that created it”.
Unfortunately, the world is still largely being driven by collapsing Newtonian paradigms of leadership and problem-solving methodologies. These traditional linear, mechanistic, and historical “firefighting” approaches to decision making and solving problems are clearly inadequate and no longer as relevant in complex times.
The world is clearly facing a critical shortage of more conscious business and political leaders. This shortage presents a profound opportunity for those leaders who wish to grow and transform themselves into evolutionary leaders.
Evolutionary leadership is the key to relevance, shared value creation, and sustainable success in the complex global innovation economy.
The Leadership Challenge?
The global leadership imperative is to now rapidly enable the professional and personal growth of authentic evolutionary leaders. It requires prioritising a leader’s adaptive capability and meta-cognitive / meta-perceptive development in increasingly ambiguous, complex, competitive and dynamically changing environments.
Leaders cast a long shadow. Just as an any individual must do their own developmental work in order to transform, evolve their level of consciousness, and liberate their own potential, so too must leaders and leadership teams of organisations. It is not enough for leaders to expect others to keep pace, adapt, or transform as if personal growth and culture (the key enabler of innovation and strategy) is a concept unrelated to their own behaviour and actions.
We are now at a point of choice.
Escalating complexity and disruption are pushing most of us outside of our collective comfort zones. We can attempt to retreat to the familiar and resist the unknown, or courageously allow ourselves to imagine, adapt, co-create, consciously evolve, and redefine who we are and what we are capable of – as a species.
The Mind – an enabler of evolutionary leadership or a constraint?
The greatest obstacle to any meaningful transformation is the existing mindset. Therefore, it is important that the transformation process is not inadvertently undermined by the prevailing paradigm. Self-awareness is key. We cannot manage those things that we are unaware of – including ourselves.
Evolutionary leaders are aware that the thinking and behaviour that got us here is not going to get us to where we now need to go. Their priority becomes intimately understanding themselves and their conscious / unconscious beliefs, bias, fears, attitudes, and drivers. Here the cultivation of emotional and spiritual intelligence (EQ and SQ) become highly valuable literacies and powerful allies of the intellect (IQ).
In this context it is important to consider ‘the mind’ and its impact on evolutionary leadership.
The unique environmental conditions and experiences we were exposed to as babies and young children (along with a bit of genetics thrown in) directly influenced the creation of the neural, psychological, energetic, and somatic structures that reflect an embodied “mindset”. Our body is in effect our unconscious mind congealed.
Dr Wilhelm Reich and Dr Alexander Lowen also identified the impact of our early childhood environmental and psychic experiences on the character “structure” of the body – with a particular focus on how the issues, limitations, characteristics, and attitudes of our mind are mirrored and reflected in our manifest body – the embodied experience of our own minds.
All of us have made this developmental journey and depending on the uniqueness of our individual experiences these collective structures formed the basis of an overarching organism identity we could also call our “self”. This “self” became a vehicle that allowed us to survive as best we could and navigate the world with varying degrees of success.
The mind is the “driver” of this vehicle we call the self. Our mind is our central organising principle. We know a great deal about the brain but what of the mind? Author, child psychiatrist and neuroscientific educator Professor Dan Siegal created a working definition of the mind as that “which regulates and manages the flow of information and energy” in the self.
A leader and the leadership team in this context hold a similar position of regulating and managing the flow of information and energy within a larger organism – the organisation. The manifested cultural attitudes, norms, structures, systems, and processes of an organisation are the embodiment of this larger central organising principle – ‘the leadership mind’.
The mind therefore enables and / or constrains the relevance, potential, stability and effectiveness of the self – and by extension leaders, teams and organisations.
Structure Determines Function and Performance
A fundamental law of nature and physics is that structure determines function and performance.
The mind is a complex structure. Our level of mental complexity determines the quality of our lives and how effectively we perform, perceive, manage complexity, lead, and experience ourselves, others, and all manner of functions and interactions with the world around us.
Consciousness is the deeper structure of the mind – the mind’s basis of operation. Therefore, our level of conscious awareness (consciousness) determines the capacity or limitations of our mind to most effectively manage and regulate the flow of information and energy that will realise our potential and access our most relevant and beneficial self-state – and by extension enable the best self-state of others.
Evolutionary Leadership requires us to transform and evolve our level of consciousness – our basis of operation.
The Instrument of Evolutionary Leadership
The instrument of leadership is the self.
As unique structures, if we aspire to become an evolutionary leader and effectively lead into the future, we need to evolve ourselves and our level of consciousness or as Ghandi put it, “become the change we want to see in the world”.
Leading our own mind and liberating it from egoic obscurations and its narrow lens of awareness is the first step.
Evolutionary Leadership requires us to innovate and re-structure ourselves – transforming our own minds. This transcendent shift to a higher level of consciousness is also reflected more tangibly in “neuroplasticity” – the scientifically evidenced capacity of the brain to mindfully grow, change itself, restructure, and achieve greater levels of whole brain integration and meta-cognition / meta-perception.
When this integrative shift occurs, we begin to experience ourselves, the world, and our motivations differently. What was once subject now becomes object. Our basis of operation has evolved. Our anxious reactivity and defensiveness decreases as our over identification with a smaller egoic self and its lower order consciousness begins to release its hold. The relationship and connection with ourselves, others, and our environment open into something larger – a more purposeful, inclusive, and integrated space. We become more congruent with our heart’s desire and begin to experience our own becoming. We are more able to authentically self-manage and self-regulate the flow of information and energy. We move towards self-mastery as a stabilised way of being. From this higher conscious state, interdependent systems thinking, and accurate perception of complexity dynamics also become more accessible, facilitating wiser decision making and approaches to emergent issues and problems as realised potentials – not just abstract concepts or theories.
We are transforming – the platform for evolutionary leadership is establishing itself beyond the small self – our ego.
The Challenge of Transcending the Ego
An evolutionary leader must be able to hold the reflective capability to transcend their ego. This can be one of the most challenging aspects of becoming an evolutionary leader.
Our ego considers itself very separate from others. It can be self-interested in affirming what it believes to be true. Ego loves to concretise and defend its reality / position, even if to do so may undermine our own success, relationships, or quality of life.
How many of us have thought and behaved in an habitualised or compulsive way even though we knew it was not going to end well?
An immature and insecure ego will also often attempt to collude with others holding similar realities or attempt to destroy the differing reality of other / others in order to seemingly exist. This is the core source of much conflict both personally, professionally, and culturally and becomes highly problematic within organisations when encouraging diversity, collaboration, and innovation.
The work of Harvard Professor Dr Robert Kegan demonstrates that the critical work of transcending the egoic and habitualised mind is not an easy undertaking.
When creating the ‘Immunity to Change’ framework, Dr Kegan discovered through his research that despite the best of intentions to positively change there are often opposing forces / polarities at play – unconscious competing commitments that attempt to actively resist change and maintain the status quo or homeostasis of our system and our comfort zone – the known or familiar identity.
Kegan’s research highlighted that some people would sooner die than change – and many individuals and organisations do. In my work I too have often seen organisational leaders who have struggled to evolve beyond their egocentric mindset. Because of this many individual and organisations never reach their full potential – or worse still become irrelevant. Victims of their own former success and attachment to the familiar – their comfort zones.
Unfortunately, there is little growth or learning in the familiar. Transformational insight and learning lie outside our comfort zone.
Evolutionary leaders recognise this – effectively managing growth or disruption in teams, organisations, and others is almost impossible if we have not yet learned to ride the destabilising waves of disruption that significant change brings to ourselves.
In our specialist consultancy, deeper levels of conscious awareness, integration, and adaptive capability are rapidly developed in relational engagements such as executive coaching, bespoke leadership development programs, and offsite leadership retreats that target vertical learning and the critical area of Evolutionary Leadership.
To begin the journey of ego transcendence, tools such as daily reflective journaling and meditation can also help evolve consciousness, accelerating the development of the mind’s reflective capacity (meta-cognition) and transcendence of ego states by engaging the brain’s pre-frontal cortex to pattern-interrupt habitualised ways of being.
Where to now?
”The best way to predict the future … is to create it” – Peter Drucker
Evolutionary leaders recognise that the destiny and potential of themselves, others, organisations, and society is in their collective hands. Firstly, however, they must intentionally evolve their own level of consciousness, adapt, and work through their limitations and habitualised ways of ‘being and doing’.
By embarking on their own transformational journey leaders can become highly integrated role models and conscious leaders of their own minds and lives, skilfully managing and regulating the flow of information and energy in themselves and by extension others.
Only then are they able to authentically articulate the evolutionary vision and deeper purpose of teams, communities, and organisations. Their role becomes enabler of the vision through creating an inclusive space of shared leadership, trust, and safety. A coherent and agile ecosystem where purposeful dialogue, system design (structure), and the flow of information optimally supports purposeful activity (flow of energy) that aligns, engages, and sustainably guides the system towards the fulfilment of its evolutionary purpose.
I was half-way through a 5-day training workshop teaching entrepreneurship to parents and small business owners in Colombia when I had a personal and professional watershed. I wondered: Even if these people learn all this and set up businesses, what are we doing all of this for?
As a business school academic, I wrestle with this very issue as waves of millennials come through my classroom questioning all the assumptions on which my classical business and economic training are based. They see the dark side of obsessive economic development and vote no to continuing this paradigm.
I felt the threat of irrelevance as I realised I was stuck in an outmoded paradigm. I recalled one of the most powerful statements from the 2013 World Economic Forum: “The leaders of today are trained for a world that no longer exists”. This was me.
The Pilgrimage: Searching for Answers When Your Familiar Paradigm is Broken
I see it as a solemn responsibility to not just talk about what’s wrong in the world, but to develop solutions. As an educator, I’m in a prime position to help develop a new generation of leaders.
Below is part of a model we are developing at the University of Queensland Business (QB) School and testing on the ground in Alaska, India, and Norway. The model is an answer to the question that punched me in the face in 2013: What are we doing all this for?
Wellbeing: A New Paradigm for the Next Generation of Leaders
A credible answer is the concept of wellbeing. Our research defines wellbeing as the capacity of an entity (an individual, a community, an organization, a society, the globe) to resiliently flourish. We are interested in how eight components of wellbeing interact: economic, environmental, social, cultural, psychological, spiritual, material, and physical.
We focus on these eight because each balance the other to form an integrated whole, creating a powerful framework to guide individuals, businesses, and nations. Problems arise when we fail to see how these eight components work together.
In the past, we’ve trained leaders to specialize in just one or two components. If you faced a complex issue, you assembled a multidisciplinary team and hoped some eclectic result would emerge. But this approach, I argue, is at the heart of why we aren’t moving forward. To prepare leaders, we need to look at the interaction between these components. We need to look at polarities.
Leveraging Polarities Instead of Solving Problems
In his book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, author Barry Johnson draws a critical distinction between problems to be solved and polarities to be leveraged. Some issues aren’t problems to be solved, he argues. Instead, their fundamental nature is a polarity – an interdependent pair – and the trick is to leverage both sides of the polarity instead of choosing one or the other. Polarity leveraging is supported by both/and thinking, not the either/or thinking we are used to.
Applying this to our eight-component model of wellbeing, Figure 1 illustrates four fundamental polarities as diagonals: economic and environmental, social and cultural, physical and psychological, and material and spiritual.
Social wellbeing, for example, refers to how a society lives together despite differences. Cultural wellbeing refers to our ethnic differences and cultural diversity. These two components of wellbeing are a polarity – that is, they are interdependent for wellbeing. Cultural wellbeing helps to ensure we preserve cultural differences. But if we all retreat into our cultural corners, we lose the integration our modern multi-cultural society needs. It’s not an either/or choice or a problem to be solved. Rather, it’s an unsolvable polarity; both need to be leveraged because they are interdependent to wellbeing.
Infinity Loops: Where we are Racking Up Wellbeing Costs
Either/or thinking is costing us dearly in terms of wellbeing. The polarity map in Figure 2 depicts the positive and negative sides of two poles within a polarity. The benefits of each pole are at the top. For example, a key benefit of focusing on environmental wellbeing is resource sustainability – we use more renewables and reduce waste. The bottom boxes are the downsides that occur when we over-focus on that pole to the neglect of the other.
We take this cycle of shifting from one pole to another as the norm. We put the economy first and attend to the environment when convenient. Or, we base our whole life on the accumulation of material things and wonder why we feel spiritually empty (material and spiritual polarity). Sometimes we marvel at how elite athletes are in prime physical condition but experience periods of psychological ill-health post-career (physical and psychological polarity).
Because we fail to perceive these wellbeing polarities, we get caught in a vicious cycle of “over-invest – create problems – compensate – back-to-where-we-started” loop. When this is played out across all of society, we quickly realize how our lack of polarity leveraging is costing us dearly in terms of our wellbeing. Leveraging both poles at the same time avoids the excessive downsides and creates value on both poles.
The Move to National Wellbeing
A number of countries are moving to the adoption of a wellbeing governance and performance framework. This is really encouraging news. Many of these frameworks aim to measure the economic, social, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of the country. While this is a step in the right direction, they tend to measure each component of wellbeing separately.
If wellbeing is more about how we leverage polarities between components, this is also what we need to measure. At the University of Queensland Business School, we are working on a tool that will help both measure and improve how well countries are leveraging wellbeing polarities. Such a measure will inform countries as to whether they are maximizing wellbeing polarities as well as pinpoint when excessive costs are developing because of inadequate polarity leveraging. It’s about developing a competency for leveraging polarities, not just individual components.
Beyond Business-as-Usual: Leaders for a Wellbeing Paradigm
We are currently stuck in a paradigm which keeps us unconscious to the polarity nature of the components of wellbeing. To remain in either/or thinking and not shift to recognizing and leveraging polarities is to train leaders “for a world that no longer exists”.
Millennials have demanded attention to all eight components of wellbeing for me to hold their attention as an audience. It’s not that either/or thinking must go, but to transition to a wellbeing paradigm we need to increase our both/and thinking. We are currently testing these ideas through rigorous research in Anchorage, Alaska. We believe these efforts will yield a new paradigm for a better world and offer a more satisfactory answer to that vexing endgame question: What are we doing all this for?
This article originally appeared in the April – June 2018 edition of ‘Strive’ online magazine.
Most individuals yearn to be fulfilled, well and happy, most teams want to be competitive and excel, and all businesses and leaders want to be successful. Why do some of us fulfil our potential and others not?
Limitations! And where do these limitations come from?
Often our greatest limitations come from within, in the form of our own conscious and unconscious beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and knowledge learned and developed from exposure to our life experiences.
Our own past experience and learning can paradoxically be our greatest asset and the greatest limitation for ourselves, our relationships, and our work life and business. Prior knowledge and experience becomes the limited lens we view the world, ourselves and everyone else through!
In small business, just as in large corporations, many constraints to fulfilling personal and professional potential also lie in limitations. Limitations can negatively impact strategic choices, productivity, decision making, behaviour, stress levels, interpersonal skills, culture, teamwork, and the personal wellbeing of the individual, as well as the commercial bottom line (wellbeing) of the business.
Greater complexity and marketplace change means that past strategic approaches, problem solving methods, and skill sets are no longer enough or relevant in many cases. The way business was once transacted has changed forever requiring a greater skill set from those responsible, not only technically but emotionally and psychologically. The quality of our “doing” from this perspective is very much informed by the quality of our “being” and the quality of our being is very much informed by our knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions created from life experience beginning at birth. Limitations of our own awareness, experience, and understanding can manifest as limited success and often failure in terms of fulfilment, financial wealth, relationships, health, stress, business, and generally in the overall quality of our inner lives and business / work performance.
So how can you grow yourself and improve your business?
Two ways. In business as with elite sport we can be coached on the more technical aspects such as strategy, methodology, technique, and practice i.e. the external things that help us “do” better. This can increase our self-efficacy (our range of choices and capacity to respond to the challenge) which build more confidence and improve performance. Additionally and just as importantly we can cultivate capacities that support the quality of our inner being which can be severely compromised by a lack of awareness, stress, and pressure. It is scientifically proven that the quality of our “being” (inner states) affects the quality of our “doing” (outer performance) which Business Review Weekly highlighted as significant and important factors of business.
At InsideOut Consulting we work closely with businesses, leaders, teams, and individuals to transcend limitations and improve commercial competitiveness and personal performance utilising professional frameworks and models from business, leadership, psychology, neuroscience, stress management, and elite sport that build capacity both inside and out, improving the bottom line in personal, professional and commercial contexts. We are also internationally accredited to present the clinically proven Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program which can be conducted on or off site offering the best available support for sustainable improvement, inside and out.