“What is the most important responsibility of any leader?” It could be one of those tricky interview questions that sets your heart and mind racing. What are they looking for? Is it strategic thinking? Communication? Vision? Decision-making? Managing your subordinates? If you were applying to VISA while Dee Hock was in charge, he would have answered “none of the above”.
Hock, one of the most successful business leaders of our time, making VISA a highly profitable company and a much sought-after place to work while he was in charge, said there was one responsibility that was so important that you should spend fifty percent of your time on it. What single responsibility could ever require that level of resource commitment? His answer? Managing your self.
Wait a minute. Managing my self? What on earth would I do for fifty percent of my time that would count as managing my self? That would be most people’s response – which just goes to show the inadequacy of the education and training we have received so far.
The IBM Global CEO studies over the years have pointed to a set of competencies needed to navigate what they call “hyper-complexity”. What’s hyper-complexity? Not just complex, but hyper-complex! Which basically means we don’t have a clue about the operating reality we are currently attempting to navigate. Those competencies turn out to be things like collaboration, communication, complex problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking – competencies that are not simple skills that you learn at school but that are fundamentally related to your inner qualities and personality traits.
When Jim Collins in Good to Great outlines what is needed to provide the grounding for expansion, it is to “preserve the core”. This is not in essence about organizational structure, it is about deep alignment at the heart of the organization between the people who hold the original impulse and their ability to radiate that feeling out into the rest of the organization. We could say it is about culture and values. These are intangible assets – not stuff you can easily measure or just roll out following some plan you learned at business school. It is about people and relationship. The soft skills are the hardest to work with, as ultimately it comes down to how easily we as individuals can access and empathize with the broad spectrum of human motivations that underlie people’s behaviors and relationships.
What is interesting about the IBM reports is that employers are reporting that they are not getting that set of competencies they so desperately need from our current educational institutions. Current programs are too focused on behavioral skills and seem to lack the ability to enable students to develop character. That’s not surprising, given that interior development is the most complex aspect of learning and probably the area that faculty have the least personal experience in. And if there is any subject you need to be able to talk from embodied experience about, it is personal development.
Governments in Asia are coming to a similar conclusion. Having focused their education and economy primarily on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) development, they are now realizing they need to help students develop more liberal arts qualities, to make for more integrated human beings better equipped to navigate an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.
It is of course not a case of either/or. Ken Wilber, the USA’s most translated philosopher alive today and founder of Integral Theory (disclosure: Ken Wilber is Ubiquity University’s inaugural Chancellor), illustrates the tension we describe above in his elegant four quadrants:
(Source: Evolutionary Leadership, Merry 2009)
Wilber’s quest that lead to the emergence of Integral Theory was to find a framework that enabled us to make space for everything (hence the title of one his 30-plus books A Theory of Everything). It illustrates nicely the challenges described above. The four quadrants are:
- • the interior of the individual where our experience of the world takes place, where we filter, judge and interpret our reality
- • the interior of the collective, where we share underlying values and assumptions
- • the exterior of the individual, where our visible behaviour shows up
- • the exterior of the collective, where we create the systems and structures that we can see all around us all day
Currently most of our training and education focuses on the exterior (right-hand) quadrants – things we can see and measure. However the kind of competencies and qualities that employers are saying they need now are rooted in the interior (left-hand) quadrants. That means that education and training need to embed the development of “soft” skills at the heart of their programs to be able to provide our organizations with the kind of people who will be equipped to successfully navigate an increasingly turbulent and challenging world.
It is after all from the interior dimensions that all our technology emerges. Before something is built, it has emerged in somebody’s mind (upper-left quadrant) or through a creative interaction amongst colleagues (lower-left quadrant). Currently there is a lot of attention being given to creating the conditions for the emergence of rapidly scalable technology solutions to the world’s biggest problems – and rightly so. However what an integral perspective reminds us of, is that if we pay no attention to the interior dimensions from which these solutions emerge, we are likely to deepen the illusion of separation between inner worlds and outer worlds that is ultimately at the core of our current planetary condition. Then, as Einstein warned us, we will indeed be trying to solve our problems from the same way of thinking that created them.
The opportunity before us is to integrate the development of interior qualities with the development of exterior skills, truly unleashing the full potential of humanity to co-create life-affirming solutions to the massive challenges that lie before us. A good place to start is for educational and training institutes to initiate their instructional design from an integral competence ecology rooted in all the aspects that make us fully human.
Peter Merry is Chief Innovation Officer at Ubiquity University. He is the author of the book Evolutionary Leadership, and the highly-rated online course Transformational Leadership, Strategy and Governance.