Emerging leaders: daring to design strategies that bring the “I”, “we” and “it/s” together

[This blog post is part of a new series “Emerging leaders” that will explore ideas, practices and approaches to enable a new paradigm in leadership: an integral one that unites the external with the internal, the heart with the mind and the feminine with the masculine qualities. P&I believes in the potential of such a paradigm to bring new and fresh eyes to the interaction between knowledge and policy. Contributions from interested readers are more than welcome].

In the first post, I have reflected on the importance of enhancing the capacity to listen that emerging leaders could explore. This implies being able to having genuine and profound conversations: with oneself, with others, with reality.

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This level of listening would impact on the strategies that leaders deploy/facilitate for their organizations and projects. After 15 years of helping organizations develop their overall strategies as well as specific plans for funding, communications, monitoring and evaluation, etc. in most of the cases I have corroborated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, the re-known quote from Peter Drucker.

Why is this so? Why do we keep developing them in the same way, even if we know that so many plans and strategies reflect more our wishful thinking than reality, or respond to donors or other external stakeholders ‘requests and expectations rather than reflect what the team really wants and can do?

Let us explore this better by creating an example. A newly appointed Secretary in a Ministry wants to improve how her agency monitors and evaluates its most relevant policies. The traditional approach would be to center attention on exterior solutions: she would probably convene a group of employees (maybe hiring some external support) to develop an M&E plan that establishes a set approaches, indicators, methods for data collection and systematization. To implement it, a group of new internal practices would be created (ranging from requiring staff to document certain outputs in a common template to holding regular meetings to discuss results). A new or updated system could also be promoted as the mechanism to support these practices.

These practices and system would be what under the AQAL (All Quadrants All Levels) model are called IT/S type of solutions. This model was devised by Ken Wilber (if interested in learning this directly from him, watch this fantastic video) which is a very useful tool to start better integrating the “I”, “we” and “it/s” in how we think and behave as leaders. It poses that every aspect of reality has four complementary ways of understanding and approaching it, as shown below:

As you can see, this model is constructed according to two primary axes. The vertical axis differentiates between individuals and groups. This is consistent with our usual differentiations of “I” and “we,” singular and plural, part and whole. The horizontal axis implies a distinction of interior / subjective / intersubjective perspectives from exterior / objective perspectives. It highlights the critical difference between seeing from the outside and experiencing from the inside.

Going back to our example, would this Secretary be keen to  bring the “I” world to the table by sharing her own feelings (like fear or anxiety), sensations and thoughts about the plan (for example, her premonition that it won´t work if X and Y do not endorse it)? Or would her team be willing to honestly talk about what relationships should change among them if the M&E practices are deployed and how, allowing that the “we” perspective informs change? Probably not.

Indeed, who dares to candidly expose how she/he personally feels and perceives what would happen if a new strategy/plan/mechanism is to be implemented? And how many leaders are willing to listen with openness to how others feel and perceive a new idea? Do we allow space and time to explore how it could affect or be affected by shared values, relationships, etc.?

Without an integral approach, we often end up watching how “invisible” or “soft” factors undermine well intentioned plans and strategies. Indeed, what Ken Wilber calls the interior collective dimension could be part of a more integral answer that unites the “I” and “we” with the “it/s” dimensions. As Alan Watkins expresses: ´Leadership should be from the inside out: from “I” to “we” to it”.´ And not the other way round as we usually do it.

Most of the solutions that top executives come up with -to seize any opportunity or to deal with important challenges- are “IT/S” solutions: external, objective mechanisms/actions/systems/structures that would work by themselves (maybe with one or two persons who are responsible for them). Watkins shares that during his consulting work, in only 5% of the cases high level leaders mentioned themselves and the inner world of their organizations as a key part of the solution to the issues challenging them (for more on this you can visit P&I´s previous post on a new paradigm to enhance the knowledge and policy interaction). Indeed, we seldom train people in organizations to be good in relationships and deeply connect with themselves and others but instead we are great at helping them developing or strengthening a technical “IT” discipline. We hope these external plans and processes will successfully change the status quo, without us and the others changing ourselves.

Going back to the case of the Secretary in a Ministry, the practices and the system will probably fall short in terms of improving how the public agency monitors and evaluates its impact. Reports might end up being discussed in very close circles and not being used to make tangible and effective changes, data on indicators might take too long to be produced, and even some new conflicts might emerge among some employees and areas.

An understanding of these four quadrants is useful because it helps us become aware that very different views of reality are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are complementary. Views from all of these different perspectives may be equally valid, even if they imply very diverse ways of looking at the world.

The Four Quadrants model can be applied in all sorts of contexts, including how emerging leaders can enable the development of new and more holistic strategies and plans. The ability to perceive a problem and its potential solutions from these multiple but complementary perspectives may lead to a new generation of ways of being and doing in organizations.

What if this leader had dared to integrate the different worlds: the “I”, the “we” and the “It/s”? Can you foresee the potential of what might emerge? Can you envision what a strategy that incorporates these multiple perspectives would look like? Some emerging leaders are increasingly committed to becoming more integral, some old leaders have done it from the very beginning and naturally. We can learn from them.

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