Leaders: Are you Willing to Take a Half-Step?


The news media are crowded with stories of crises in leadership. Politics, financial institutions, Universities, businesses, healthcare and religious organizations flounder, searching for an approach, a strategy that will help them navigate the chaos of our current world. Indeed, even the global problems bring an increased seriousness to the necessity of finding new ways to lead. Thomas Friedman wrote:

We are either going to rise to the level of leadership, innovation and collaboration that is required, or everybody is going to lose—big. Just coasting along and doing the same old things is not an option any longer. We need a whole new approach.

The sheer number of the leadership approaches and models now available, however, only adds to the crisis by presenting contradictory views. Should we be “One-Minute Manager[s]” or should we practice “Leadership Without Easy Answers”? While each, in its way, contains some truth and utility, the scope of each approach dooms them to insufficiency. It is clear that the increasingly dynamic and irregular nature of so many of our organizations, as well as our increasing interdependence on each other, has made the conversation about various techniques and approaches to leadership much more complex, requiring a solution more multi-faceted than any of these approaches provide.  Indeed, the limiting factor of the multitude of approaches and models now available to organizations may not be in the sheer complexity of organization and the seeming contradictions that these approaches can present, but rather, it may be in the lack of a perspective with sufficient depth and breadth to allow a more elegant navigation through the complexity that is genuinely present.

Our current world situation requires leadership to develop a new perspective for considering the nature and act of this re-framing, even as we continue to learn to re-frame our situations and to see them in new ways. MIT Sloan School of Management lecturers, William Isaacs and Otto Scharmer, call this inquiry “generative dialogue” – a collective interaction designed to increase inquiry into our own mental models and our underlying beliefs and assumptions.  The purpose is to generate “learning that permits insight into the nature of paradigm itself, not merely an assessment of which paradigm is superior.” Integral leadership, then, becomes a process of continued exploration of where and how to apply tested and proven approaches, but also a practice of reframing the very foundation of the perspectives we use to explore.  Leadership for the 21st Century needs a perspective with sufficient depth and breadth to allow a broader view of the complexity in which we now find ourselves.

It is not a simple process to find this new perspective. It requires willingness on the part of the individual leaders to identify the biases of their own perspectives and the courage to detach from them. It is not simple, but it is as easy as walking.  The problem is that walking requires some practice. Think back on those first, tentative steps we took, first wobbling and losing our balance, but undaunted. The bio-mechanics of walking are of such complexity that it has taken years of programming to teach robots how to do it. It was no less than a modern triumph when the Japanese finally succeed with Asimo. As simple as it seems to us, now, walking requires controlled falling with every step.

Walking is called a double-pendulum activity. During our forward motion, the leg that leaves the ground swings forward from the hip. This sweep is the first pendulum which throws off our balance, and throws us into a falling motion. At this moment, we are standing on one leg, off-balance and falling forward.  Then our leg strikes the ground with the heel and rolls through to the toe in a motion described as an inverted pendulum, creating another fall forward.  So, in many ways, walking is controlled falling.  Once we learn how to coordinate the motions of our two legs, walking becomes easier with every step.

If walking is such a complicated task, then imagine what climbing stairs adds to the complexity. As we fall forward, we must find our balance at a new altitude. We must lift the weight of our bodies onto the new leg as it rises on the stair. In fact, climbing a stair is so complex that there are well-established, international building codes for stairs to assist us in knowing what to expect around the world. We have muscle memory, when it comes to stairs, and all modern staircases must be built to code.

So, how do we take that next, half-step? How do we fall forward in a controlled way, braving the fear of losing our balance, our safety, and our certainty of a smooth next step?  If you join us in the generative dialogue about this new world, you will be the leaders. You will bring the resources and details needed to help our great-grandchildren into the next Axial Age, and to see that age with new eyes.


(Excerpted from The Next Half-Step: Integral Business for the New Millennium, SUNY Press, 2013.  John P. Forman and Laurel A. Ross, PhD)

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