top of page


Updated: Feb 8, 2021

We are all experiencing the pull of the future, the push of the present & the drag of the past in unprecedented ways. The convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the Anthropocene & cultural polarisation is amplifying volatility, uncertainty, complexity & ambiguity. With bushfires, floods, pandemics and a stand for social and racial justice the new normal, our capacity for skilful leadership amidst a world in transition is paramount.

The term, leadership, has evolved to mean different things to different people. Goldstein, Hazy and Lichtenstein (2010) argue for a distributed construct that decouples leadership from leader by emphasising the beneficial patterns of mutual influence co-arising in the interactions between people. In this decoupling, the leader/server binary dissolves as the emphasis pivots toward leadership acts taking place in the in-between-spaces of relational networks (Goldstein, Hazy & Lichtenstein, 2010).

This distributed construct of leadership calls for an investment in 'everyone's' ability to skilfully navigate complex and volatile systems - when interdependent agents interact in nonlinear, uncoordinated, unpredictable and erratic ways (Holland, 2002). Action Research specialist, Hilary Bradbury calls for this investment to include a focus on cultivating capacity for reflexivity, or, “when you come to see yourself (others and systems) in a way you didn’t before; it’s a loosening of self-identity made possible practically" (H Bradbury 2020, pers. conv., 10 April). She is supported by leadership specialist, Dana Carman, who suggests that those with the capacity for reflexivity are better equipped to navigate complex and volatile systems because of their ability to, "examine the underlying motives for action and reflect on the logic behind the strategy to take that action" (D Carman 2020, pers. conv., 23 May).

Whether or not your 'everyone' means organisational leadership teams, K-12 school teachers, MBA students, scholar-practitioners or front line health workers, I argue that by investing in 'everyone's' capacity for reflexivity, we will increase the likelihood for more skilful collective leadership acts to emerge as we navigate the unprecedented challenges posed by a world in transition.

Vertical Leadership Development

Vertical Leadership Development is a discipline grounded in the social and cognitive sciences that offers a pathway toward building capacity for reflexivity. It is also a pathway that requires a deepened understanding for how adults learn.

Brown (2013) identifies two types of learning: (i) Horizontal Learning and (ii) Vertical Learning. According to Brown (2013), Horizontal Learning focuses on competence development that increases knowledge and skills in order to strengthen technical expertise. In contrast, Brown (2013) describes Vertical Learning as emphasising how we know rather than what we know - how one thinks and interprets a situation.

Figure 1: Horizontal Vs. Vertical Learning by Barrett Brown, 2013.

Kegan (1994) links Vertical Learning to Adult Development, which he defines as the processes of individual meaning-making that are embedded in cultural experience (Kegan 1994). Kegan (1994) contextualises Adult Development into three stages of meaning-making illustrated by the following diagram:

Figure 2: Constructive Developmental Theory by Robert Kegan, 1994.

According to Kegan (1994), each new level of thinking embraces higher orders of complexity in how people make meaning of the world around them; a shift from one stage to the next facilitates a capacity to increasingly embrace and operate within more ambiguous, contradictory contexts. At the Self Transforming stage, adults hold multiple, contradictory perspectives with greater ease (Kegan 1994). They are also able to recognise co-arising interdependencies in complex systems and engage in a quality of reflexivity that can:

Figure 3: The Reflexivity Rubric by Dana Carman and Susanna Carman, 2020.

Leadership luminary, Bill Torbert, translates theory into the pragmatic by developing Action Inquiry, a reflexivity practice that facilitates Vertical Learning via the ongoing enactment of genuine curiosity whereby, “all of our actions, including those we are most certain about and are most committed to, are in fact also inquiries” (Torbert 2001, p. 1).

Bradbury offers virtual Action Inquiry co-labs at AR Plus, a not-for-profit committed to supporting, "interdisciplinary connectivity among action oriented scholar-practitioners world wide." Through the AR plus platform, scholar-practitioners convene in the form of small, inquiry groups to explore how to take skilful action together in response to the world's most pressing challenges. The focus of each co-lab varies, from relational inquiry to mindful creativity; the conditions are designed for 1st, 2nd and 3rd person reflexivity to feature in the learning-through-action process.

Figure 4: First, Second and Third Person Reflexivity by Susanna Carman, 2020.

Embodiment Practice

Action Inquiry groups that support participants to practice reflexivity can take many forms. In addition to co-labs, another form is through an embodiment approach, which involves the creation of interactive, sensory and visceral experiences that provoke participants into challenging their own assumptions about reality (Auger 2013).

Author and former academic/clinical psychologist, Bayo Akomolafe, suggests an eco-psychology approach that burrows underground to make visible our subjective intelligences, along with those from beyond the anthropocentric. He describes this an, "ecology of thinking together," in which we are, "formulating research as ceremony in ways that might allow us to see ourselves and our assumptions as if for the first time" (2020, interview with Joel Monk, July 16).

Many are already working with these thinking ecologies to surface assumptions about ourselves and the systems we are a part of. Ron Laurie is an organisational consultant and lead facilitator of the We R One World Game, a project created by 20th century futurist, Buckminster Fuller. The game is an interactive, role playing simulation in which 100 participants are tasked with solving the world’s most vexing political, economic and social challenges - in an afternoon. Laurie (2019, pers. conv., 16 August) argues that a deliberately designed disturbance in a system’s equilibrium, or perturbation, catalyses reflexivity in ways that can permanently reorganise our assumptions about ourselves, others and the world around us. Mature facilitators will introduce perturbation into a constructed field of human interaction in order to invoke embodied, sensory responses that deepen the learning experience.

Choreographer, performer and educator, Arawana Hayashi, combines perturbation, embodiment and learning in a process she calls, Social Presencing Theatre (Sharmer 2015). Similarly to the We R One World Game, a group of individuals interact to explore and resolve a disturbance in a system's equilibrium. Interdependencies are represented through intuitively formed, body-based sculptures that make visible tacit, intersubjective experiences. The process invites participants to think about and interpret complex, systemic challenges in new ways. Together participants explore where a system is stuck and the hard-to-see obstructions making it so.

Ultimately, the aim in doing Action Inquiry with others, either through dialogue or embodiment, is to enhance reflexivity so that the quality and frequency of collective leadership acts grows to meet the challenges of a world in transition.


It is not my intention to suggest that by designing opportunities for Action Inquiry, or Vertical Learning more generally, we will transform the planet into a utopian ideal. On the contrary, my vision of the future is far more sobering and pragmatic. Hospice worker or mid-wife, 'everyone' is facing levels of complexity that exceed our limits regardless of status, intelligence, agency or level of stage development. The moment demands that we all challenge who we think we are, what we think we know and how we interact with the world. The promise is that by investing in Vertical Learning to enhance collective reflexivity (in whatever form), we increase the chances for leadership acts to be in coherence with what this Time Between Word requires.


Auger, J 2013, ‘Speculative design: crafting the speculation’, Digital creativity, vol. 24, no. 1, p. 11-35.

Brown, B 2013, ‘The future of leadership for conscious capitalism’, Journal of integral theory and practice, no. 5, pp. 1-22.

Carrington, D 2017, 'Earth's 6th mass extinction event underway, scientists warn', The guardian australia edn, viewed 21 June 2019, <>.

Goldstein, J, Hazy KJ & Lichtenstein, BB 2010, Complexity and the nexus of leadership: leveraging nonlinear science to create ecologies of innovation, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.

Holland, J 2002, ‘Complex adaptive systems and spontaneous emergence’, in Curzio, A & Fortis, M, Complexity and industrial clusters, dynamics and models in theory and practice, Physica-Verlag, Heldelberg, pp. 25-34.

Kegan, R & Lahey L 2009, Immunity to change: how to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA.

Stein, Zachary, 2018, 'Introduction: education in a time between worlds, Institute for interdisciplinary research into the anthropocene', Education in the anthropocene: futures beyond schooling, viewed June 1, 2019 <>.

Sharmer, O 2015, ‘MITx u.lab sourcebook’, 3a edn, U.lab transforming business society and self, The Presencing Institute, Cambridge, MA.

Torbert, W 2001, 'The practice of action inquiry', In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Ed.s) 2001, Sage Handbook of Action Research, London, pp. 250-260.

246 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Anchor 1
bottom of page